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The Donor Is Not Always Right

November 26, 2011

(The following post was written by Sofia Michelakis, director of philanthropy development at Social Venture Partners Seattle. Michelakis' post, which was written in response to a recent post by fundraising author and consultant Kivi Leroux Miller, touches on the need for donors and funders to keep their focus on organizational outcomes rather than the administrative shortcomings that are common in the nonprofit world.)

Empathy_handsRecently I attended a fundraising breakfast. The organization’s programs serve people who are homeless due to addiction and/or mental health issues. My friend is their executive director, but that's not why I support them. Their mission resonates with me on a personal level. My mother is mentally ill and I lost my brother to a drug overdose. Supporting them in many ways helps me. As I walk down the street in Seattle and encounter homeless people not so different from members of my immediate family, I feel as if I'm doing something to help.

The first year I attended the event, inspired by the visionary founder's words about taking care of people in our community, I took a breath and made a two-year pledge, my biggest gift to date. It felt good to sign up to be a big giver. The second year I agreed to be a half-table captain. What's a HALF-table captain, you ask? I teamed up with a friend to fill one table in a room packed with nearly a hundred tables. Well, that turned out to be not so hard. So this year my husband and I more than filled a table ourselves. We were becoming more involved.

You know those envelopes at nonprofit fundraisers that are passed out during the ask? I listened to a client-speaker share the story of her abusive home life, running away, her pregnancy, loss of her child to a sudden grave illness, and falling into despair and drug use to numb the pain -- all by the time she was seventeen. Having just had my first child, I found my eyes welling up and my throat dry with emotion as I clutched the envelopes in my hand before remembering I was supposed to pass them around. I'd brought my checkbook and still owed my gift for this year. I knew October was going to be a big expense month, so I put two checks in the envelope, one made out for that date and the other postdated to the end of November.

The next day I received a voice-mail from the organization's development director thanking me for renewing our pledge and soliciting feedback on the event. I returned her call and was put on hold for quite a long time. We never got connected, so instead I sent a short e-mail. I thanked her for her call, said I'd be happy to give feedback, and that our guests really enjoyed the event. As an aside, I referenced the postdated check, hoping they'd seen it. I asked her if she could call me back to set up a monthly auto-pay for our pledge for next year so we could get it out of the way early. I never heard back.

A few weeks later I was doing some online banking and noticed that two large checks for the same amount had cleared. I clicked to view the images and saw that the nonprofit had cashed both checks, including the postdated one. I got upset and started composing an e-mail in my head, one to which I would attach a PDF of the postdated check clearly showing the date. I also thought about CC'ing my friend, the development director's boss. I knew the e-mail would not be ignored.

But then I paused. I reflected on the fact that I'm a major donor to the organization, someone who introduces new donors as a table captain, who knows a lot of other givers and foundation officers -- and is a friend of the ED to boot. No matter what I said in that e-mail, or how unreasonable it might have been, I would have been told I was right. I thought further about the hundreds of people at the event, how many payments the organization must have processed that day, and how easy it would have been to not notice a date scribbled on a check, or for volunteers to not wonder why a donor would enclose two checks instead of one.

So instead, I wrote her an e-mail telling her I had made a mistake. I should not have put a postdated check in the envelope and waited two days to let her know. My bad. I did, however, ask that we get a monthly payment plan set up for next year. I didn't want to make the same mistake again.

The end of the year is often the most stressful for nonprofits. Most organizations I know are constantly recalculating their projections with respect to how much their fundraising events will yield. End-of-year donations will determine their balance sheet for the next year, and in some cases whether they're even able to make payroll.

I recently read a well-intentioned blog post by a fundraising consultant who, at the end of 2010, sent out ten gifts of $20 each to a range of national nonprofits to test how promptly they thanked her for the gift. Her startling finding was that only three out of ten sent a timely thank you. Scrolling through the comments to her post, I saw that someone pointed out that the online service she used to send the donations prints the donor's name but not a mailing address on the notifications it e-mails to recipients. In order to get the address of the donor, a nonprofit would have to go to the check payment Web site itself, something few people are aware of. Still, the author of the post was quick to judge the nonprofits rather than think there might be a good reason she didn't receive a timely thank you. (Besides, what's a reasonable expectation for a $20 gift?)

The lesson here is not that nonprofits shouldn't take customer service seriously. The fact is they have to -- or they're likely to go out of business. At the same time, it's incumbent on donors to empathize with the organizations we've decided to support -- indeed, to ask how we can make their lives a bit easier. Administrative mistakes will happen, but often because nonprofits have more important fish to fry, like making a difference for the individuals and communities they serve.

-- Sofia Michelakis

P.S. Wondering how the development director responded to my e-mail? She wrote me right away and thanked me for being so understanding.

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Posted by Kivi Leroux Miller  |   November 29, 2011 at 10:29 AM

Thanks for sharing your story. While you and others have criticized my "experiment" from a couple of years ago as being too hard on nonprofits, I think the fundamental lesson in both my post and yours is the same: nonprofits need to treat their supporters like real people -- and the same in reverse. When fundraising is boiled down to just a bunch of financial transactions, which many orgs are doing because they haven't invested in the right kind of administrative and technology support, they are losing out on huge opportunities for more sustained support long-term.
(And I am not a fundraising consultant.)

Posted by Dawn Penner  |   December 01, 2011 at 08:40 AM

Thanks Sofia. Oh that we would all live with such generosity toward others!

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