How my pissed off donor came back…

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!


Related Articles


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *