Do Sweat the Small Stuff with Your Donors

by Gayle L. Gifford, ACFRE

I switched my mobile phone carrier last fall. My long time carrier didn’t have service where my freshman sons are attending college — North Carolina and Pennsylvania. As we have a family plan, it seemed to be a good time to switch services.

My first bill arrived on schedule. Actually, two bills arrived on schedule — exact duplicates. I scoured them to see if there was some difference between the two mailings, but there was nothing that I could see.

So I called the customer service number, waited for a half hour on hold, spoke to the nice person in some foreign land and was assured that they would fix the problem.

The next month, I received two duplicate bills. So I went through the same procedure and was given the same assurances

The next month, two duplicate bills. This time when I called, the customer service representative told me that my account was flagged to send two bills — implying that I  must have requested this service myself. I informed the rep that I had never requested any such thing and that I had been trying to eliminate one of the bills for the last three months. This person was extremely apologetic and assured me that he had finally fixed the problem.

The next month… you guessed it… duplicate bills. After the fourth phone call and a letter that was never answered, I simply gave up trying to save them money and me the monthly irritation.

Now each month when I receive my duplicate bills, I’m reminded again and again of the wasted hours on hold, the incompetence of the billing department and the customer service centers and the complete disinterest this carrier has in me. I simply can’t wait for the time I can get out of this contract. And I make sure to tell my story to friends, relatives and colleagues… and I’ve got lots of them.

(Did I mention that the carrier is Sprint?)

So what? What does this have to do with fundraising?

According to “The Retail Customer Dissatisfaction Study 2006,” conducted by The Jay H. Baker Retailing Initiative at Wharton School and The Verde Group, a Toronto consulting firm, about a third of customers who experience a problem at a retailer go on to tell their friends, family or colleagues what happened.

And as they retell the story, they embellish the negative details. Almost half of the survey recipients reported that they have avoided a store at some time because of the negative experience of someone else. And only 6% of the shoppers with the bad experience bothered to complain to the company.

How many of your donors are you annoying each month?

Fix the little annoyances before your donors walk away.

Earlier this year I ordered a specialty license plate to benefit a local charity. Because this was a new plate, the charity was handling the logistics on behalf of the division of motor vehicles.

I was required to send a down payment first so they could see if they had enough interested drivers to get the state to create the new plates. Once they did, they would send more details and bill me for the remaining cost of the plate.

I had the option of paying the down payment online via my credit card. It was convenient and I received a nice little email receipt addressed to me confirming my plate on reserve.

A few weeks later, I received more information from the nonprofit that was handling the orders (and is the beneficiary of the plates). This time, the letter was addressed to my husband and my name wasn’t mentioned anywhere in the mailing!

But I was the one who ordered the license plate. It was my plate number and my credit card. How could this be?

This incident came on the heels of four months of my unsuccessful haggling with Sprint to undo their duplicate billings. I was starting to feel like comedian Rodney Dangerfield: ” I don’t get no respect.”

Okay, okay, One little error. I shouldn’t be so put out.

What if I told you that I’m a donor to this organization and have been for the last 10 years or so. Not only that, I worked at the organization for five years! First as the director of development and, by the time I left, as their deputy director.

Now I know that all of the development staff have turned over, but I assumed that there would be some annotation in my account. Wouldn’t you?

Because I like the work the organization does and I have fond memories of working there, I really didn’t want to be upset. So I thought I’d give them a chance to redeem themselves.

I rationalized that because we have a family membership and both my spouse and I are listed in the account, that it must be a kid doing the paperwork who simply didn’t know how to read the database. It couldn’t possibly be that they weren’t paying attention to the details. (Which, obviously, they weren’t but which was too disturbing to contemplate, as my car registration was involved.)

So I called to be reassured that they did in fact have it right and knew that the license plate was in my name Gayle L. Gifford, because after all, that was the name on the form I filled out and on the credit card I used to pay for the plate.

The person I spoke to (whom I didn’t know) did tell me that it was just an oversight and gave me some excuse about their database.

Which I didn’t believe because I know that they have one of the most sophisticated databases you can buy. But I didn’t point that out. Of course, even if they were handling this in a standard spreadsheet, it would be pretty easy, and extremely important, to make sure they had the license plate and name right. RIGHT?

Instead, I underscored my concern and told them that I was glad to hear that they had ordered the right plate for me.

A few months later, they sent out a letter with the final instructions on how to pick up my new plate. You guessed it. The letter was in MY HUSBAND’S NAME!

So now I’m really furious and decide that I’m going to call everyone that I know and cancel the plate order … booking it instead through their rival who is a co-beneficiary of the plates.

Instead, I call back and get the answering machine. So I send a fax to a department director whom I know (and whose department is handling this program). A week goes by … no response.

The next week, I get a call back from the department director — call him Henry. Henry tells me that he had been on vacation and thought the matter had been taken care of as he asked that to happen before he left. He apologized and again reassured me that everything was correct.

I pick the plate up in two weeks… keep your fingers crossed.

But here I am, telling the story to a few of my closest friends… just like that study said I would.

What else ticks me off?

  • Sending a donation to an organization that I support in my name, but getting the confirmation letter addressed to both my husband and me. Just because the donation came on a joint check, doesn’t mean that it is from both of us. Especially when I fill out the reply card in my name only. Or cross out my spouse’s name. Just because we are married doesn’t mean that we give to the same causes. Don’t assume, take the time to pick up the phone and ask.
  • When we do have a family account, leaving my name left off the mailing or membership card. You’d think by now that our databases would have figured out how to recognize couples or partners who don’t use the same last name. And this really burns me because I’m the one who makes sure every year that those memberships and donations are up-to-date. Not to mention that gender bias assumption …
  • Not even bothering to ask for my gift — just assuming. For over ten years I’ve been faithfully sending a particular organization $120 a year — even after I left a workplace where it went through payroll deductions. But since they switched executive directors almost two years ago, no one has bothered to notice that I was giving and no one asked. So I’ve stopped sending them money and will be unlikely to start again.

Now, I happen to be a particularly loyal donor. And have great sympathy for development staff and waitresses, having been both and knowing how hard they work. But that sympathy is wearing off very rapidly.

Because, for every important cause I give to, there are multiple organizations to which I can give and who will take the time to get it right.

Sloppiness tells me that that a charity doesn’t care a whole lot about me. Guess what research tells us is the # 1 reason customers stop doing business with a company — perceived indifference.

How much do you care about your donors?

A version of this article first appeared in Contributions Magazine, Vol 22; No. 2 2008

Gayle L. Gifford, ACFRE and her colleague Jonathan W. Howard at Cause & Effect Inc. help nonprofits from the grassroots to international create strategic change for a more just and peaceful world. With over 30 years of nonprofit experience, Cause & Effect helps nonprofit organizations with strategic planning, board development, fundraising and communications needs.