Doing Damage Control: How to Fix a Bad Situation With a Donor

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A few years ago, a donor, whom I’ll refer to as “Lynne” for purposes of anonymity, complained to her close friend (a colleague of mine) that she hadn’t received a customary annual stewardship report on the endowed scholarship fund in memory of her late husband. Lynne was not one of my prospects, but I volunteered to address her complaint to help my colleague.

When I phoned Lynne, she unleashed a wrath that had been boiling for some time. However, after a few minutes, the tone of our conversation turned from combative to congenial. Lynne told me about her late husband’s time as a teacher on campus and how much he had enjoyed mentoring students. He had earned a reputation as the resident poet on campus, often publishing sonnets about his research in an academic journal and decorating the campus elevators with his writing to make students smile.

“The fellowship has meant so much to our family because it’s kept his name and legacy alive on campus,” Lynne said. It became clear what I needed to do to move the relationship with Lynne to a better place. (I’ll get to that shortly.)

At some point in his or her career, every gift officer faces a situation like this—it’s a matter of when, not if. For many reasons, don’t ignore these potentially awkward and unnerving scenarios, hoping that they’ll simply go away. Instead, recognize them as an opportunity to enhance your gift officer skills and to turn around a donor’s relationship with your organization. In the end, you’ll be thankful for it.

Using my situation with Lynne—a favorite example from my career to date—I’ll offer guidelines for digging yourself out of a less-than-desirable donor scenario.

Diagnose the Issues

Before determining how you can resolve a donor’s issues, you first need to understand his or her perspective. Jumping to next steps too quickly can instill unrealistic expectations in your donor, and, ultimately, set you up for failure. Your best first move is to talk to them about their experience and, more importantly, understand why it left them feeling that way.

 

Warning: You might be the recipient of a donor’s diatribe, wherein he or she shouts how your organization has wronged them. First, don’t take it personally. And second, uncomfortable as it may seem, be quiet and listen closely as they air out their frustrations. Why? Because an honest dialogue is the best path to building credibility with your donors, especially when repairing a relationship. Plus, they’re likely to reveal the core of the problem and tell you how to make things right.

Get Buy-in and Be Upfront

Before executing your “fix-it” plan, it’s equally as important to secure buy-in on its deliverables—both within your organization and eventually with your donor. In situations like these, it’s tempting to over-promise or cave in to unrealistic requests just to make the donor happy. But while you think you’re making things right, you actually risk exacting more damage to the relationship and your organization’s reputation.

 

 

Here’s why: What you propose, or what the donor asks for, may not be on par with your organization’s gift and stewardship policies. Imagine, for example, two donors (Donor A and Donor B) each give $500,000 to student scholarships. Both receive a customary annual report on how their contributions impacted students. Then, Donor A discovers that, unlike him, Donor B got to meet with student beneficiaries of his gift. Imagine how upset Donor A would be

This underscores the importance of first consulting your Donor Relations Group (DRG) to ensure that your solution abides by your organization’s policies. Plus, it’s likely that your DRG has encountered other situations like yours and can provide viable recommendations for resolving the issue.

Back to Lynne. Here’s what she wanted from me and my organization:

  • An in-person meeting with the scholarship program director on her endowed fund, including its current market value and balance; backgrounds on its current student beneficiaries to date; and how the scholarship director intended to use the funds moving forward.
  • A say in how many students would receive funds from the scholarship, as well as in selecting specific students working in the same discipline of study as her late husband.
  • An in-person gathering with the most recent student beneficiaries of the scholarship.

After consulting my DRG and the scholarship program director, I informed Lynne that we could certainly fulfill the first and last of her requests, but not the second.

With help from my DRG, I explained to Lynne how:

  • The varying level of student need from year to year made it difficult to guarantee the same number of student recipients on an annual basis.
  • Her late husband’s discipline had since morphed into an entirely different field of study.
  • And most importantly, our organization’s policy prohibited donors from selecting the recipients, thus making her request unfair to other donors to our organization.

Though irritated by my initial response, Lynne soon understood why her request was unrealistic. She appreciated that I was upfront with her and began to trust me. At the end of our conversation, she invited me to her home for afternoon tea and to peruse her late husband’s old scrapbooks.

Be Proactive

Sometimes, the best defense is a good offense. In other words, the surest way to avoid falling into a bad situation is not put yourself in it. How so, you ask?

Make time throughout the year to review your portfolio and draft stewardship plans. Discuss each plan’s most salient points with your donors to set their expectations, get their buy-in, and learn what really matters to them. If possible, find creative ways to personalize your stewardship.

You might be surprised, but it’s often the small, everyday gestures that make a big difference. Take Lynne. Remember her late husband’s poetic endeavors on campus? After my initial phone call with Lynne, I enlisted the help of a library researcher to track down her husband’s original poems. The day she arrived on campus for her meeting with the scholarship program director, Lynne found the corridor walls in our administration building decorated with her late husband’s poetry—as if he had just posted them himself. Lynne paused, standing silently in the hall. She thanked me, hugged me, and started to cry. 

The summer after my initial phone call with Lynne, a colleague told me that Lynne had passed away the previous night, surrounded by close friends and family. It felt like someone had punched me in the gut. Lynne and I had formed a friendship in our brief time together—an unintended benefit of my working with her.

 

Shortly after Lynne’s death, my office received an outpouring of small contributions to her husband’s scholarship fund. She had instructed her family and friends to contribute to the fund in lieu of bringing flowers.

Later that fall, I received a surprising call from Lynne’s daughter-in-law, Carrie, thanking me for my efforts with her mother-in-law and the scholarship fund. Apparently, Carrie and her family kept finding my name and contact information while sorting through personal items in Lynne’s home. “She really cherished her time with you,” Carrie said.

Situations with donors may vary by organization, but the outcomes hinge upon your actions.

Remember the aforementioned guidelines when working with your donors, but most importantly, discuss within your organization to see what works best for you and your colleagues.

Learn more about crafting meaningful experiences for donors in this post

Patrick Rooney has worked in development for more than a decade, supporting organizations such as Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Harvard Medical School, and, most recently, Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management. He lives in Boston with his wife, Nicole, and their two children, worships the Red Sox, and is obsessed with the classic movie Jaws. Send your questions, comments, and story ideas to him via LinkedIn or patrickfrooney@gmail.com.

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