I’m Sorry

Eventually, we will all do something for which we need to apologize. So, it’s essential that we all know the right way to do it.

Unfortunately, one of my readers reminded me recently that many people find it extremely difficult to say simply, “I’m sorry.” She told me about a secular charity that had scheduled an event to be held during Yom Kippur, the holiest holiday for the Jewish people.

Sorry by butupa via FlickrIf the nonprofit organization with the bad scheduling sense was based in North Dakota, there might not have been much of a problem. However, the charity is based in Philadelphia, home to a large and philanthropic Jewish community.

Ironically, the organization’s mission honors an individual who pioneered religious and ethnic tolerance in America.

My reader emailed the charity to alert it to the conflict, to let it know she would not be attending this year despite having attended in the past, and to express her displeasure with the organization’s scheduling decision.

Here is the response my reader received via email:

The choice of this date was not meant to offend anyone or exclude anybody. This event has been held on this weekend since its inception. . . .

[We] apologize for any offense you may take from us scheduling these events on Friday and Saturday.”

Let’s closely examine the message.

Regardless of whether or not the organization intended to cause offense, it did. The scheduling mistake was either a result of outright intent or oblivious carelessness. By excluding an important part of its donor base for this once-a-year event, the charity caused offense.

The nonprofit organization further offended my reader by lying to her in the email response. The charity claims the event has been “held on this weekend since its inception.” However, as someone who has attended the event in the past, my reader knows otherwise. She documented for me that, in recent years, the organization has hosted the event on a variety of different weekends. Even if the organization’s statement were true, it’s still no excuse for failing to consider a different date.

The person who responded to my reader then concluded by apologizing “for any offense you may take.” That’s not an apology! It’s a deflection. With this statement, the organization has not taken responsibility for its actions. Instead, of taking responsibility for causing offense, the charity put the blame on the donor who took offense.

While my reader was willing to forgive the organization for the scheduling misstep, she’s less forgiving after receiving the “apology” email. She tells me she will no longer support the organization.

Interestingly, Yom Kippur, the holiday at the heart of the scheduling conflict, is the Day of Atonement. It’s the holiday when the Jewish people seek and grant forgiveness, if forgiveness is sought. During services at my temple, Rabbi Jill Maderer made some brief remarks that are coincidentally appropriate to my reader’s exchange with the charity:

Has anyone ever hurt you, and then apologized by saying: ‘I’m sorry if you felt that way’?  As if, the problem was not their harmful offense, but your excessive sensitivity. The essence of our Vidui, our confession, is taking responsibility. I can’t confess about how you feel. I need to confess about what I did wrong. And we have all done wrong.”

When you do something that causes offense, I encourage you to follow these tips:

+ Accept responsibility. Don’t try to push responsibility on to the person you offended. Don’t try to hide from responsibility by suggesting you didn’t mean it.

+ Sincerely apologize for your actions or, as appropriate, inaction.

+ Promise to do better in the future. Then, try to do better in the future.

+ If a complaint comes from a donor, be sure to acknowledge that fact and thank the donor for his or her support.

+ Invite the person to engage with your organization in a positive way in the near future.

Here’s how the organization could have responded to my reader:

I apologize for the scheduling conflict with this year’s event. I feel terrible about it, and I want you to know that I will miss seeing you this year. I have appreciated your ongoing support of the organization and your attendance at our events. I promise you that we will be particularly sensitive when scheduling events in the future. I hope I will have the opportunity to personally greet you at our next program.

Thank you for bringing this matter to my attention and for giving me the opportunity to apologize.”

If the organization had sent my reader that donor-centered message, it would still probably have this donor.

Unfortunately, organizations are not always given the opportunity to apologize. For every complaint received, there are usually many more offended people who never bother to communicate their displeasure. They simply stop giving.

To minimize offending people with poor scheduling decisions at your organization, visit the website When-Is for a complete listing of religious and American holidays.

If you want to read another one of my posts in a similar vein, read: “If You Don’t Care About Them, Why Will They Care About You?

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

10 Comments to “I’m Sorry”

  1. We call these “non-apology apologies” (“I’m sorry you are so thin skinned that you constantly go out of your way to take offense at something us normal people allow to go under the radar”) from people who are constantly telling us to “move on.”

    Thanks for posting – I’m sorry I didn’t think of it first!

  2. Michael, wonderful observations. It seems in today’s society, people as well as organizations take less and less responsibility for their actions. You rarely get an apology. It seems that it may be the out growth of the idea of entitlement that also seems to have taken over in society today. Most people have lost their sense of values, morality and the Golden Rule.

    • Lyn, thank you for sharing your thoughts. My wife and I have frequently discussed the decline of personal-responsibility in our society. So, we both agree with you on that point. One of my favorite examples of this phenomenon is when we gently ask a chatty person in a movie theater to please keep quiet during the film. Invariably, the chatty person not only takes no responsibility, he or she actually acts like their rights have been infringed and that they are the injured party. Ugh!

  3. Great post, Michael. Sadly, too many people and organizations do not apologize or take responsibility for their actions. They make a token attempt, but come off like the organization in your example. I can think of many examples provided by politicians over the past few years who parse their “apologies” with legalese and insincerity. Unfortunately, too many organizations follow their examples.

    • Richard, thank you for sharing your perspective. I believe that the frequency of high-profile news stories showing those in power denying and escaping responsibility has helped to create a lack-of-accountability culture. Politicians, of both major parties, almost never take full responsibility for their actions and are seldom held accountable for their misdeeds. The same is true of corporate executives. It’s also true for common folks, too. It’s reached the point in our society that those who play by the rules are starting to feel like suckers. The trend line is certainly disturbing.

  4. Michael, thanks. We in the Jewish tradition have known the power of a sincere apology for many years. (That doesn’t mean we’ve always acted on our knowledge!) And I recently found out that followers of Jainism also have a holiday of repentance and asking for forgiveness. Doctors are increasingly realizing that sincere apologies are not only better for patients, they forestall many lawsuits. Nonprofit organizations should definitely say “I’m sorry” when the occasion arises, and your article provides a good example.

    • Dennis, thank you for commenting on my post. You’re right. Many of the world’s religions encourage people to atone for misdeeds and to seek forgiveness. Scientific research has proven that, beyond simply being a reasonable idea in civil society, apologizing and granting forgiveness can be good for one’s health. And, as you’ve suggested, a simple apology can help to avoid a lawsuit. I’m actually a good example of that.

      I am seeing impaired. Visiting a local library, I accidentally walked into a security scanner upon entering the building. I actually sustained bodily injury drawing blood. When I contacted the head of the library to alert her to the dangerous situation and to encourage her to mark the scanner so it could be more easily seen, I received delayed communications, inaction, and no apology. When I recontacted the local branch librarian, I explained that I wasn’t interested in a lawsuit but would certainly go that way to protect other seeing impaired folks. Finally, I received an apology and action. The library has not made the scanners much more visible, and the librarian made me feel she really cared, unlike the head of the organization. By doing the right thing, the library avoided a costly lawsuit and the public has been protected. It makes me wonder why so many organizations insist on doing things the hard way.

  5. Very important topic. I find the suggestion of “I promise you that we will be particularly sensitive when scheduling events in the future” sounds a little over the top (to the point of being patronizing) but overall it’s definitely a better response.

    If there is more truth somewhere to be shared, I have been inclined to share it when I’ve received a communication of this kind in the past (it’s happened a couple of times, although this seems to be quite a big oversight, and we’ve not experienced that).

    I would say something more like: “I want to apologize for this major scheduling error. We faced a number of challenges with selecting a weekend to host the event this year. We had initially hoped to host it the prior weekend but there was an issue with the venue and it couldn’t be done. In our search for an alternative we neglected to include the critically important consideration of ensuring that it was not scheduled during Yom Kippur. This will not happen again. I have always appreciated your support, and I hope to see you at our next event. I would also like to thank you for taking the time to bring this to my attention so I can apologize and take corrective action for the future.”

    • Keenan, thank you for sharing your thoughts and your suggestion. My sample response was not intended to be the ideal, definitive, carefully wordsmithed response. It was intended to serve as a rough example of how a response can incorporate the elements of a good apology that are important to incorporate. Each person and each organization needs to use language that is appropriate for the situation and the individuals involved. Your draft apology response contains the essential elements and, therefore, is another good approach. My only concern is your statement, “This will not happen again.” If you can definitely keep that commitment, then great. However, if there is even the slightest possibility that the organization could again find itself in a scheduling bind, the language needs to be a bit more loose. While an apology should demonstrate atonement by committing to avoiding the same problem or mistake in the future, we need to be careful to not make promises we might not be able to keep.

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