Problems: What Separates the Good Guys from the Bad?

I have some bad news for you. At some point, your organization is going to stumble. It’s going to mess up. Hopefully, mistakes will happen infrequently. But, happen they will.

What separates the good organizations from the bad is not which ones can be perfect. Perfection is impossible. Nevertheless, some managers continue to expect perfection of themselves and their colleagues. This may stem from a perfectionist personality or, perhaps, a misunderstanding of the principles of Total Quality Management 

Developed by W. Edwards Deming and others, TQM is a management philosophy and process that, when applied to the nonprofit world, involves all staff, volunteers, vendors, service recipients, and donors in the enhancement and maintenance of quality of products, services, and processes. In short, TQM is about continually striving for improvement rather than attaining perfection.

If one desires perfection, he or she will likely become quickly frustrated by problems and even sweep them under the rug. By contrast, those who embrace the idea of working for continual improvement will welcome problems as an opportunity to enhance products, services, and processes.

So, when it comes to problems or mistakes, what separates the good organizations from the bad is how the organization deals with them. Is the organization combative or defensive? Or, does the organization welcome feedback and challenges as an opportunity to improve?

This should come as no surprise to you: Those organizations that meet the latter description are more likely to provide better products and service, and they are more likely to have happy, generous volunteers and donors.

So, how can you deal most effectively with a problem or mistake?

Step 1–Understand It:

You can’t solve a problem or fix a mistake if don’t know about or don’t understand it. So, if someone tells you they have a problem with your organization or that it made a mistake, listen carefully and, then, ask questions.

For example, a donor may call you and say, “Hey, you people misspelled my name in the annual report!” Ok, the mistake is pretty clear. Even so, asking more questions will clarify the problem and, if you confirm the spelling of the person’s name, will help to minimize the risk of making a similar mistake in the future.

In another case, a donor may simply call you and scream, “You people are a pack of idiots!” In that case, the problem or mistake is completely unknown and will require some serious probing.

Remember these helpful tips:

  • When confronted with a problem or mistake, do not react defensively.
  • Do not ignore the problem or mistake.
  • Listen carefully.
  • Ask the questions that will help you understand the issue.
  • Do not be dismissive of someone’s complaint. At the very least, it’s important to the person complaining.

Step Two–Own It!

When you hear about a problem or mistake, own it. Yes, at times, this can be very difficult to do. But, do it.

If it’s your fault (i.e.: you misspelled the donor’s name), apologize. If the situation was truly outside your control (i.e.: an unexpected rainstorm forced the cancelation of an outdoor event), express regret. And, work on dealing with the situation.

I had a guest blogger whose website had a glitch. One of my readers contacted me about not being able to order a book from the site. After making sure I understood the problem, I responded to my reader by expressing regret for the difficulty, recommending a course of action to her, and telling her I would help by contacting the author.

Even though the problem did not involve my company, my website, or my book, I took responsibility for helping. By the way, the author quickly fixed the problem and was grateful to learn about it.

Remember these helpful tips:

  • Be willing to express regret and concern. Be ready to apologize.
  • Never say, “It’s not my job.”
  • Be helpful even if you’re not the source of the problem or mistake.
  • Even if you refer the issue to someone else to address, follow-up to make certain the situation is remedied.

Step 3–Consider Alternative Solutions:

Now, you’re ready to consider the entire range of solutions to the situation. For example, with the website glitch I touched on above, I considered a number of courses of action including:

  1. Simply refer the reader to the author’s contact page.
  2. Tell the reader I would handle it.
  3. Not communicate with the reader, but pass along the information to the author.
  4. Suggest that the reader contact the author directly and express that I would do the same.

By considering all possible courses of action, the best solution will eventually emerge.

Remember these helpful tips:

  • Consider all courses of action. The best solution may not be the first idea you come up with; it might be the 20th.
  • React quickly. Problems do not improve with age.

Step 4–Evaluate Options and Pick a Course of Action:

The next step in the problem-solving process is to gather sufficient information to evaluate each possible course of action. Consider what the likely outcome will be of implementing a particular solution.

Once you’ve gathered the necessary information and made your evaluation, you’re ready to select a solution. (In the above example involving the guest blogger’s website, I chose Option 4.)

Remember these helpful tips:

  • Gather the necessary information. However, avoid “information pollution.” You don’t need to gather irrelevant tidbits or do exhaustive research. Having too much information can get in the way.
  • Consider the practicality of each solution and the impact it will have.
  • Select the best possible solution.

Step 5–Implement the Solution:

After you go through the first four steps, you’ll be ready to implement a solution with confidence. So, do it. The sooner you act, the better. Communicate the solution to everyone involved. If someone raised the issue with you, let them know about your solution and make sure they understand it.

Remember these helpful tips:

  • Acting sooner rather than later is preferable.
  • Thank the person who raised the issue. After all, he or she has given you an opportunity to fix something and to improve.
  • Learn what you can from the entire situation so you can examine your processes to enhance them.

Step 6–Evaluate the Results:

In Step 3, you identified potential courses of action which you examined in Step 4 before selecting which solution to implement in Step 5. But, you’re still not done. You need to evaluate the results of your solution to make sure things worked out the way you had hoped. If not, you’ll be able to make adjustments.

Remember these helpful tips:

  • Make sure the solution meets the needs of your donors and those your organization serves.
  • If adjustments are required, make them quickly.
  • Give people a chance to provide additional feedback should they desire or need to do so.

Awhile back, I did a blog post about my issues with the National Museum of American Jewish History: “6 Anti-Marketing Lessons.” I had some problems with Museum. When the Museum learned of my issues, one of them for the second time, a director-level staff person contacted me.

He was gracious and apologized for my problems. He explained that the Museum staff is in the process of evaluating its marketing and public relations procedures. And, he offered to provide me with the membership that I was owed since purchasing it at another nonprofit’s silent auction.

I appreciate the responsiveness of the Museum. The exchange I had with them goes a long way toward rebuilding my relationship with this important institution.

In another blog post, “4 Valuable Lessons Nonprofits Can Learn from For-profits,” I wrote about a problem with the fast-food restaurant chain Au Bon Pain. I had had some telephone contact with the company’s customer service department. I was unsatisfied with the company’s follow through.

When I blogged about the problem, I intended to alert the company to my posting once it was published. However, before I could contact Au Bon Pain, a Hospitality Manager reached-out to me via email.

Au Bon Pain monitors mentions on the Internet, evaluates them, and takes action when appropriate. Now that’s being responsive!

The Hospitality Manager and I spoke, and she followed up with a gracious letter and $30 gift card to get me to come back. Here’s what she wrote:

Thank you again for giving us another opportunity. Your original issue as well as our failure to follow up with you will be addressed by our Operations Team. We have enclosed an AuBon gift card for you to use on a future visit. We look forward to serving you again in the future.

Please contact us with any questions or comments at or 1-800-[xxx-xxxx].” 

Au Bon Pain was proactive. Rather than reacting defensively, the company thanked me for the feedback. The company took responsibility and made sure I understood that internal action will be taken to improve their service in the future. The company expressed an interest in having me back as a customer. And, I was provided with two ways to contact the company should I need to do so. In the end, Au Bon Pain handled the problem very well.

My blog post “10 Tips to Save You from Becoming a Horrible Warning” looks at what can happen if your organization does not follow the six steps I’ve outlined, does not behave in a donor-centered way, and doesn’t solve problems when given a chance to do so. The piece was inspired by my contact with the Foundation Fighting Blindness, and it remains my most read blog piece to date. If you haven’t read it yet, it’s worth your time to do so.

Try to minimize problems and mistakes. But, when they happen, and they will, seize the opportunity to be helpful and solutions oriented. Don’t be defensive. Thank the person who identified the problem or mistake for giving you the feedback necessary to take corrective measures and actions that will enhance your organization moving forward. And, remember that problem solving is a golden opportunity to cultivate people and enhance relationships. 

That’s what Michael Rosen says… What do you say?

11 Responses to “Problems: What Separates the Good Guys from the Bad?”

  1. Michael, thank you for this thoughtful review and refresher. It is timely for my situation. Often we get too rushed in the moment and dismissive. The mindful response to a donor, friend, reader is always the better way to handle the situation.

    • mi2ward, thank you for being the first to share your thoughts here. Focusing on achieving a happy outcome for someone may not always be easy, may not always come naturally, and may not always be convenient but, as you’ve observed, it’s usually well worth the effort.

  2. Another excellent post, my friend. As a former teacher, I have always believed that mistakes are learning opportunities.

    Just yesterday, I had a meeting with a new contact whose help could be very useful for my career and business. I had never heard the gentleman’s name before, but had seen it many times. When I went in to meet with him, I made sure I asked the correct pronunciation with one of his employees, and it was a smart thing to do, as I would have really blown it when introducing myself. This was something I learned back in my customer service/sales days. Little things like name spelling and pronunciation mean a lot to people, and when you are not sure, it doesn’t hurt to ask. It shows respect and it builds rapport. I have often cleaned up the messes left behind by coworkers, and if you want a donor to continue giving to your organization you do have to proactively take responsibility.

    • Richard, thanks for commenting. Many folks hate to admit when the don’t know something, such as how to pronounce someone’s name. They view the lack of knowledge as a weakness or flaw. However, I have found that admitting one’s limitations often earns respect. And, when we show that we are receptive to learning what we don’t know, we show people we care.

  3. Great post! While these problem-solving steps may be intuitive to some, they aren’t to all, especially us less-experienced employees. I would just add that this same kind of approach should be used for internal complaints as well. How nice would it be to know you could share a concern with a co-worker or supervisor and not get a defensive response?

    • Heather, thank you for your kind comment and for making an excellent point. Good managers know that maintaining good internal communications requires them to not react defensively when an employee presents a problem. The surest way to ensure that employees hide problems is to bite off their heads when they present one. If you know of any managers who are guilty of providing defensive responses, you can always send them a link to this post anonymously. 🙂

  4. I esp love “Problems do not improve with time.” So true–in life, work, love and family!

  5. As a fundraiser for charities, I am always having people say “no” — no for this reason, no for that reason — even from people who have donated in the past over many years. So, so I agree that a systematic approach is need to analyze the problem.

    I used to think the problem was myself or my pitch until I started to record each donation, each night.

    As it turned out, by going back to the previous years result, I have increased funding for each charity by between 5% and 10%.

    When I realized this, I came to understand the numbers and that the sum of the whole is far greater than any one donation. It’s important not to let a couple of no’s upset my work.

    As Mr. Rosen says, it’s not about being “perfect,” it’s about being consistently good.

    • Aarron, thank you for sharing your insight. In the future, please feel free to call me Michael.

      Being consistently good should give everyone the confidence to endure the No’s. As inventor/businessman Thomas Edison said, “I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.” In our context, every “no” is a step closer to a “yes.”


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