What Should We Do When We Make a Donor Angry?

by Barbara Barron | Posted September 6th, 2019

Imagine what goes on in the mind of a donor when he decides to make a big gift to your school…

Something got him amped up – maybe attending an event or reading about a recent accomplishment. Sometimes we know the moment that ignited this generous impulse because we ourselves created it. (Go us!) But many times, maddeningly, we don’t. Regardless, it’s a blessing, right?

So, he’s feeling the love and excitement about your school and its mission. He grabs his checkbook and – whappow! – sends off a nice gift. And this time? More than he usually gives. Like, twice as much!

He’s feeling good. He’s feeling like he did the right thing. And then…

Days go by. Three. Four. A week.

His feelings cool. He wonders if perhaps he ought to check to make sure you even received his gift. Checks his account online. Yep, the check was cashed. Huh.

No one calls. No one even shoots out a quick “Got it – thanks!” email.

His concern downshifts into disappointment. Maybe he feels a little bit irked.

Two weeks go by. Then, a response! A gift acknowledgment letter arrives in the mail. Hmm. Has all the telltale signs of a template. It’s… fine. It’s accurate, thank the goddess. But his emotional temperature is tepid at best. And in a few hours, it’s stone cold.

A sad story, isn’t it? And one that happens every day, to some donor, somewhere. But I don’t tell you this story to guilt you, dear reader, but to ask: how likely is it that this donor will renew this big contribution the next time you ask him for a gift?  Not.

Oh dear. Perhaps we should think of how to fix this…

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A radical approach would be to pick up the phone and, gulp, apologize. Admit you just saw how slow and inadequate your response was and promise to do better. And then, do better!

But for our purposes today,  let’s look at how we could have handled this situation differently. Let’s work to prevent this permanent stain on our relationship from ever happening.

Okay, back to the start.

Our donor, feeling good, writes our school a sizable check…

Two days later, you open the mail, see this significant increase, and immediately pick up the phone. Right? You don’t make an elaborate plan. You don’t “calendar this for next week.” You simply let the genuine emotion of the moment guide you. You do it even if it makes you a few minutes late for your next meeting. Priorities.

He answers! He’s surprised to hear from you so soon. Sounds kinda impressed, knowing how busy you are…

You tell him how much his support means and share a quick story of what happened at assembly that morning. He thanks you profusely for calling! He tells you he appreciates everything you’re doing for the school. It sounds like he might even be a little choked up…

(You sure are!)

The feelings that prompted his gift are affirmed. I’d hazard to say they’re amplified! Sure, he still gets his receipt a few days later. But instead of that cold and generic letter, it’s accompanied by a handwritten note from your Head of School. Or the Board Chair. Or both!

He’s still riding on the wave from your call. In fact, he told three friends and his daughter about it.

Now let me ask you the same question from before: how likely is it that this donor will renew this big contribution the next time you ask him for a gift? 


There are “thank you’s” that are us merely going through the motions, and there are genuine and powerful expressions of our gratitude. Sometimes the distinction between them is simply a few extra minutes, and the intention to make a difference.

To press the point even further, I quote the late great Maya Angelou:

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Look, I get it.

As Advancement Professionals, there are dozens of tasks clamoring for our attention every minute of every day. Schools are hoppin’ places. That’s why we love them! But we can’t let the speed of things distract us from what’s important.

We are never too busy for the grateful phone call.

I’m going to say that again, in bold, so it registers:

You may be busy, but you are never too busy to make that call.

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Because that call was not only the right thing to do, it was also the most strategic thing to do. You increased that donor’s loyalty and potentially ensured an even larger gift later. It all adds up.

But I don’t want to end it there. Why? Because I don’t write this blog to only push a model of maximizing gifts, no matter what. That’s not me!

If you’re anything like me, you live to be part of that transformative moment when someone chooses to be generous.

But we may also share a weakness–it’s that we don’t tend to share these wonderful moments with the people who absolutely need to hear it the most: the Head of School and the Board Development Committee.

Why? Well, it feels like maybe we’re bragging…

It’s not! When we make a genuine connection with a donor – we better tell the people we’re held accountable to. We’re all trying to foster a culture of gratitude at our schools, and doing that means starting with ourselves, right?

After all — if you won’t tell them, who will?

Heck, after you tell them about the great work you’re doing, share it with me! We all could benefit from hearing a bit more good these days, right?

My name is Barbara Barron, and I’m writing this blog to share advice on a profession that I adore.

I’ve been working in the field of Independent School Advancement for 20 years. In that time, I’ve had the pleasure of creating and implementing successful Strategic Fundraising Plans for so many incredible schools. I’ve had the privilege of seeing real growth at The Carey School, Marin Primary & Middle School, Woodside Priory, Crystal SpringsSage Ridge and others. (Maybe we’ve met!)

Nothing makes me happier than seeing a struggling school start to thrive. My hope is that you’re here to make a positive change as well. I hope my advice can be a part of that change.

Shoot me an e-mail if you want to swap tips, or share your voice here.

Let’s do better, together.