The Donor is Not Always Right
** This post originally appeared as a guest blog post on Philanthropy NW.
Recently I attended a fundraising breakfast in Seattle, Washington. The organization that held the event serves 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 that I’m doing something.
The first year I attended this 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 total 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 might wonder? I teamed up with a friend to fill one table in a room packed with nearly 100 tables. Well, that turned out to be not so hard. This year my husband and I more than filled a table ourselves. We were becoming more involved.
At the breakfast, I listened to a client of the organization share her story of abusive home life, running away, 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 17. You know those envelopes at nonprofit breakfasts that are passed out the table during “the ask”? Having just had my first child, I found my eyes welling up and my throat dry with emotion during this story and I clutched the envelopes in my hand before remembering I should pass them around the table. I had brought my checkbook and still owed my gift for this year. I knew October was going to be a big expense month for me personally, so I put two checks in the envelope, one made out for the current date, and the other half for the end of November, to spread out my gift over time.
The next day, I received a voicemail from the development director thanking me for renewing our pledge and soliciting feedback on the event. I returned her call and was put on hold for a very long time. We never got connected, so instead I sent a short email. 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 post-dated check, hoping they’d seen it. I asked her if she could call me back to set up a monthly auto-pay for making our pledge 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 with dismay that two large checks had cleared for the same amount. I immediately clicked to view the images, and saw that the nonprofit had already cashed both checks, including the postdated check. I was instantly upset, and started composing an email in my head, one where I would attach a PDF of the check clearly showing the date. I also thought about CC’ing my friend, who is her boss. I knew that this time, my email would not be ignored.
But then I paused. I reflected that I am a major donor to this organization, someone who introduces new donors as a table captain, who knows a lot of other givers and foundation officers, and the friend of the ED to boot. No matter what I would have said in that email, or how unreasonable, I would be told I am right. I thought further about how there were hundreds of people at this event, and how many payments they must have processed that day. How easy it would be to not notice a date scribbled on a check, or for volunteers to not wonder why the same person would enclose two checks instead of one.
The year-end time is often the most stressful for nonprofits. Most organizations I know are reshaping their expectations of how much their fundraising events will yield. End of year donations will determine their balance sheet for the next year, and whether they will make payroll.
So instead, I wrote her an email telling her I had made a mistake. I should not have included a post-dated check and then waited two days to send an email. My bad. I did, however, ask that we get a monthly payment plan set up for next year. I didn’t want to make that mistake again!
I recently read a well-intentioned blog post by a fundraising consultant who sent out 10 gifts of $20 each at the end of last year to a range of national nonprofits to test how they thanked her for these gifts. Her startling finding was that only 3 out of 10 sent a timely thank you. Scrolling down comments to this blog post, I saw that someone pointed out that the online service she had used to send her donations prints only the donor’s name, and not the mailing address, on the checks the nonprofit receives. In order to get the address of the donor, the recipient had to go to the check payment website, which few people knew about (including the donor herself). But the author was still quick to judge the nonprofits, rather than think there could be a good reason she did not receive a proper thank you (not to mention: what’s a reasonable expectation for a small gift like $20?).
The lesson here is not that nonprofits shouldn’t take customer service seriously. The fact is – they have to or they will probably go out of business. But it’s incumbent on us as givers to demonstrate empathy with organizations we’re supporting – to ask, how can we make their lives a bit easier? Administrative mistakes are sure to happen, but know that these nonprofits have much more important fish to fry, like making an impact on individuals and communities in need.
P.S. You may be wondering how the development director responded to my email? She wrote me right away, thanking me for being so understanding.
- Sofia Michelakis