How to NOT Make a Mistake Worse

There is an adage, first published in The Bankers Magazine (1964) that advises wisely:

If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.”

The Law of Holes suggests we should strive to not make bad situations worse through further unhelpful, counter-productive behavior.

Sadly, many people, including nonprofit managers and fundraising professionals, fail to heed that fine advice. Instead, when in a bad situation or when confronted by criticism, many folks make matters worse by reacting defensively, acting helplessly, remaining in denial, criticizing the critic, or ignoring the situation altogether.

Fortunately, many people handle criticism gracefully and, in the process, set a fine example for the rest of us.

Recently, I wrote about my wife’s failed attempt to donate to a local charity. While my wife and I have never supported the organization, we do agree with its mission. Therefore, it was with great interest that I noticed that the charity was hosting a fundraising event with a speaker I wanted to hear. My wife went to the organization’s website to buy tickets. However, due to a website glitch, she was unable to complete the transaction. So, she then called the organization during office hours. Not being able to reach a live person, she left a voice-mail message. No one from the organization returned her call. We ended up not attending the event.

After I posted about my wife’s experience and what fundraisers can learn from it, I sent the organization’s Executive Director an email and a link to my article. I sent the email on Tuesday evening at 7:01 PM. I expected one of two things to happen: 1) I thought I might receive a defensive response the following business day, or 2) I might not receive any reply, ever.

Instead, my guess was happily wrong. That very evening at 7:21 PM, I received a message from the Executive Director. We can learn much from the tone and content of his response:

Dear Michael,

Your email was both upsetting and instructive. I appreciated the spirit of the message and have already begun to think about how to use it to create change and improve. Also I read your blog. I’m curious if you are a professional fundraiser? Either way you and your wife have my apologies for this unfortunate experience. It is clearly our loss when customers and potential friends are turned off. It’s contrary to the purpose of running these events and clearly counter productive.

In addition to my apologies you have my gratitude for bringing this to my attention.


(name withheld here)”

Here is what we can learn from the email response:

•  When you receive constructive criticism or feedback, respond quickly. In the story I just shared, the Executive Director responded to me just 20 minutes later. Impressive!

•  Accept criticism and feedback as constructive unless it’s absolutely clear it is not.

•  Own the problem instead of denying it (e.g., “You must have entered the information incorrectly.”), arguing with the individual (e.g., “Why didn’t you just call back when we didn’t respond to your voice mail?” or justifying the problem (e.g., “Hey, we’re not perfect. Given the good things we do in the community, you should be more forgiving.”).

•  Express gratitude to the person providing the criticism or feedback. One of the best ways we can improve at anything is if people provide us with constructive feedback. However, we need to recognize that people do not have to provide us with their views. If people take the time to contact you with a complaint, they are showing you that they care and they are willing to expend the time to provide you with helpful information. Let them know you appreciate it.

•  Tell the person providing feedback that you have heard them, understand what they have said, and will use the information as an opportunity to improve.

•  Offer an unqualified apology. Don’t say something like, “I’m sorry if you were upset.” That’s a false apology that implies that the problem is how someone has chosen to react rather than what you or your organization has done or not done. Instead, simply say, “I’m sorry.” Or, you could say, “I’m sorry we upset you.” The point is to take responsibility and express sincere regret.

•  Act with authenticity and sincerity.

As a result of the Executive Director’s thoughtful response, my wife and I will remain open to possibly supporting the organization in the future if an appropriate opportunity arises.

When a prospect or donor complains, offers constructive criticism, or provides feedback, embrace it as an opportunity to improve and as a chance to engage positively with someone who is passionate about your organization and its mission.

In addition to the Executive Director’s initial response, we exchanged another pair of emails. During that exchange, he gave me permission to share his email with you. I appreciate his willingness to do so. By granting his permission, the Executive Director took another step toward turning a negative experience into a positive engagement. He cultivated our relationship and ensured it was put on a positive path. Furthermore, the entire encounter provides us with some terrific lessons.

When a prospect or donor contacts you with a complaint, criticism, or feedback, how do you handle it? What tips can you share?

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

2 Comments to “How to NOT Make a Mistake Worse”

  1. Thanks for the follow-up, Michael. I am a nonprofit executive director, and I have made plenty of mistakes in my 30+ years. I appreciate when someone brings it to my attention and try to express my sincere gratitude. I have seen the results when criticism is not accepted–and it can be very destructive for a nonprofit’s image and reputation in the community.

    • Madeline, thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts. I’m glad my post resonated with you. Feedback may sometimes sting, but it provides us with the information necessary to improve. Even when the feedback is not actionable, it still gives us an opportunity to strengthen relationships when handled in the right way.

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