Give Complaints the Attention They Deserve


I’d like to suggest a process for how to give complaints the attention they deserve.

I suggest this because complaints, at smaller organizations, tend to be given outsized attention. And that outsized attention almost always guarantees that the organization won’t grow as fast as it could, and won’t achieve as much of its mission as it could.

In my experience, here’s how complaints are usually handled:

  • Vague information.  No numbers are used, it’s always phrases like “so many” and “the front desk was bombarded with calls today” and “we had a scary number of unsubscribes.”
  • Super-emotional delivery.  Complaints are reported breathlessly, or with trepidation. 
  • Immediate escalation to leadership.  Complaints don’t get reported through normal channels and departments, they are immediately shared far and wide.

Please don’t get me wrong: I think these responses to complaints are normal and understandable. Asking for money is hard, awkward work. It takes vulnerability. And vulnerability opens us up to being wounded by complaints. 

All that said, these responses to complaints are unhelpful.

Here are my proposed guidelines for how smaller organizations handle complaints:

No vagueness allowed. Only hard numbers and actual counts, please. When someone says, “OMG so many complaints!” the appropriate response is, “Thank you, please tell me exactly how many, over what time period, and what they said.  Then we’ll figure out how to respond.”

Share context about the Complainer. Are they a donor or non-donor? A major donor? A board member who we already know doesn’t like fundraising?  Context matters; a complaint from a major donor is significantly different than a complaint from a non-donor who is on your email list.

Share context about the Campaign. When talking about complaints, the fundraising results of the piece of fundraising should also be shared. The complaint(s) and money raised are results of the same thing, and both need to be evaluated to understand the whole picture.  If you’re told that 5 complaints came in, that sounds awful. If you’re told that the 5 complaints came in along with 500 gifts, the “5 complaints” is a completely different story.

Escalate appropriately. Complaints are reported to the Fundraising department or appropriate staff person – and no one else. Then trust the process from there. 

Complaints are a fact of life for growing nonprofits as they communicate with more and more people.  Complaints are a fee, not a fine

Treat them appropriately and they come to be seen and felt as an unfortunate fee you have to pay – but a fee you willingly pay because the organization is raising so much more money and achieving more of its mission.

Complaints, Fees and Fines


There’s a difference between a fee and a fine:

  • A fee is what you pay in exchange for something. You pay a fee, and you get into Disneyland.
  • A fine is what you pay when you’ve done something wrong. You drive too fast, and you pay a fine for speeding.

Most nonprofits think of donor complaints as a fine for doing something wrong.  

I want to you to think of donor complaints as a fee you pay in exchange for raising more money and retaining more of your donors.

Most complaints happen for two reasons:

  • When you send your fundraising to more and more people – somebody is going to complain… because people will complain about anything.
    • Large nonprofits have whole departments of people that handle complaints. Why? Because they have so many donors that there will always be somebody who complains.
  • When you share the truth about what’s actually happening in the world – somebody is going to be uncomfortable, and they are going to complain.

Sending your fundraising to more people and sharing the truth about what’s happening in the world increases the amount of money you raise. 

At the same time, it increases the number of complaints you receive. 

The complaints are a “fee” you pay in order to do more of your mission.

Trying to grow your fundraising without increasing the number of complaints you get is like asking the kitchen staff of a small restaurant to feed a lot more people but have the same number of spills or drips as before. 

You wouldn’t ever ask that! You know that spills and drips are a “cost of doing business” in a kitchen that’s working hard and growing.

But nonprofit fundraising staffs are expected to grow without increasing complaints. Instead, complaints should be seen like a “cost of doing business” for a fundraising program that’s working hard and growing.

Complaints are like “fees” to make the leap to the next level of fundraising.  In exchange for raising more money, you have to deal with a few more complaints.

Complaints aren’t fun. But they’re not a sign that “a lot of people don’t like our fundraising.” They are just the occasional fee.

And isn’t paying a few fees worth it in order to raise more money, retain more of your donors, and do more of your mission?

How (and Why) an Organization Goes from 3 Appeals to 9 Appeals


Organizations that send out nine appeals a year weren’t born that way. 

They started with one appeal per year, and grew from there.

Organizations that grow in this way tend to follow a process. I’ve put the following graphic together to help illustrate the process, and I’ll put the lessons from each year below the graphic.

Click on the image to see a larger version

Year 1

This nonprofit has three different programs. Each appeal talks about all three of their programs.   

Year 2

The organization decides to focus their appeals more, so each appeal focuses only on one program.  And they make the changes in wording needed so that the funds raised from each appeal are undesignated.

They notice that the appeal about one of the programs raises more money than any appeal they’ve ever sent.  And they notice that, in total, they raise more through the mail than ever before.

Year 3

They replace the worst-performing appeal with a new version of their best-performing appeal.    

Internal stakeholders are concerned that one program is no longer mentioned, and one program has two appeals about it.  However, the organization raises more through the mail than ever before.

Year 4

Emboldened by how much money they are raising, they add two new appeals. One is focused on the program that raises the most, and one appeal is focused on the program that raises the second-most.

Internal stakeholders are convinced that “donor fatigue” is imminent.  However, all appeals continue to do very well.  The organization raises more through the mail than ever before, and notice that their overall donor retention rate has increased.

Year 5

They add two more appeals, for a total of seven. 

They notice, for the first time, that one of the appeals for their most popular program did not raise as much as it had in previous years.

The organization is concerned about that particular appeal, but they are not concerned about their overall program because they are raising more than they ever have before, and donor retention continues to improve.

Year 6

They add two more appeals, for a total of nine appeals. Of the two new appeals, one is a completely new appeal and one is about their second-most popular program.

Additionally, they pay particular attention to the appeal that didn’t work well the previous year. They find that its message veered off-topic, so they revise it for this year and it works great again.

The Process

Going from one appeal to nine appeals is a process. The same is true for fundraising emails.

And of course, as an organization goes through this process it should also be Reporting to its donors, use segmentation, have a Major Donor program, etc.

And the organization itself changes – the Development Department gets bigger, maybe an agency gets hired. 

But it’s just step-by-step growth. This is a well-known, proven path

And the results are clear.  Look at how many more dollar signs there are in Year 6 than in Year 1. That organization has meaningfully increased how much good it can do.

It’s also made the organization safer; if one appeal doesn’t work well, it’s insulated by several other appeals.

And it made the organization stronger – the increased volume of communication led to increased donor retention. They keep more of their donors year-over-year than they used to.

I’d call that a big win!

Fast, Bad and Wrong

I learned this writing tactic from a podcast, and hope it’s as helpful to you as it has been to me:

If you can’t get started writing something – or if you get stuck – just concentrate on writing fast, bad, and wrong. 

The acronym for this is “FBR.”  Even the acronym is wrong!

From the podcast:

“Write fast, write bad, and write wrong. Terrible style, terrible grammar, terrible word choice, wrong facts, and that liberates you.  And don’t stop and backtrack, because every time you stop, it’s like a car going down the highway – it’s easy to stop, but then you have to spend all this fuel to get back up to speed, and you might not get there.”

Here’s what I do: just start writing, and then just keep going. 

You can describe what you are trying to write.  You can get a few stray thoughts out of your head.  You can write the end before the middle.

But don’t edit now.  Just keep going.  The magic happens after you’ve been writing for a moment or three. 

All the sudden, a helpful thought occurs.  Then a sentence arrives.  Before you know it, a pretty good paragraph just happened.

That will happen a few more times. 

Then you have enough of those to where you know the rough structure of whatever you’re writing. 

And once you know the main ideas and the structure, the rest is connective tissue. 

Then go back and edit out the junk that helped you get there. 

FBR works for emails to co-workers, too. 

Here’s something crazy; it works for making plans.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat down with teammates and clients to figure something out.  If we’re not getting anywhere, and I have a vaguest sense of an idea, I just say that I have an FBR plan to throw out to get us started. More often than you’d think, a great plan gets iterated out of the mud I threw on the wall. 

The FBR approach removes the fear from taking the first step because it lowers the stakes.  And the second and third steps are always easier than the first.      

The next time you’re writing a piece of fundraising and you’re stuck, think FBR, get started, and keep going.  You, your beneficiaries, and your donors will be glad you did! 

The Dreaded SASA LELE!

Sasa lele

Posting this because it’s fun. And it’s a perfect way to end the recent mini-series of posts about heat maps and first sentences.

I hope it rings true that all of us occasionally write and/or design things that make perfect sense to us… but causes our audience to give a quizzical, “huh?”

I’d describe a SASA LELE as any time internal folks think the writing/design/messaging is communicating well, when it’s actually causing confusion and lowering fundraising results.

Here are two “fundraising SASA LELEs” that I see all the time.

The positive appeal letter that communicates that everything is going great. There are pictures of happy, healthy people. There’s a story about someone who is doing great.

There’s 4 pictures and 500 words communicating that things are going very well… and two sentences asking for support.

SASA LELE! The message most donors receive is that everything is going great and their support is not needed right now.

The other example is the appeal letter that starts off with a Thank You and assumes the donor will keep reading.

But you know from the heat maps that a significant percentage of donors will only read the first part… think the letter is some sort of thank you note… remember that they have a bunch of other mail and bills to go through… and put the letter in the recycling.


And here’s a “hot take” for you – SASA LELE does more actual damage to organizations’ fundraising than the mythical “donor fatigue” ever has.

In your direct response fundraising, every word you write and every design choice you make needs to be with the purpose of helping that piece of communication do its one job.

So be clear. Get right to the point. Don’t be conceptual.

Any time you find yourself working on a piece of fundraising where donors need to understand the gist of it at a glance, work like crazy to make it clear, and beware SASA LELE!

What We Have Got Here is a Failure to Differentiate


With apologies to the famous line from Cool Hand Luke, I’d like to talk about differentiation.

Savvy Fundraisers are constantly differentiating as they create an organization’s fundraising.

As you create your organization’s fundraising in 2022, you’ll raise more money and keep more of your donors if you differentiate each piece of fundraising based on:

  • How you’re communicating with your audience
  • Who you’re communicating to
  • What you’re trying to achieve

Let’s look at each…

HOW You’re Communicating

How you communicate with a donor (or potential donor) affects what you can say and how you can say it.

Everyone knows that what you’d say in a long lunch with a donor is different than what you’d say in a two-page direct mail letter.

How you’re communicating in those two contexts is completely different.

But let’s take that even farther: what you’d say in a grant application is different than what you’d say in a two-page direct mail letter.

Even though both are examples of written communication, they are clearly different.  Grant applications are more likely to be pored over, while direct mail letters are more likely to be scanned.

Therefore, a grant application should be written entirely differently than a direct mail letter. 

The form that the communication takes place in should affect what you say and how you say it.

WHO You’re Communicating To

Everyone knows that you would say different things to a person who has a Ph.D. in whatever your organization does, than you would say to a person who knows next to nothing about your field.

We all know that we’d say different things to an involved Major Donor than we would to a person who has made their very first gift.

Who you are talking to should affect what you say and how you say it.

WHAT You’re Trying To Achieve

Everyone knows that you would say different things to a person depending on what you’re trying to achieve.

If you want to ask someone for a favor, you’d say different things than if you were praising them for a job well done.

What you’re hoping to achieve with a piece of communication should affect what you say and how you say it.

What To Look Out For

When I review pieces of fundraising that didn’t work well, I almost always spot a lack of differentiation:

  • The How: a direct mail letter that sounds like a grant application
  • The Who: a newsletter that was written assuming that audience is made up of Ph.D.’s
  • The What: a Thank You email that thanks me for my first gift to an organization and then (in the second paragraph!) asks me to give more and join a high-priced giving circle.

This failure to differentiate costs nonprofits millions of dollars a year.

The causes are pretty simple.  There are inexperienced fundraisers and organizations.  They just don’t know, and you can’t hold it against them because everyone was inexperienced at one point.

And there are people who prefer a specific type or style of communication and refuse to differentiate, using that type or style regardless of context. 

This post is an attempt to help both groups see how they are causing their organization to engage their donors less, and to raise less money.

Does Your Organization Need to Differentiate?

The more you can differentiate, the more money you’ll raise.

For organizations that need to differentiate, one question should become forbidden for anyone to ask.  That question is, “Do we like this piece of fundraising?”

Because liking a piece of fundraising is usually a function of it being the type or style that’s preferred – and isn’t an indication of whether it will work well, or not.

And then one question becomes mandatory – “What would work best in this situation?”

This leads to specific questions like:

  • Who is this piece talking to, and what do they know?
  • What form of communication are we using, and how should that effect what we’re saying?
  • What’s the purpose of this particular piece of communication, and is everything in it working to achieve that one purpose?

Ask questions that help you differentiate, and you’ll create fundraising that engages your donors and raises more money.

Your internal audiences might not prefer your new fundraising as much. But your fundraising should be judged more on how much it raises as opposed to whether internal audiences prefer it. 

Emotion Leads to Action, Reason Leads to Conclusions

As you start your fundraising work for 2022, let me give you a simple idea.

It’s from the Canadian neurologist Donald B Calne:

“The essential difference between emotion and reason is that emotion leads to action, while reason leads to conclusions.”

When you create fundraising, one of your primary goals should be to write and design to reveal the strong emotions held by your donors.

If you can tap into their emotions, you’ll cause more action.

If you cause more action, you’ll raise more money.

So. As you create fundraising this year, aim for the heart. If you or anyone on your staff finds yourselves trying to “convince donors to support us” … you’re most likely creating fundraising that attempts to “reason” donors into giving. You’ll absolutely get some gifts. But you’ll also get a lot of conclusions – which are hard to deposit.

If you want more gifts you can deposit and use to fund your programs, use stories. Talk about shared values. Talk about needs, conflicts and triumphs.

This fundraising thing we’re doing. It’s not hand-wavy. It’s science.

Please Don’t “Continue To”

To be continued...

When you ask a donor for a gift in an appeal or e-appeal, you will raise more money if you can focus the donor’s attention on the change that their gift will cause.

Unfortunately, organizations often accidentally emphasize the lack of change that a donor’s gift will cause – and they raise less money because of it.

This is happening every time you see the phrase “continue to” in an appeal or e-appeal.

Example Time

Here are three examples of how “continue to” causes an organization to raise less money from appeals that recently came across my desk…

“Your gift to the Annual Fund enables us to continue to provide the necessary support, programs, and services to our students.”

According to that sentence, will anything change if the reader gives a gift? Nope. If the reader gives, the “necessary support, programs and services” will continue to be provided. There will be no change if the reader gives a gift.

Here’s another example:

“Please join us in making a contribution so we can continue to do work like this…”

If the reader gives, the work will continue to get done. There will be no change.

“Your help is needed now more than ever, so we can continue to provide safe, stable and affordable homes to those in need.”

If the reader gives a gift, the work will continue to get done. No change.

How To Emphasize Change

Here’s how to emphasize the change, using two of the examples above.

Original copy:

“Your gift to the Annual Fund enables us to continue to provide the necessary support, programs, and services to our students.”

New copy:

“Your gift to the Annual Fund will provide necessary support, programs and services to our students.”

Even better copy:

“Your gift to the Annual Fund will provide necessary support, programs and services to a student.”

Compare the “even better” copy to the original. Doesn’t it feel stronger and more direct? I can more-or-less guarantee that it would raise more money.

Here’s the second example from earlier:

“Your help is needed now more than ever, so we can continue to provide safe, stable and affordable homes to those in need.”

New copy:

“Your help is needed now more than ever to provide safe, stable and affordable homes to those in need.”

Even better copy:

“Your help is needed now to provide a safe, stable and affordable home to a family in need.”

Every single one of those sentences is accurate and truthful. But the “new” and “even better” copy would help those organizations raise more money.


In our experience, one of the qualities of successful appeals is that the change that the donor’s gift will make is obvious to the reader.

Your appeal letter is likely to raise more if it tells your donor that their gift will cause meaningful change, as opposed to funding the status quo.

So watch out for “continue to” in your fundraising this year – make sure you’re not accidentally downplaying the big change your organization makes in the world.

Because donors give gifts to make a change. To right a wrong. To stop an evil. To help a person. To advance a cause.

Ask donors to make a meaningful change with their gift and you’ll receive both more gifts and more meaningful gifts.

Long Emails vs Short Emails

Many emails.

Here’s a bit of fundraising wisdom found in an unexpected place.

It’s from a musician named Gabe Anderson who is writing about emails that musicians send to their fans. But what he’s saying absolutely applies to a nonprofit’s email strategy:

Shorter emails, sent consistently, sustain connection much better than one long one every few months.

Packing an email with links and offers and stories and updates and discount codes is too much… all under the idea ‘we’ll make up for our lack of consistent communication by sending out an email that includes everything because it’s really important that they know everything.’

The solution is to send more emails… to people who look forward to getting emails from you… and then don’t overwhelm them with long paragraphs and links.

You don’t usually enjoy getting long emails either.

The lesson, as always: never go dark. It’s a generous act to show up regularly in your donors’ lives!

h/t to Josh Alcorn for the idea for this post.