If You Don’t Care About Them, Why Will They Care About You?

A reader of Michael Rosen Says… recently contacted me with her/his own unfortunate experience with a nonprofit organization. S/he provided me with a copy of an email exchange s/he had with a theater company. I’m going to share this person’s story with you because it contains a worthwhile lesson about the importance of reciprocity.

Photo by Shira Golding via FlickrBefore I get to the story, however, I want you to know that I am editing the emails for brevity and any identifying information. I’m protecting the name of the theater company, the name of the Managing Director of the theater company, and the reader who contacted me because neither party knew, at the time, their one-on-one communications would find their way into the press.

From time to time, I write about the blunders that some nonprofit organizations make. I’ve done this, not to shame them, but so others can learn from someone else’s mistakes. It is much less painful if we learn from someone else’s missteps rather than our own.

The story begins when my reader — let’s call her/him “Sam” — received an email from a theater company. Sam, who had purchased two season subscriptions, immediately opened the email. The message promoted an interesting lecture by a well-regarded nonprofit leader in the community. The lecture dealt with leadership and tied-in with the company’s current play.

The event appealed to Sam. Just before clicking through to the organization’s website to accept the invitation and purchase tickets, Sam noticed the date of the lecture: Monday, March 25. Unfortunately, this meant that Sam would not be able to attend because that date was the first night of Passover, an important Jewish holiday.

Annoyed that the theater company would schedule a special one-time program on Passover, Sam wrote to the theater company:

Disappointing scheduling of an otherwise appealing, academic lecture.

So, add this to your discussion: Does a good (nonprofit) leader ‘dis’ a large portion of the region’s top arts patrons through thoughtless event scheduling?

We’ll be celebrating first Seder.

We really would have enjoyed hearing the address on this topic. The speaker is a dynamo.


The theater’s Managing Director responded the next business day. This was very good. The Managing Director did the smart thing by responding soon after receiving the complaint:

Dear Sam,

Thanks very much for writing. I’m very sorry for the scheduling inconvenience. We truly do our best, but we present special events all season long and it is not possible to avoid all holidays on the calendar. For example, this event takes place on the first night of Passover, we have a performance of XXXXXXX on Easter, etc.

If you’re interested in history, I hope you’ll consider joining us for the talk on Monday, April 1 with ZZZZZZZZ. He’s truly fantastic.

All best,


The response was good in three ways:

1. A high-level person sent an immediate, personal response.

2. The message contained an apology.

3. The author suggested another program that the individual might enjoy.

Unfortunately, the goodwill these positive points might have earned was largely negated by the defensive and dismissive tone of the email. Sam responded:

The performance of XXXXXXX on Easter (afternoon) is not a one-off event. And, there are very few Jewish holidays that should be avoided if you have Jews participating (actors, stage hands, etc.) or wish most of them to be attending: Rosh Hashanah (2 days) and Yom Kippur (1 day, but two nights) in the fall; and the first two nights of Passover in the spring.

For Christians you avoid competing with Christmas Eve and day (unless it’s specifically to offer a family-friendly, holiday themed event), Good Friday and Easter. And, for everyone: Thanksgiving (all day).

There. Not a lot of landmines after all. It is not ‘every holiday’ that needs to be avoided if you truly look into it.

I’ve been a professional event planner for many years (predominantly for nonprofits), and served on the executive staff and board of several organizations (including two theater companies). I know of what I speak. It is very bad business to schedule one-time events that make people choose between religious observance or you. You will not only lose in the choosing, you will alienate their goodwill. It makes you look insensitive, or ill-informed, or indifferent — none of which are good — and you may provoke reciprocal feelings from those whom you most want to cultivate.

For every one person that speaks up, there are always a hundred more that feel the same and never bother to write.

Your defensiveness and dismissiveness only make things worse. This was a serious oversight in scheduling a one-time event and should be taken as a learning experience, not to be repeated.

If you think the March 25 event had value, you denied that value to your Jewish followers and supporters. And, you denied the panel participants the opportunity for as full an audience as possible. If you are running your organization as you should, with a donor-first mentality (which applies to audience and prospects, as well), what is the message you have sent to those who you knew (or should have known) could absolutely not participate? If you do not care about them, why should they care about you?

Your long-time supporter,


There was no further response from the Managing Director.

The theater company was insensitive to a large portion of its audience when scheduling the lecture. When confronted with this, the Managing Director brushed aside Sam’s complaint suggesting that it’s impossible to avoid all conflicting holidays. Sam correctly pointed out that there really are not that many major holidays that could pose a serious conflict for a significant number of people. Simply checking a website like “When Is It?” can alert any event planner of the dates for Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, and secular American holidays.

While there may be times when an event must be scheduled at a less than ideal time, this should be done with caution, sensitivity and, perhaps, a pre-emptive apology. Or, look for an alternative solution. For example, the theater company could have recorded the event for later streaming at its website.

The theater company presumably thought its lecture event would be of value to the public. By scheduling the event on a significant holiday, the organization denied this value to a large portion of its supporters and potential supporters.

The key question that Sam asked was:

If you do not care about them, why should they care about you?”

This is a question that every nonprofit should ask itself. It gets to the heart of why being donor-centered is so important.

Robert Putnam, a professor at Harvard University and author of Bowling Alone, described the importance of reciprocity to creating social capital. As I summarize in my own book, Donor-Centered Planned Gift Marketing, “The more points of connection there are between an individual and a particular nonprofit organization, the more likely that individual is to give, give often, and give generously to that organization.”

Adrian Sargeant and Jen Shang, researchers at the Indiana University Center of Philanthropy, found that one of the top generic giving motives is also a powerful motive for bequest giving. You guessed it. It’s reciprocity.

Robert Cialdini wrote in The Stanford Social Innovation Review about the four rules for influence. The first rule was: reciprocity.

When the theater company knowingly excluded a large portion of its audience from a worthwhile event, it lost a great opportunity to provide a valuable benefit to the broadest possible number of individuals. In addition, it sent a message to its entire audience and all of its supporters that diversity just is not that important.

Rather than creating enhanced conditions for the forces of reciprocity to become engaged, the theater company alienated patrons, supporters, and prospective supporters. The response email from the Managing Director only underscored the theater company’s insensitivity. By failing to respond to the second email at all, the Managing Director behaved dismissively again when a simple message like this could have been sent to repair the relationship:

Dear Sam,

I appreciate your insights. Again, I apologize for the scheduling conflict. I assure you we will try to do better in the future.

Thank you for your support. I see that you have tickets for our performance on WWWWWW. I hope you will enjoy the production, and I hope that I will have a chance to see you that evening.


You see, Sam’s story is not just about the poor selection of a date for an event. It’s a story about reciprocity. It’s a story of how reciprocity can work for or against a nonprofit organization.

As Sam says, if a nonprofit organization doesn’t show it cares about its supporters or prospective supporters, why should anyone care about the organization?

Being a donor-centered organization means finding ways to regularly show supporters that you care about them. It’s about being of value to them and respecting them. If you take care of your donors and prospects, the law of reciprocity says that they’ll be much more likely to respond positively when you do ask for their support.

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

12 Responses to “If You Don’t Care About Them, Why Will They Care About You?”

  1. I think many of us are so scared to make mistakes that when we get complaints we need to find a justification or an excuse.

    I’ve worked somewhere that we scheduled an event on a Jewish Holiday as well, and one donor e-mailed and provided similar feedback. The VP called the donor right away and did three things: admitted it was a MISTAKE, said I AM SORRY and pledged to not repeat the mistake. No excuses, no defense just an admission of guilt, sincere sentiments of apology and an honest desire not to repeat the mistake. We then went on to invite them to another event, and continued to move the relationship forward.

    • Rory, thank you for sharing your insights. None of us is perfect. We make mistakes. That’s why it’s so important to learn how to effectively deal with mistakes when they happen. It’s about developing a skill like any other. “I’m sorry” is a good start. “I’m sorry, but” is not such a good start. Unfortunately, many folks either refuse to apologize when they err or they feel a need to apologize and then justify or defend their actions. The VP you described handled the situation perfectly.

  2. Michael,

    This exchange does offer an important lesson to groups about dealing with the diversity of their supporters. I recall a similar situation when an organization I served was planning their major fundraising event. It was scheduled during the Lenten season, and their faux pas was not considering the menu choices for the Catholics that might be attending. Fortunately, this was caught before the invitations went out, and an alternative was found.

    While I do understand the point of the managing director that sometimes scheduling conflicts cannot be avoided, there are ways that the organization could have accommodated its supporters, as you mentioned.

    I also think this post is an important lesson on why boards and committees need diverse membership. Part of the problem with the Board I served and mentioned earlier is that it was made up of primarily white upper middle class Protestants that don’t know about the customs of other religious or cultural groups. For example, here in Portland, there is a Jewish community, but it is not as large and vibrant as those in larger East Coast cities like Philadelphia or New York. I can see many local organizations scheduling events on important religious holidays, like the one in your post.

    • Richard, thank you for commenting. I do acknowledge that it can be difficult, if not impossible, to make everyone happy all of the time. In my post, Sam mentions some Jewish holidays that should be no-go times for nonprofit events. However, more observant Jewish readers might suggest that there are a number of other holidays that should be added to that list. Unfortunately, nonprofit organizations would not be able to function very well if they had to blackout the calendar for every holiday for every religion. The important thing is to be sensitive to significant subsets of one’s constituency when scheduling events. And, when possible, look for other ways that people can still benefit from what the organization offers should they be unable to attend. As I mentioned in my post, the theater company could have provided a podcast of the event on its website.

      Even when organizations attempt to be sensitive, there will still be some folks who will be unhappy. When I was President of the Partnership for Philanthropic Planning of Greater Philadelphia, we scheduled an afternoon event. At sunset that same day, a major Jewish holiday began. I thought there would be no problem since there would be several hours between the event and the holiday. However, one of our members protested. She felt that we did not allow enough time between the event and the holiday for her to get home and prepare. I handled the situation as best as I could. Unfortunately, even when trying to be sensitive to others, we can still end up upsetting them. That’s why it’s important to always be prepared to respond compassionately.

      Finally, I just want to also thank you for making a good point about diversity. I firmly believe that diversity is what makes our nation great. It can also help make our organizations great as well.

  3. Good points all around, Michael. Before working in development, I ran the box office at a major theater in an East Coast city. At that point in time, we were running on all holidays. I worked many Christmases; my Jewish colleagues worked through Yom Kippur if it couldn’t be helped.

    BUT, I think the important point here was that this was a one-time event. Those performances I mentioned happened as part of a several week run. There were other opportunities to see them.

    And I hate “but” apologies. As you said, they’re not apologies.

    I actually find it sort of fun to try to turn around upset people. Back then I had one scary encounter with a very large and very angry man at a matinee. He insisted I leave the BO window to come to the lobby and talk to him. I was frightened. Turned out he was angry that he’d traveled quite a distance, only to learn that the lead actress would not be performing. I couldn’t blame him! But what he didn’t know is that she was in the hospital and had nearly died. When I shared that, his attitude went from angry to concerned and caring. He just needed a little more information!

    And sometimes, you have to say “I’m sorry”, but can’t say it’s a mistake. Sometimes, people will just not be happy with a decision. But there’s always a way to make them feel heard. Often, that’s all that’s needed.

    • Mary, thank you for sharing your insight. I think the issue is partly that people view a complaint as a problem rather than an opportunity. At the 2013 AFP International Conference, researcher Adrian Sargeant reminded folks today that effectively addressing the complaint of a supporter will result in a resolved issue AND a more loyal supporter. In other words, every complaint is an opportunity to enhance a relationship and build long-lasting support, be it patronage or philanthropic.

      You’re right. Sometimes it is just a matter of letting people know they’ve been heard. Years ago, I had a client who called me to scream at me. When she stopped for a breath, I jumped in to tell her I could solve the problem if she’d like. She told me that she didn’t want me to say anything because she knew I’d make her feel better and, instead, she wanted to rant. I told her I was fine with that and that when she was ready for a solution to let me know. So, she ranted some more before finally asking for my solution. I apologized and then proposed my solution. She was very happy. And, she became a long-standing, happy client who referred others to me. It’s an absolutely true story.

  4. Spot on. What I’ve found is that people don’t complain about something if they don’t care about it. When you dismiss complaints you risk alienating the very folks who are most passionate about what you do. This is more than a shame. It’s plain thoughtless.

    With the ascension of online complaining, customers have the opportunity to influence greater numbers than ever before. Need I say Susan Komen?! The customer is always right. In person. Online. Wherever. Would that we all took Mary’s approach and looked at every complaint as an opportunity to turn lemons into lemonade. Because complaints are truly that. An opportunity.

    We’ve always known it’s a lot less expensive to retain an existing supporter than to acquire a new one. Salvaging complaining donors, therefore, is a worthwhile investment. In addition, when people are turned around – and then let others know about your proactive response to them – this serves as positive public relations. If you handle complaints well, constituents (and potential constituents) will no doubt be impressed.

    Thanks for another great post, Michael!

    • Claire, thank you for your comment and excellent points. How we choose to perceive a complaint will almost certainly color how we respond. If we think of a complaint as a personal attack, we’re likely to respond defensively. If we think of a complaint as coming from a person who cares and is giving us an opportunity to improve, we’re going to be more likely to respond in a constructive way. We can’t control the other person, but we can control how we choose to view the world. Is the glass half full or half empty?


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