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#60 Donors say the darndest things

Whether it’s hearing “I can’t give to you because if I give to you, I’ll have to give to everyone” or “OK, I’ll help, but only because my dog likes you”, our donors and prospects say the darndest things.

The painful truth is when we stop listening we stop learning, so do we always need to hear what our donors are saying? What mechanisms do we have in place to receive this feedback? And what filters do we use to act on good advice and reject the rest?

An experienced door-to-door fundraiser will know to ignore instructions from residents like “There’s no point knocking round here, everyone is really stingy” but listen more carefully to “this is a retirement village, you should probably go somewhere else”. A veteran street fundraiser will take no notice of a prospect who attempts to educate them with hurtful, insensitive and inaccurate notions such as cancer is a government conspiracy and that UN charities are trying to take over the world but will listen carefully to is a donor who has had direct experiences with our shared cause.

Trouble arises when naive fundraisers or charities trialling a new channel hear this information for the first time and create policy based on it.

The key effective feedback management is to firstly create opportunities to collect this data, run each piece through a flow chart of urgent action vs piece of the puzzle and then act accordingly.

For example, if a donor calls up to say they only donated because the fundraiser pressured them into giving, an inexperienced caller handler may presume that this is a disgrace and the fundraiser must be terminated immediately because that is not how their charity is to be represented. A more experienced handler will apologise for any pressure that was exerted and place the complaint into context with specific questioning and search for patterns.

  • What was the nature of the ‘pressure’?

  • Is this the first complaint of its kind from this agency?

  • If not, how many have you received in the past month?

  • What did the agency say they would do to curb these complaints?

  • Is there evidence that the agency has attempted to solve the issue?

  • Has the fundraiser had any similar complaints in the past?

  • If so, how many have you received in the past month?

  • What did the agency say they would do to curb these complaints?

  • Is there evidence that the agency/fundraiser has attempted to solve the issue?

Answers to these simple questions will speak to your next move. If it is just another piece of the puzzle you will send a brief report to the agency to request a retrain on signs to look out for to determine the comfort level of the individual donors or, if it is urgent action required it could spell the end of the relationship.

When a member of the public contacts your organisation to tell you how much they hate fundraisers working in shopping centres and how these ch***ers are blocking customers from coming into their shop you can run this feedback through a similar filter. What happened in this case? Do you receive feedback of this nature frequently from this agency? Is there a specific fundraiser who triggers these complaints? Then act accordingly.

This still leaves a few questions unanswered. How many complaints are too many? What timeframe do we give the agency to turn things around? And, what is a suitable punishment for the crime?

I recommend that your charity and agency work through some of these scenarios when negotiating contracts so that the agency understands your specific requirements and hot spots. As an extreme example, a fundraiser smoking in their kit whilst representing a cancer charity would be a lot more serious than if they were working for a homelessness cause. I would suggest that smoking once whilst publicly representing Cancer Council needs to be instant dismissal, whereas it might be a final written warning for a different cause.

Understanding client expectations at the start of a new contract is an essential element of a fruitful working relationship, so don’t assume that your fundraising partner knows. Environmental charities must tell their agency not to litter and refrain from using plastic straws and single-use plastic bags. Cancer charities need to hand-out sunscreen, hats, and warn the agency about smoking in uniform. Women’s rights charities need to be very clear with their agency around stopping techniques to be 100% sure that the fundraiser doesn’t shout “hey darling’’ or reach out for a handshake with a female donor.

Affecting change in the behaviours of a team can feel like steering a container ship. Any efforts you make now to change course may have no impact for a few weeks as the messaging needs to permeate through all team members and be given time to allow correction. For this reason, you need to be sure of your tolerances and act swiftly in response to weighty issues. Collect and collate the data and report breaches to your agency immediately so that they have time to act on it before it becomes a titanic problem.

One final little tip: When reporting complaints to your board, you can balance this with positive feedback you’ve received too. If you have none, ask your verification callers to pass anything on to you even if it’s just “the fundraiser did a good job” because our boards and stakeholders often only hear the bad.

PS: it’s not just our donors that utter the weird and wonderful. Some of my favourite face-to-face fundraiser quotes are “do we still have to work when it rains?” and my personal favourite “how am I supposed to sign people up when fundraising is just luck?”.

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