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?

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.