How To Prevent Disappointed Donors

My sister recently announced that she is finished with being a disappointed donor, and that she was going to take matters in hand to figure out how she can become more engaged. I applaud her attitude, while remaining distressed that people like my sister—philanthropic souls who simply want to make a difference—often find that their generosity becomes a source of discontent rather than of pleasure, excitement, a sense of making a difference.

Why, you may ask, is my sister disappointed? “Lack of cultivation,” is her answer.  Lack of connection would be mine.

For example, my sister made a $5,000 contribution to a nonprofit.  Their response was a standard thank you letter, digitally signed by the ED. A few months later, she received a direct mail appeal.  When she did not respond to that, she didn't hear anything for another year.  Then she got another direct mail appeal.  Not once did anyone reach out in any substantive way to tell my sister what her $5,000 gift meant.  And if this is how they treat $5,000 over the transom donors, I shudder to think how they treat those who provide smaller checks!

My sister then decided she would support the public university she graduated from back in the early 60s.  Not because they asked her—indeed, in the almost 50 years since her graduation, she had heard nothing from the school.  I strongly urged her not to send a gift but, rather, contact the school and see how they reacted.

Eventually they did respond.  In her conversation with the dean—in response to the dean’s complaint that the school was sorely under resourced--my sister noted that much of that probably had to do with their lack of reaching out to alumni.  The dean opined that it is too hard to track women because they change their names.  And besides, said the Dean, we don’t have a good database.

My sister is conflicted.  She wants to help her alma mater.  Clearly they need help.  But she feels that this will turn into another disappointment.  She worries that they won’t use her gift wisely—and she is concerned that she will never actually know whether they use it all.

Another of my sister’s friends related her nonprofit horror story.  She wrote a substantial check for an organization whose work she admired.  Weeks went by, no thank you letter.  She checked with her bank—the check had not been cashed.  So she called, asking if they received her gift.

The person she spoke with—who was NOT the receptionist nor was she a low level clerk—rudely informed this donor that they were quite busy, and if the check had “only” come in several weeks ago, they probably had not “gotten to it yet.”  My advice was to put a stop payment on the check—and find a like organization that is better run.

My sister thought that, perhaps, she should find out who was president of the Board and contact that person in the hopes that she could get acknowledged for her gift.  I couldn’t help but think, “Why bother?”  Perhaps after so many years working in the field, I am jaded.

I see many organizations trying hard to do good work and often succeeding in that only to fail in another really important area:  Taking care of their donors.  Of all the steps of fundraising, stewardship is the most fun and should be the easiest.  And yet, it is the part at which we fail miserably.

So before the year runs out:

  • Thank each and every person who supported you in any way this year by telling them how their support mattered.
  • Before you approach a donor for a follow on gift, connect in some personal way to let them know that you value their support and are thrilled that they are a part of your community
  • When you get a gift, don’t just thank the donor, engage with him or her and find out why they wanted to help and how else they would like to be involved.  You can do this as part of your acknowledgement or—better yet—in your follow up thank you from you, a board member, or a fellow donor.
  • Figure out a strategy for every level or type of donor you have as to how next year you can better treat them and get them more engaged.

All year, bloggers and speakers have been reminding you that donor attrition is horrendous and retaining donors is what you need to do.  Take that advice seriously and start helping people like my sister and her friend become committed donors instead of disappointed—and ultimately disengaged—with you, your organization, and with the nonprofit sector as a whole.


Janet Levine works with nonprofit organizations, helping them to increase fundraising capacity, energize your board and generally up your effectiveness.  Learn more at, or email Janet at