Got Complaints? Get Specifics.


It’s easy to get fired up when someone comes in and nervously says, “Oh my gosh, we’re getting so many complaints!”  Panic sets in!

But rather than escalating the fear, get specific.  We recommend creating a report that is just as specific as a report on giving. 

Main Info:

  • Time period?
  • How many complaints were there?
  • How many gifts came in?
  • # of “Please remove me from your mailing list” compared to normal?
  • # of “unsubscribes” compared to normal?

For each complaint:

  • What is the person’s name or email address?
  • Are they a donor or non-donor?
  • If they are a donor, are they a mass donor or a major donor?
  • What was their complaint?

In my experience, reports that there were “so many” complaints and that “donors are really hating this appeal” have an outsized, negative affect on organizations. 

But then when specifics are reviewed, like a light being turned on in a dark room on a scary night, it’s usually just a couple of complaints.  And half of them are from non-donors. 

Quick Advice

In addition to having a report that requires specifics, keep these things in mind:

  • Don’t Overreact.  You know how sometimes, when you send out an appeal or an e-appeal, there’s an initial flood of gifts and you know you have a winner on your hands?  When that happens, does your organization immediately change your budget for the year and spend more money?  No.  You wait for all the results to come in and then decide what to do.  Follow the same process for complaints.  When complaints come in – which they will – wait for all the results to come in and then decide what to do. 
  • Context Matters.  A complaint from a long-time donor should be listened to.  Complaints from non-donors should basically be ignored.  Seven unsubscribes doesn’t deserve any attention if you normally get six.  
  • Count Everything.  If you’re talking about the number of complaints, you also need to talk about the number of gifts.  It’s counter-productive to focus on the five complaints that came in without viewing them in the context of the one hundred and sixty-seven gifts that also came in.

Don’t Let Complaints Hold Your Organization Back

Many organizations feel like they are held back from raising more money by complaints. 

However, I don’t think it’s the complaints that hold the organization back. 

It’s the organization’s reaction to complaints, and fear of complaints, that holds them back.

Make sure your organization is comfortable with a few complaints.  Because the occasional complaint is a “cost of doing business” for fundraising organizations. 

Set up a simple system to track and evaluate complaints.  Like that light going on in a dark room, you’ll find the specifics far less scary than the emotions.

“If you serve one audience, you’ve let another down.” – Seth Godin


That quote explains why some organizations have trouble “making the leap” to their next level of fundraising success.

Too many nonprofits create fundraising that serves an internal audience.  And their fundraising lets another audience down: their donors.

Here’s how this happens.  An organization’s fundraising is often written and designed to make internal audiences happy.  Members of that “audience” tend to be Executive Directors, the program team, the Board, or a Major Donor who is super-involved.

We can’t ever forget that their intentions are good.  They’re trying to help.

They prefer fundraising to be a certain way.  And they hold sway.  So fundraising is created to serve that internal audience.

But… “If you serve one audience, you’ve let another down.” 

The audience that gets let down is their donors. 

Want to Make the Leap?

Create fundraising that serves donors and “lets down” internal audiences.

Creating fundraising that serves donors instead of internal audiences is often a seismic shift for organizations.  Seth calls this “the difficult choice of disappointment.” 

It’s hard to choose who to disappoint.  It creates conflict.  I’ve seen people lose jobs and leave jobs. 

I’ve seen organizations become aware of the choice, yet continue to let their donors down.  Even despite testing data that shows that donor-serving fundraising would raise more money and allow the organization to do more good! 

And I’ve seen organizations who shift their fundraising to serve donors and very quickly make the leap to their next level of fundraising success. 

What to Do?

For the “internal audiences” reading this, I hope you’ll make the difficult choice to create fundraising that serves your donors.  Set aside what you like and what you think will work.  Then research what donor-serving fundraising looks like.  Follow this blog.  Sign up for Free Review Fridays.  Make the Big Shift.  Be willing to try things that will make you uncomfortable.

I often encourage Fundraisers to do the “hard, other-centered” work of creating fundraising that generously “crosses the gap” to meet your donors where they are. 

Because fundraising is supposed to be for donors.  Not for internal audiences.

My 25+ years of experience tells me that if you choose to disappoint the internal audience by choosing to serve donors, you’ll raise more money and do more good.