I Have a Complaint!

I Have a Complaint!


By David Allen, Development for Conservation


We know that people give from the heart. We know that their decision to give is an emotional one. And sometimes irrational.

Donors may decide what to give and when to give and even where to give to – using their brains. But the decision to give at all is because they love you. It’s from their heart.

That’s why, when we appeal to donors – through letters and emails and phone calls – we raise more money by appealing emotionally. We raise more money using stories instead of data – intentionally cultivating feelings of pride, joy, love, and ownership. We also cultivate feelings of outrage, anger, and loss.

When we’re successful, many people react by reaching for their checkbook.

And some people react by reaching for their phone – to give you a piece of their mind.

When we touch people emotionally, we invite emotional responses. Not all of them will be positive.


 “I just renewed my membership, and you’re already sending me another request!”

“Why are you wasting paper asking me for more money? You’re supposed to be an environmental group! Take me off your mailing list!”

“If I get one more letter from you guys, I’m taking you out of my will!”


I doubt very much that there is a variation on these themes I haven’t heard. When we touch people emotionally, we invite emotional responses.

Ergo – the best letters generate the most money and the most complaints – both. And the complaints will generally come first (because telephones travel faster than mail).

Ergo – we should welcome complaints, right?

The problem is how the complainers make us feel. Their emotional response engenders emotional responses for us, too. Irritation, anger, shame, and self-doubt, among many others. And by “us”, I include our Executive Directors and Board members, who have no problem getting in our ears as well. It’s hard not to overreact.


So how should we deal with complaints?

By remembering that angry people are often angry at many different things at the same time. By the time they actually pick up the phone or write that letter or email, they are probably seriously steamed. What you hear in their voices and communications may be related to much more than just their irritation at us.

By NOT overreacting to an angry phone call. (It’s just one data point.)

By NOT making decisions about our whole approach based on a desire to avoid complaints.

By NOT turning away from what works


And also, by NOT ignoring them. These donors may not be correct when they tell you how you should do your job, but they are still individually important. They care. Their feelings are valid and important. And they need to be heard.

Call them back ASAP.

Listen to them.

Validate their feelings.

Have a mechanism in your database that addresses their concern (a DONOTMAIL or a NOFALLAPPEAL flag). Tell them that you are activating it on their behalf. And then actually do it, of course.


While you are licking your own emotional wounds, consider this: every person who writes a check is validating your strategy. They care, too. Their feelings expressed through their support are just as valid and important. They love you.

And you need to hear them, too.


Cheers, and have a great week.




PS: The lady who angrily told me she would take my organization out of her will if she got one more piece of mail from us? I ran into her a year or so later and she said, “How’s it going? I never hear from you guys anymore.” Go figure.


Photo by Bruce Mars courtesy of Stocksnap.io.

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  • Mary O'Brien
    Posted at 13:56h, 26 October

    Love this, too! Sending it to my Advancement Committee to plant the seed… Thanks David! Loved the metrics conversation at Rally.

  • Carol Abrahamzon
    Posted at 15:29h, 02 October

    You nailed this one David. I am sending this to my entire staff to ruminate on. We all receive and must eloquently handle complaints as well as compliments.

    The best way to handle your own complaint is to turn it into a request. Don’t complain about what your teammates do or don’t do, make a request to them so they do something different.

    • David Allen
      Posted at 16:55h, 02 October

      Good call, Carol. I hadn’t thought of it in this broader context, but you’re right. The important thing is to deal with each complaint individually and change systemic behavior based on larger datasets. Individual complaints aren’t invalid, but they shouldn’t necessarily be extrapolated either.