Three Simple Words

Jan 1, 2020 | The Power of Philanthropy

The three simple words are: “I’m so sorry!” quickly followed by: “…and even more sorry it happened to you!” Nobody likes to make a mistake, but learning to apologize quickly and genuinely is a valuable fundraising skill. Our instinct may be to defend our actions and hope the issue is forgotten. With donors and prospects (and friends and family, for that matter), this is never a good strategy. Instead, we should welcome every opportunity to show, not just tell, a donor we have made a mistake.

After the New Year’s celebrations are over and your organization is reflecting on its best quarter of 2019, you are very likely to return to the office owing at least one apology to an upset donor. Some development directors cringe at the thought of having to respond to these messages. However, if you think of it as an opportunity to connect with your donors, it becomes a great way to deepen the relationship.

Remember, donors who care make the effort to point out our error. If they didn’t care about the organization, they probably wouldn’t bother. They would just ignore the issue and go away.

My daughter used to love a show called, “Daniel Tiger.” It’s a PBS program that helps kids identify and express a wide range of emotions, often through annoying, yet memorable, little tunes. There’s an episode about apologizing, and the song has the line: “Saying I’m sorry is the first step, then, how can I help?”

If you’ve seen that episode, I’m so sorry. Because now, you will have the tune stuck in your head. But what a great message! An apology doesn’t mean much if we don’t offer to correct the mistake or help make the situation better. Apologizing to donors because we’ve accidentally included a past spouse in the salutation, didn’t have the correct past giving amount on their appeal letter or forgot to include them on a year-end donor recognition, etc. doesn’t have to be a painful call (and, yes, it should be a call not an email or letter).

Genuine apologies never contain the words “if” or “but.” We may have many reasons to defend our actions. Maybe it really was the donor’s mistake or that of another colleague in the office, but we aren’t connecting to defend our actions. We are reaching out, because the relationship is important. So, as you start the New Year, remember three of the most simple, but powerful, words you will use in 2020: “I’m so sorry.”

Janell Johnson
Executive Vice President

Wilmington, N.C.
[email protected]