How not to lose a donor

The Director of a mid-sized cultural institution averted – just barely – losing a loyal donor and (perhaps even worse) a highly effective board member. Here’s her story (disguised, of course). Ask yourself: What would you have done?


I knew there was trouble the minute I picked up the phone. It was Joe – a veteran board member, a loyal donor, and an amazing volunteer fundraiser for our organization. He was irate. He had recently made a gift for a major exhibit and requested that it be credited to his annual gift. A junior development staffer politely but firmly explained that it would not be possible.

Technically, the development staffer was right. Our giving policies say that a gift designated for a specific use cannot be applied to annual fund commitments. Joe pointed out that his designated gift exceeded his annual gift commitment and supported a core function of the museum. The staffer politely re-explained the policy.

I managed to smooth things over. Joe’s gift was counted as he wished. Still, we lost a lot of good will with a valuable contributor, and the development staffer was mortified. I wonder, what can we do to avert incidents like that in the future?
My reaction? First, the museum was lucky that Joe made his dissatisfaction known rather than just jumping ship. Still, he shouldn’t have had to go to the top to get the problem resolved. Going forward, I see two ways to avert similar incidents:

  • The easy one is changing your policy. If someone wants to direct a gift to something that unrestricted funds are used for, why not consider that part of an annual gift?
  • The more subtle one is changing your culture. Ideally, the junior staffer would have felt empowered to address Joe’s needs or at least accountable for getting them addressed.
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