The Harmful Big Assumption


When a nonprofit is discussing a complaint that’s come in, someone invariably says…

“…and if this person complained, there must be a lot of other donors who feel the same way but didn’t send anything in.

This is a big assumption. And it’s made out of fear.

It’s a completely understandable assumption. It’s the same assumption I made at the beginning of my career.

I think people naturally assume that a complainer speaks for more people than themselves because fundraising can be awkward. Fundraising makes us feel vulnerable. Many people just plain don’t like it.

But if we’re going to make the assumption that every complaint indicates that there must be a lot of other donors who feel the same way but didn’t send anything in, I counsel organizations to make another similar assumption: that every gift indicates that there must be a lot of other donors who feel the same way but didn’t send anything in.

After all, it’s hard to argue that only one of those assumptions is true, no?

Put it this way: if you argue that each complainer speaks for other people, you also have to argue that each giver speaks for other people.

Say a complainer “speaks for” 5 people who didn’t send a complaint in. And a giver “speaks for” 5 people who didn’t send in a gift.

If you received 2 complaints, that’s 10 people who had a complaint but didn’t send it in. If you received 50 gifts, that’s 250 people who considered making a gift but didn’t send one in.

So, what’s best for the organization: making changes to the fundraising so that the 10 donors avoid thinking about making a complaint, or making changes to the fundraising so that the 250 people who were thinking about making a gift go ahead and make a gift?

Seems obvious, right?

What’s more, there are multiple proven tactics to help people who are looking at your fundraising to go ahead and make the gift:

  • Custom reply devices on each mailing and custom landing pages for each email
  • Custom gift ask amounts for each donor
  • Ensuring your online content echoes and reinforces your offline content, so that more donors will see the same message multiple times, which increases the likelihood of them giving a gift.

Now we’re in the realm of proven tactics instead of worry.

Big Picture

Complaints are going to happen to any growing organization that’s reliant on individual donors.

When a complaint comes in, don’t let a reasonable-but-fear-based assumption harm your fundraising efforts. Don’t focus on the negative.

Instead, choose to have an abundance mindset. Move from worry to making proven improvements.

The whole goal of this series of blog posts on complaints has been to help organizations get used to complaints, because complaints are a natural part of growth, and set up a system to handle complaints with the appropriate amount of energy.

When you do this, you’ll spend less time and energy on complaints. And you can spend that time doing concrete things that will help your organization raise more money in the future.

If you’re going to make an assumption about donor behavior, also look to see if the opposite assumption is true.

Read the series:

  1. Getting Used to Complaints
  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 (this post)
  8. Turning Complaints into Gifts
  9. “Friendly Fire” — Complaints from Internal Audiences
  10. Our Final Thoughts on Complaints

Steven Screen is Co-Founder of The Better Fundraising Company and lead author of its blog. With over 25 years' fundraising experience, he gets energized by helping organizations understand how they can raise more money. He’s a second-generation fundraiser, a past winner of the Direct Mail Package of the Year, and data-driven.

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