top of page

How to Right a Wrong

By Angela Joens

My best friend is a perfectionist – she has been her entire life and it has caused her so much frustration and heart ache over the years. I am constantly reminding her we are human so therefore already very imperfect. Try as we might sometimes mistakes happen.

What happens when we do make mistakes? How do you handle the recovery? It’s an interesting question that I believe can show you a lot about someone.

When I began in donor relations – I mean my first few weeks on the job – I was called into a meeting with senior leadership to learn about a mistake the organization had made that affected one of our more prestigious donors. We sat there for an hour while people brainstormed how to handle this mistake. After a lot of hand-wringing and finger pointing no resolution was reached and another meeting was called for the next day. I left the meeting scratching my head thinking that the answer seemed simple. So, I took the initiative to reach out to the donor myself and after introducing myself as the new Director of Donor Relations I told him about the mistake. He was very upset and I apologized for the mistake and told him I take full responsibility and will correct it. We discussed how we could correct it and we ended the call with him feeling very satisfied and heard. The next day I told my new boss what I did and very quickly I was called into the President’s office to explain my actions. Turns out it is not ok to call the organization’s largest donor without permission. (But then that is a story for another day.)

The point of the story is that service recovery for a mistake is actually quite simple and it is something we as donor relations professionals need to do well. Sometimes we make the mistakes, sometimes it’s our organization’s leaders, or sometimes our donors make the mistakes. The issue is not that the mistake happened – it did – and no way to change that. What needs to be addressed is how will it be resolved.

If you or one of your team members make the mistake – just own it. Take responsibility and tell your leaders right away what happened and how you will handle it. If donors are involved they need to know immediately. The best way to communicate this information is to pick up the phone and call. That way a two-way dialogue can happen. Let the donor talk, vent, yell and listen with patience and empathy. Apologize for the mistake and make no excuses. It is not the time to point fingers or throw any colleague or vendors under the bus. It was your responsibility so own it and apologize. Then discuss the solution that will be satisfactory to both your organization and the donor.

Occasionally if the mistake is large enough it could end up gaining media attention. In these situations, transparency with your donors is so important. Provide information early and often so they know the entire story. Let them know how you are handling the situation and, if appropriate, provide them speaking points, so they are prepared to respond if asked about the situation.

Sometimes our donors make the mistakes – and if it is egregious enough action may need to be taken. This is when it is important to have an agreed upon morality policy for your organization. Again, it is important to communicate with the donor in question explaining what this means to your organization and how you will handle it. It may also be important to share this information with other donors so they know how you have resolved the situation.

We are going to make mistakes and that is a reality – we cannot control when and how it will happen. What we can manage is how we will handle it. If done well you can not only do the right thing but earn the respect of your donors and hopefully move them even closer to your organization.

This post was written by DRG Group member, Angela Joens.


bottom of page