How Do You Respond When A Mistake Is Made With A Donor?

The gorgeously designed and perfectly-bound printed annual report was just mailed.  It was a master-piece.  It was a work of art.  The VP’s pride directed him to fan out 5 copies of it on his coffee table in his office.  And then his phone rang.  It was Mrs. Donald, the lead gift donor during their most recent campaign.  It seemed Mrs. Donald was just a tad upset because the new Annual Report listed her as still being married to her second husband.  And her third husband, with whom she now makes all of her giving decisions, wasn’t happy.  As the bead of sweat slowly trickled down the VP’s back, he listened to her vent.   What could he say?  What would you say?  How would you respond to this error?

For most people, the response would be to express regret, apologize profusely, and try to get off the phone as quickly as possible.  No one wants to be yelled at.  But this VP viewed this scenario much differently.  He viewed it as an opportunity.

And the opportunity was simple:  When the donor was upset, the VP at least knew he had her attention.  He viewed that attention as an opportunity to strengthen the relationship with her.  He didn’t hear the anger in her voice as much as he saw a chance to learn even more about her.

When we make a mistake that negatively impacts or embarrasses a donor, we may feel like hiding.  But that’s a strategic miscue.  Instead, we should start first by apologizing for the mistake and explaining that we understand how it has inconvenienced or embarrassed them.  And then we ask questions and listen.  In many instances a donor just wants to vent.  And, in some instances, the theme of the venting isn’t even the real issue.   It turns out, Mrs. Donald, who seemed to be so irate at the mistake in the Annual Report, was really upset because the day included locking her keys in her car and having to put down Brownie, her beloved, 15-year old labrador retriever.  She was spent and emotionally raw.  And when she came home and saw the Annual Report mistake, she went over the edge.  So, she called and vented.

Had the VP decided to take the easy route and apologize and get off the phone as quickly as possible, he would have missed what was really going on in her life.  Instead, he took the opportunity to ask questions and listen and he learned some very important information.  And when he bought her a personalized key ring that included an engraved paw print with the name “Brownie” underneath, he received this handwritten note from Mrs. Donald:

“Thank you for your kind note and gift commemorating Brownie’s passing.  Brownie was beloved by our family and we will miss him terribly.  Thank you for showing us that you care and that you understand – it’s why we feel connected to your organization – you care about the people and the issues we care about.”

And to think she called in anger over a printing error.


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