How my pissed off donor came back…

Published by Gerbren Deves on

Earlier this month I spoke with Reinier and he asked me if I would write another blog. I immediately agreed and I didn’t have to think long about the topic of my blog. Because that same day my organization MSF received a donation from a donor, about whom I can tell you an educating story.  Some time ago it appeared we had lost this donor forever…

We all make our share of mistakes, like every other human being. It is not a bad thing per se, as long as you learn from them. And sometimes your mistakes aren’t as bad as they seem at first; moreover, sometimes they can create a nice topic for a blog!

Some years back my organization received a relatively high donation from a company. As a good relationship manager does, I tried to call the responsible person to thank him, try to figure out more about his motives and engagement wishes and hopefully set up a meeting. I was told by a receptionist that the responsible person was extremely hard to reach by phone, and that email would be the best option to reach him

I did not get a reply on my thank-you email, in which I also asked about his engagement wishes, but after some time he did make a repeat donation. I sent him another thank-you email, again asking about his engagement wishes. But once again: no reply. A few months later we had our first contact, by email, when he declined my invitation to come to a donor event. He told me that he didn’t have time to come, but he did request our annual report.

I had put this donor on my ‘personal approach list’, which means, among others, that I send specific updates and results of  our activities. The fact that I did not get any reply on those specific emails didn’t make me think he wouldn’t be interested; many donors of whom I know that they are interested often don’t reply either. So I thought I was being a good relationship manager and doing a great job, securing loyalty and interest of this donor. Until he sent me an email. An email that made me shiver.

In his email he told me that he was not at all pleased by our “commercial” method of working by sending information he didn’t want to receive. And even worse: he told me he was going to focus on other charities he supported. He was really pissed off… I was at home when I read this email; it was during the commercial break of a movie I was watching. I didn’t finish the movie.

I felt bad about myself and I tried to figure out where it went wrong and what I should have done different. I googled the donor and it turned out that he was recently mentioned on some sort of ‘rich-list’, which I hadn’t seen before. Immediately I realized that this man was probably overloaded by information and gift requests of all kinds of charities. And that he must have been so fed up with that.

After I took the time to ‘digest’ his email I replied and acknowledged his feelings and expressed my apologies for my misjudgement of his wishes. I also explained why I did send those updates. Because we, MSF, think it is important to tell our donors what we do with their support. And that we don’t want to be an organization that is only communicating gift requests. Not from a commercial point of view, but in the sincere conviction that our donors deserve that type of attention. And that of course we don’t intentionally send our donors information they don’t want. I thought it was a very sincere and good email, and I hoped this would change his mind. However, in his reply he just confirmed that he didn’t want to receive any communication from us again.

A few weeks later, still feeling bad about the issue, we suddenly received another donation from this donor. Naturally I was pleasantly surprised, but at the same time I was confused and didn’t know what to do, as he had told me he didn’t want any communication from us. Should I call him to express our thanks and my confusion? After discussing this with a colleague I decided it was best not to respond to this donation. But I was extremely uncertain about my decision.

Then a few months later he made another donation, and again I didn’t really know what to do, although I was more certain about my earlier decision not to contact him. Still in doubt whether or not to call him… he called me! He told me he was glad that we got his message, but at the same time he was afraid that his angry email had scared us too much, and that wasn’t his intention.

Fortunately the conversation turned out to be very pleasant. He confirmed my belief that it was the mentioning in this ‘rich-list’ that made other charities approach him even more. He even offered in-kind support as well and we talked about our personal interests. In the end we agreed that I can send him interesting information from time to time.

After I hung up I felt more than relieved and a small burden was lifted. Before I shared this great conversation with my colleagues, I summarized for myself what happened and I thought about the things I learned, which are two main points:

1.    I realized more than ever that you need to know how the donor wants to be involved with your organization, if at all.
2.    And I realized more than ever that you need to know and understand the donor’s position and attitude, so continuous(!) research is necessary.

But basically, these lessons come down to one thing: make sure you understand your donor!


Gerbren Deves

Gerbren is Coordinator Relationship Management at Médecins Sans Frontières Holland (MSF, Artsen zonder Grenzen). He has been working for MSF since April 2006. Before that, he worked in 'the corporate world', in various (strategic) marketing functions.


Sacha · January 30, 2012 at 14:24

Enjoyed your article :o) Thank you!

How true!
All is well that ends well!

Best wishes, Sacha.

Nienke Kodde · January 30, 2012 at 15:51

Thank you Gerbeer! Keep up the good work you do for MSF. Greetz, Nienke

Tara Lepp · January 30, 2012 at 17:53

Nice post Gerbren! It goes to show that not all donors want to be treated the same way and there’s often a fine balance in how we communicate and disseminate information to them.

    Gerbren Deves · February 8, 2012 at 21:09

    Absolutely! Finding out what the donor needs and values is so important, but sometimes hard to truly figure out..
    Thanks for your reply!

Sarah (@SAPL) · January 30, 2012 at 20:37

Thank you for posting. It’s difficult (especially with major donors who appear on those lists) not to over/under do it with communications. It’s great that he called you!

    Gerbren Deves · February 8, 2012 at 20:55

    Thanks for your reply, Sarah. And you’re absolutely right: difficult indeed. But asking and researching will get you a long way.

Lucia Broms-Thie · January 31, 2012 at 10:30

I think this is another example of why we shouldn’t think FOR the donors but LISTEN to them. As much as we would all like that they’re would be a cookie-cutter approach that will show us the chest filled with gold at the end of the rainbow, people are individuals and thus they would like to be treated as such. In view of the current dehumanization of all contact (at least you e-mailed him personally and it was not a computerized ”do not reply” e-mail), genuine personal interest and contact stands out even more. I like the mail you sent, your rationales AND your mea culpa: it’s authentic, shows integrity and that there’s is a living, breathing person behind the email address. At the same time it makes your work even harder. But the ”ROD” (Return of Donor, sounds much friendlier than ROI, don’t you agree?) is – in your case – evidently even bigger.

    Gerbren Deves · February 8, 2012 at 20:58

    Thanks for your reply. It’s so true what you’re saying: listening is extremely important. And not only with donors, by the way..

Claire Axelrad · February 10, 2012 at 10:30

This post brought back memories. I’ve had more than one donor like this one. I had one who gave a five-figure gift two years in a row. No one knew him, so we decided to get to know him better. After making several calls and leaving sincere thank you messages (just letting him know we’d love to get to know him better, understand what motivated his giving, see if there were things he thought we could be doing better, etc. — in other words, we asked him to give us ADVICE; not more money), we finally reached him. He was very testy, and said he did not want to be communicated with, he’d give when the mood struck him and, essentially, we should never darken his doorstep again. When it came time for the annual appeal, we struggled with whether to even send him a letter. Would that trigger a negative response? We decided to offer the letter with a personal note of thanks from a board member. The gift came in the same amount as the previous year. So, that’s how we continued. We do need to know our donors wishes, but sometimes it’s not so easy!

    Gerbren Deves · February 28, 2012 at 11:16

    Thanks for your reply, Claire. Great solution and glad it worked out well! I guess I’m not the only one struggling with this issue..

Anonymous2 · December 10, 2013 at 16:25

I wonder if you’ve ever dealt with this?

I’m a wealthy donor and give heavily to at least three different areas of interest. One of them is to advocate for the working poor. That’s probably my top interest. But I also support a particular religious cause.

I posted something on Facebook sympathizing with the working poor. To my shock, the wife of the executive director of one of the religious organizations commented more than a dozen times, lambasting the working poor and saying they were poor due to bad decisions.

By way of background, nearly all my spare time is spent with the working poor, literally hundreds of hours every year, and I realize that this woman is not only wrong, but is damaging some of the work that I care about so deeply.

So I’ve decided not to give to her organization this year…and probably not ever again. I’ll funnel her donation to others.

    Gerbren Deves · January 2, 2014 at 11:17

    Sorry for my radio silence, but thanks much for your valuable response. It confirms my belief that you should not bash other organizations, but stick to your own story and rely on your own strenghts. Indeed not only from an ethical point of view, but also from a donor relations-point of view. Thanks for this insight and all the best for 2014!

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