You’re bound to blow it with a donor or two…

Published by The Whiny Donor on

Sooner or later, you’re going to get a donor like me.

I’m that awful donor who expects to be thanked immediately, is quick to take offense, and won’t hesitate to contact you if I’m unhappy about something. Unless I decide simply never to give again.

What sets me off? It could be any number of things. I want to receive an acknowledgement of my donation very soon after I’ve given it (and I do keep track of how long it takes you). Don’t even hint at another ask when you thank me for what I’ve just sent you. I tend to give just once a year, usually in the fall, and if it feels like you’re sending me appeals too often, I will probably stop giving to you altogether. (Yes, I know research shows that nonprofits raise more money when they send frequent appeals. That’s great for you. That doesn’t mean we like it.)

I used to give an annual gift to my alma mater—a small gift, admittedly, but I knew alumni participation was an important metric, so I gave faithfully for 24 years. Until the day the acknowledgement from the advancement officer asking me to accept her “personal thanks” was addressed to “Dear [College] Supporter.” Come on.  After 24 years of consecutive support, you couldn’t be bothered to use my name in the salutation? With all of the software available in this day and age?  When I emailed her to express my disappointment, she didn’t respond directly, instead passing me off to a staffer, which in my mind added insult to injury.  My loyalty had already been strained the year before after a bad phonathon call, so cutting them loose turned out to be pretty easy. And I doubt this lapsed donor will ever be brought back into the fold again.

Several years ago, I gave money to an organization that worked to alleviate poverty worldwide. My first donation was a Christmas gift to my husband. Eventually, I established a small endowment in honor of my mother. When she died, we suggested that memorial gifts be sent to them, and my daughters would add to the fund for my birthday.  I felt very connected to the organization–I had lived in two of the countries in which they operated, and was familiar with both the poverty there and the impact their livelihood projects could have. I gave enough that the organization even sent people to my home for a visit (though they seemed disappointed that I wasn’t richer, and hoped I could connect them with someone who was).

But then one autumn day, I received a packet from them containing ten notecards preprinted with a message that I was to distribute to friends and family, saying that I’d like them all to donate to this organization instead of giving me a gift for the holiday. I was so horrified that I telephoned the organization and told them I didn’t want to hear from them again.

They were probably shocked by my response. After all, a quick look at my donation history would show that I liked the in-memory/honor-of style of giving. But what they failed to take into consideration was that anyone with a modicum of good manners would never dream of presuming that there were ten people out there who would welcome a written directive to give me a gift, even a gift that wasn’t actually for me. I was raised to believe that the only time instructions like that are appropriate is when the letter begins with “Dear Santa”.

Looking back, I wonder why I made such a big deal of it. I think, as much as I was horrified by the bad manners of it all, I was also distressed by what I saw as the sheer waste of it—discarding a package of notecards and several dollars of stamps on the envelopes. But for me, that organization had crossed a line, pushing me too far in their effort to raise funds.

whiningWas I petty? Well, sure.  But that’s my point: it doesn’t take much to lose a donor, and the nonprofit sector has the retention rates to prove it. There are plenty of causes we care about, and your organization may be one of many we could use to make what difference we want to in the world.

Of course, you can’t please all of the people all of the time. What sets me off may be fine for most others, or perhaps an entire demographic will find your appeal entirely unappealing. And a complaint from someone like me about a campaign that is proving to be wildly successful with everyone else can certainly be dismissed as a one-off.

But “donor-centric” is getting a lot of attention these days, and with good reason. If you spend a bit of time thinking of how a donor might receive your message, in addition to  time spent deciding on the message you want to give, you might find yourself pleasing—and retaining–even the fussiest of donors.


The Whiny Donor

Unlike most 101 Fundraising bloggers, The Whiny Donor is not a professional fundraiser. She’s a volunteer, chairing the development committees of two small nonprofits in the United States. But ultimately, she views fundraising from the perspective of the donor, and doesn’t always like what she sees.


Sheena · September 21, 2015 at 16:20

This is a valuable perspective that reminds us there of something obvious we can take for granted: there is a human on the other side of a computer generated letter.


Jenn Fortner · September 21, 2015 at 21:57

this is wonderful! Thank you for writing Whiny Donor – I will now be looking for more posts from you.

Matt · September 22, 2015 at 16:58

I enjoyed your post! Thanks for taking the time to put this together. I was hoping to help you promote your page so others could enjoy your content as well.

We launched this new site called Sharity and rather than paying Facebook or Twitter to promote your content, with Sharity all you have to do is donate to a charity of your choice each time your content is shared! That’s a win/win.

Check out givesharity.org when you get a chance! Again, great post! Hope others get a chance to see it as well!

Derek Glass · September 23, 2015 at 05:18

There’s a saying in the Airline business: 100% customer satisfaction leads to bankruptcy. The incremental cost of “satisfying” the demands of the most difficult to please customer is often much higher than the extra business they bring to your organisation. The same could certainly be said of the most demanding donors as well.

The most demanding customers and donors are rarely the most generous, and never the most profitable. No charity should rely on the support of a single donor, nor should a charity’s fundraising strategy be influenced or directed by the often childish whinging of a small number of donors. These donors often whinge about programs that are quite profitable. Direct mail, telemarketing, and face-to-face programs are usually their favourite targets (and also the 3 most financially successful forms of fundraising ever invented).

When it comes to the whiny donors on your database, fix one problem for them and they’ll just start whinging about something else. One quickly realises that the “problem” is a psychological one, inside the donor’s head, and it actually has nothing to do with what the charity is or is not doing.

If you really want to prosper and thrive in fundraising, the first thing to understand and accept is that you will never please everyone, all of the time. And that donors who are very difficult to please are actually not worth having as supporters in the first place.

A charity’s mission, first and foremost, is to it’s beneficiaries. Any donor that thinks they are or should be the center of attention isn’t a donor worth having, no matter how much money they have. There are better donors out there, with even more money, and you’re much better off working to please them instead.

The next time the whiny donor spits the dummy about a phone call or a letter from a charity, I would suggest they google “Cognitive Behaviour Therapy”. It’s works much better than throwing a tantrum. I guarantee it.

Ken Burnett · September 23, 2015 at 18:50

Dear Whiny Donor,

Please, don’t be deterred by anything you read from the infamous Mr Glass. When you get his attentions, you can be sure you’ve arrived. By all means argue back if you have infinite patience and a lot of spare time, but best I feel to wear it as a badge of honour. If DG disapproves, you must be saying something donors would applaud..

Best, Ken

    Derek Glass · September 25, 2015 at 01:17

    Another handful of mud from Ken Burnett. He can’t argue the point, he won’t play the ball and instead plays the man. What a great sport, and what a “role model” for us all.

Gina Sideris · February 5, 2016 at 16:36

This is very true. So much of what we take for granted as “process” in our work is personally felt by the donor as the context of their relationship with us. Not something to obsess about (or else we’d never have more than ten donors) but definitely something that requires forethought and mindfulness throughout.

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