Do You Know How to Take Criticism?

I received an extraordinary message recently.

With the permission of the author, I’m going to share her message with you. It’s a superb example of how to respond to criticism and turn it into an opportunity for positive engagement. It also raises an interesting issue that I want you to share your thoughts about.

Books by Aimee Rivers via FlickrEarlier this summer, my wife received an email appeal from Philadelphia’s Rosenbach Museum and Library. That email inspired me to write a blog post about fundraising by email (“Stop Making Stupid Email and Direct Mail Mistakes”). The post was admittedly harsh though constructive with eight useful tips for the Rosenbach and you.

While I alerted the Rosenbach to the post, I never heard back from staff, not that I had requested or expected a reply. That is until a few weeks ago when I received the following message from Sara Davis, the new Marketing Manager at the Rosenbach:

Dear Mr. Rosen:

I recently joined the Rosenbach staff as the manager of marketing, and I stumbled across this post while getting caught up on social media mentions from the summer. Criticism can be hard to hear, and I admit that I would prefer to have found it in my inbox rather than see the organization named in a public post, but your advice is constructive and I agree with many of your points. I will certainly pass these suggestions along to my colleagues; our future campaigns will no doubt benefit from your expertise. My thanks.”

Wow! I was impressed with Davis’ message. I thank her for allowing me to share it with you. Davis struck the right tone and managed to pack a lot into a brief communication. Here are some of the reasons her message works:

Respectful. Davis referred to me as Mr. Rosen, knowing and respecting my feelings on the subject of salutations, which I had addressed in my post. Davis and I did not know each other, so an informal form of address would have been presumptuous.

Introduction. Davis introduced herself to me, told me her title, and mentioned that she is new to the Rosenbach, hence the delay in contacting me. This established a personal connection while putting her message into context.

Honesty. Davis shared her honest feelings about seeing my post. But, she did so in a professional way, without whining, complaining, or being defensive. She did not take my criticism personally. She did not take offense or, at least, she did not show that she was offended.

Value. Davis acknowledged that my post offered constructive criticism. She went on to show that she valued the tips I provided in my post. She also mentioned that she would share my advice with her colleagues. By valuing my advice, she showed she values me.

Thank you. Davis then concluded her message by thanking me! How often do you thank people for having criticized you or your organization? I know that I don’t do it very often. However, by thanking me, Davis reveals an understanding that constructive feedback is an opportunity for us to improve. She also understands that when someone takes the time to passionately and constructively offer criticism, it’s probably because they care.

Engagement. By writing to me, Davis engaged me and opened the door for me to contact her directly. And that’s exactly what I did.

Because of my interaction with Davis, the positive feelings I once had for the Rosenbach were rekindled.

When choosing whether to respond to criticism and, if responding, how to respond, we would be well served by following Davis’ excellent example. Every interaction is an opportunity for cultivation.

Now, here is where you come in.

Davis mentioned in her message that she would have preferred if my criticism were not public. In other words, while not challenging the points I made, Davis made it clear that she wishes I had not mentioned the Rosenbach by name. This raises a valid question:

When publicly critiquing the work of a nonprofit organization, should I mention the organization’s name?

Not surprisingly, when I praise an organization’s work, no one ever suggests that I should not mention the name of the institution. However, when criticizing an organization, I have had some readers suggest that I should not embarrass the charity by revealing its name.

Maybe it’s the old newspaper editor in me, but I generally believe in naming the subject of my stories. When I write a post based on recent news headlines (e.g., my recent post about Vanderbilt University), choosing to name the organization is a no-brainer. Even when discussing an organization’s fundraising appeal, I’ve usually name the charity; after all, the appeal itself was quasi-public. Furthermore, my blog readers are nonprofit managers and fundraising professionals, seldom, if ever, the general public.

I believe that naming the subject of my posts provides complete information, helps readers put the story into a broader context, enables readers to better relate to the situation described, and underscores that the story is a true, real-world example.

Those who argue for anonymity typically suggest that I should not embarrass the organization or its staff. One reader even suggested that by naming a charity, I might hurt the feelings of the staff member responsible for the appeal I was reviewing. Other folks have suggested that it really doesn’t benefit the reader much to know the name of the nonprofit organization.

So, what do you think? Should I continue to name names, or not? Please respond to the following poll question and/or leave a comment below:

If enough readers share their views and if there is a clear consensus, my future posts will be guided accordingly.

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


25 Responses to “Do You Know How to Take Criticism?”

  1. Michael:

    Thank you for raising this issue. I recently received some less than positive, and entirely unexpected, feedback from a couple of recipients to our legacy giving newsletter. This post will most assuredly inform my response to them.

    As for whether or not to continue to name the not-for-profits which you highlight, I feel strongly that you should continue.

    Your posts are always a welcome sight in my inbox! Keep up the good work!

    • Scott, thank you for letting me know you found this post useful. None of us likes to have our work negatively criticized, even me. However, constructive criticism is the feedback that allows us to improve. So, even though I don’t enjoy receiving criticism, I do appreciate and value it. When I view it that way, I find it stings a lot less.

  2. Michael, what an important point you raise. I have made it a practice to reach out to the organization before I go public about it. And like you, I emphasize that I have supported the organization, that they do good work, and that the reason their mistakes matter is because they do an injustice to the quality of their work.

    Unfortunately, most organizations are not responding to email, nor are they monitoring the web to pick up on mentions of themselves. The Nation finally fixed the problem I mentioned in my blog post On the other hand, the American Jewish World Service keeps making the same mistakes, even though I communicated directly with a top official.

    What’s a donor communications consultant to do?

    • Dennis, thank you for taking the time to comment. Responding to your closing question, I’ll just say: If all charities did everything perfectly, they wouldn’t need consultants. Fortunately for us, we’re needed. 🙂

  3. Hi, great post. I vote for naming the organizations, but then it also depends on what it is you’re criticizing them about.

    For example, I’ve recently finished a review of 20 organizations and how they are treating their monthly donors and, while I list the 20 organizations in my presentation, I do not then point fingers as who did it terribly wrong or greatly right. In this case, the overall impact and show is adequate in my view.

    If it’s not absolutely necessary to have an organization’s name in an article, follow the criticize in private, praise in public rule. If you’re reviewing a mail piece or an email then that’s of course not possible but making sure that the organization is aware of this coming is good, so maybe instead of just emailing, picking up the phone to build the relationship (might even generate some business?) may be the better way to go?

    Keep up the great posts, you keep us on our toes! And I hope you’re doing well?

    Cheers, Erica

    • Erica, thank you for sharing your thoughts. As always, I appreciate hearing from you. I thought you might like to know that when I have contacted charities in advance of writing about them, I’m often treated to a defensive response. People tend to take criticism personally. While not surprising, it’s not helpful to them, their charity, or me. Nevertheless, I generally have and will continue to more consistently reach-out to folks before writing about them.

  4. I name organisations in my blogs because I comment on the actions of organisations that are already public – so the name of the organisation is public, too. I write about the way they are managing a reputation crisis – a crisis that has already broken and in the public domain. In the case you outline, if your wife had received a general appeal letter, sent to many, then I would have named it; it was a public appeal. If your wife had received a personal letter sent only to her I’d have gone direct to the organisation and kept my comments private. Your poll doesn’t give this context but I’ve voted yes because that is the context of your post.

  5. I have worked in the nonprofit sector my entire career, and when the nonprofit is well-resourced (national organizations or ones that have large staff) I would say YES, name them by all means. When a nonprofit is small and has few staff, I would encourage restraint and offer criticism privately. I remember when I was one staff person of 10 at a nonprofit, and we received criticism for “no one answering the phone.” I wanted to tell the person that I was the phone-answerer-in-chief but I was also in charge of doing payroll, administering benefits, and even changing light bulbs (yes, really). So I would vote: choose wisely!

    • Lynn, thank you for sharing your experience. So, how many nonprofit professionals does it take to screw in a light bulb? 🙂 I definitely understand what you’re saying in regard to the unique challenges faced by the staff of small nonprofit organizations. While the challenges are different at large organizations, most nonprofit organizations feel stretched in one way or another. There have been times when I’ve decided not to name a charity that was the subject of a post. However, I’ve always felt that those decisions were a bit arbitrary. Coming up with a reasonable, consistent guideline has been difficult. Perhaps, there is no solution. So, as you’ve suggested, I’ll try to choose wisely; I’m sure some days I’ll be more successful than others.

      • At the risk of making myself unpopular, if I were advising the small charity above, where one person is doing everything from payroll to lightbulb changing with donor/user relations squeezed in between, there is an urgent need to balance the tasks giving donor/user relations a higher priority (donors and users being, I imagine, the most important people for the charity, giving its reason for existence). The task had been allocated to the wrong role holder. In any organisation, the first contact is the one that gives the first impression. If “we don’t count” is the impression given to those most important to it, the organisation’s reputation is hugely at risk. Charities are often very small, at least to start with. Competing priorities are hard to balance. Yes, people have to be paid; yes, working conditions have to be safe; yes, beneficiaries must receive their due. When caught between priorities, it’s time to re-assess how those priorities are allocated to staff and to re-allocate tasks so that everyone feels they are the top priority for the person responsible for making those priorities happen – including that all important first impression. I understand there were few people there but perhaps some of them were the wrong people – some of those tasks should have been on others’ lists and if those others were deemed wrong for the task … big and difficult decisions have to be made.

      • Joanna, thank you for sharing your thoughts and for your advocacy for a donor-centered culture. Managing any organization has challenges. Managing a nonprofit organization has big challenges. Managing a small nonprofit organization has even bigger (or more) challenges. It’s never easy. Balancing priorities and assigning tasks according to priorities is essential. Not easy. But essential.

  6. I have voted to name the organisation but there is a caveat for which there is no provision while voting. I don’t think people or organisations find it hard to receive criticism if not agree to it and accept it. What is understandably hard to accept is the tone of criticism. Criticism has to be constructive, fair and objective. Criticism should not be leveled just to satisfy one’s Ego or just for the sake of it with cynicism. Criticism should be in the nature of feedback and not reactionary. Criticism should keep in mind the sensibilities of individuals or organisations and the effort that has gone into creating something and the passionate attachment the individual or organisation being criticised has for the creation or the end product. Criticism has to be well cushioned so to say to remove any rough edges if it has to serve its purpose and should not be with personal malice or prejudice

    Yes, given all the above conditions, organisations and individuals would indeed find criticisms welcome.

    In the wonderful non profit organisation with which I have been working for around 8 years now, I have gone out of the way to convey my views/criticisms/feedbacks openly and fearlessly to the Management on many occasions without causing any unpleasantness whatsoever.

    My earnestness has only been well recognised for all of my efforts

    • Shankar, thank you for taking the time to comment. I agree that criticism should always be constructive. Otherwise, it’s just mean-spirited and pointless. Constructive criticism allows us to learn, grow, and improve. I wish folks were as receptive to constructive criticism as you suggest. However, that has not been my experience. That’s why I wrote the post. Even when I receive criticism, it can be a bit of a struggle to accept it with grace. Let’s just say, I’m a work in progress.

      • I appreciate your being candid and transparently honest, Michael. Of course, who among us is not a work in progress? As long as we strive to evolve and improve by looking inwards that should suffice. Thanks for being gracious enough to take time to respond to my message very meaningfully.

  7. Nonprofits are codependent in that they are overly dependent on praise and scared of criticism, this keeps them stuck and boring. Being open about your challenges and successes strengthens the relationship not weakens.

    • Maryanne, thank you for your comment and for sharing your link. When reading your message, I was reminded of some relevant quotes:

      “I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.” — Socrates

      “Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning.” — Albert Einstein

      “I like criticism. It makes you strong.” — LeBron James

      “To avoid criticism, do nothing, say nothing, and be nothing.” — Elbert Hubbard

  8. If it were my organization you were naming, whether praise or criticism, I would like to have the courtesy of being contacted in advance. It just seems a little more respectful if I know that it is coming in the blog post and am not taken by surprise. That’s just me.

    • Pamela, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I generally agree with you. Moving forward, I strive to more consistently reach-out to folks before publication. I just wish folks would take my critiques less personally and defensively. While I realize that that is a perfectly natural response, it’s not particularly helpful to anyone. The response from Sara Davis was definitely an exception.

  9. I have worked in nonprofits for more than a dozen years, and think it might depend on the specifics of the constructive criticism, as well as the reasons for it, about doing it publicly or privately. In fact, sometimes I might choose to reach out privately, giving the organization an opportunity to respond/make a change BEFORE I’d go public. Then, if they don’t respond at all in a reasonable period of time, I might go public, and if they don’t respond in an appropriate fashion I might go public. If, however, the infraction is of a serious nature and my not speaking out publicly could be seen as a reflection of my concurrence of the infraction, I might speak out publicly from the outset.

    • L. Rose, thank you for your comment. I agree. This is certainly a complex issue. Each case is unique which makes developing and living by specific guidelines a real challenge. While broad guidelines are possible, each case must be taken on its own terms.


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