How to Apologize to a Donor


The author who wrote love means never having to say you’re sorry obviously didn’t know the first thing about direct response fundraising. Direct response is complicated, involving dozens of elements – data, production, content management systems, the post office, and the perfection of mere mortals to name a just few.

And so it’s inevitable: occasionally we mess up. But how well we say “I’m sorry” when we make a mistake is one of the most compelling ways we say “I love you!” to our supporters – and, in turn, earn their respect and loyalty.

So what do you do when you mess up? First, take a deep breath. Then take these three simple steps – and you may just find that those lemons you accidentally lobbed at your donors can make for some pretty great lemonade.

1. Act quickly. When you’ve made a big error that warrants recontacting your donors, drop everything. Get back in touch with your donors as soon as possible to respond to the mistake. This means if it’s a major donor, you should communicate with them via phone or email within hours. Same thing if it’s an erroneous email to a large number of donors: get your correction out via email within hours. And if your communication channel is direct mail, take the “snail” out of mail and get your correction out within 48 hours.

For example, a mailshop once made a production error on a client’s direct mail project in which a #10 window envelope was enclosed in a solicitation mailing instead of standard #9 closed face reply envelope. This meant that when the donor mailed their gift and personalized reply device in the window envelope that was provided with the solicitation, the gift did not deliver to the organization. Instead, it mailed right back to the donor. It was a huge mistake, worsened by the fact that it occurred within a high dollar segment of the campaign. Fortunately the mailshop knew it too. The error was discovered Friday night. They worked all weekend and remailed corrected packages Monday morning.

2. Be transparent. When you make a mistake come out and say it. When one organization realized that it hadn’t acknowledged a sizeable batch of donor gifts for over two months, they addressed their error head-on in their delayed thank you letters saying:

Please accept our sincere apologies for the delay in acknowledging your very generous gift. We encountered a mistake in our computer system and have realized that a significant amount of time has passed. We’ve since resolved the problem and assure you it will not happen again.

Likewise, in the case of the reply envelope mess up, the corrected packages were sent with a cover note from the Executive Director that got right to the point:

Dear Friend of (Organization Name),

Last week, we sent you important information about (Organization Name)’s (Special Campaign Name). We have just learned that due to a production error however, you might not have received the correct set of materials from us. As one of (Organization Name)’s most valued supporters, I want to apologize sincerely for this error and ask you to please be sure to review the corrected information enclosed …

3. Be positive. You may have messed up, but your donors are still incredible and your organization is still doing incredible work. After you say “I’m sorry,” take the opportunity to let your donors know how much you appreciate them, and remind them how important their support is to the work you’re doing together.

Here’s what the organization that messed up on their acknowledgment letters went on to say to their donors:

Your support means so much to us and we are profoundly grateful to have you with us. Thank you again, not only for your gift, but for your understanding.

Pretty great, huh? And here’s the rest of the cover note on the high dollar donor package resend:

If you have already responded to our (Special Campaign Name), and this letter has crossed in the mail with your gift, I want to thank you for your generous support. If you haven’t yet considered our request, I would like to convey my hope that you will take part in (Special Campaign name) by sending your gift today. On behalf of the Board of Directors and all of us at (Organization Name), please accept my deepest thanks for your ongoing friendship and generous support.

Not only were its donors impressed by the organization’s attentiveness, but they also gave more to this mailing than they had ever given to a single solicitation before.

So on those rare occasions that we may disappoint our donors – or ourselves – remember that all is not lost. On the contrary, when you mess up, it’s an opportunity to improve your processes for implementing your campaigns. More importantly, it’s an opportunity to show your donors how much you value you them, because in direct response membership development nothing says “I love you” like “I’m sorry.”


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