Getting Used to Complaints

Listen to complaints.

There’s a stage every medium to large nonprofit (that’s reliant on individual donors for a significant portion of its income) goes through as they grow.

The nonprofit gets used to complaints.

These organizations know that, once they reach a certain number of donors, they are going to receive complaints. It’s a certainty. There’s no way NOT to receive complaints because of the number of humans involved.

(It’s good to remember that fundraising often reveals tension that the donor holds. That tension usually results in a gift, and sometimes results in a complaint.)

When an organization that accepts complaints as a “cost of doing business” receives a complaint, they respond warmly. There’s a process, and the complaint is given the attention it deserves (no more and no less). The organization knows that a complaint is often more about the complainer than the organization. And the organization has boundaries so Complainers are listened to but not given undue power.

Then the organization continues to execute its communication strategy. No changes are made. The water rolls right off the duck’s back. They keep raising more money every year.

On the other hand… if a complaint comes into an organization that values never receiving complaints, a ruckus ensues. The complaint and the Complainer are somehow interpreted to be speaking for all donors. The thousands of dollars that came in at the same time as the complaint are basically ignored. Communication content and strategy are changed.

And the organization manages itself to remain smaller than it could be.

Complaints are a cost of doing business. Complaints are a fee, not a fine. Understand that complaints are going to happen, develop a process and a mindset to respond appropriately, and keep growing.

Your beneficiaries are counting on you to put up with a little noise in order to do more good.

Read the series:

  1. Getting Used to Complaints (this post)
  2. Outline for How to Respond to a Complaint
  3. Not All Complaints are Equal
  4. Natural, But Not Productive
  5. The Two Times Smaller Orgs Get More Complaints
  6. So. Many. Reasons. To. Complain.
  7. The Harmful Big Assumption
  8. Turning Complaints into Gifts
  9. “Friendly Fire” — Complaints from Internal Audiences
  10. Our Final Thoughts on Complaints

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.