You just had a meeting or phone call with a donor, and it went well. Until you said something that you think landed wrong. The donor didn’t say anything, but the “air” felt different.

So what do you do? My recommendation: own it. If you feel a bit funny, it’s likely the donor did as well. A short, handwritten note addressing it gives you both the space to move past it. Keep it simple:

“First Name, I was reflecting on our discussion, and I think I may have been a little too enthusiastic when I was talking about X. I apologize if that felt a bit pushy to you. I am very thankful for your support and appreciated the time you gave me yesterday to talk about Org.”

What if you had a brief phone call and the donor was obviously grumpy, maybe even rude? Again, meet that head on. The donor likely feels a bit embarrassed by their behavior. So if you can give a bit of grace, you can likely move forward with that person. A short follow up email or handwritten note:

“Mr. Smith, I’m sorry I caught you at a bad time when I called earlier today. I am thankful for your generous support and how it makes a difference with ORG. I hope we can meet for a phone or Zoom call later this month to discuss XYZ.”

Maybe the donor made a significant commitment, but you feel in your gut that this may have been a mistake. True story: an MGO and the President met with a long-time donor to discuss the feasibility of an upcoming campaign. They used a donor pyramid to ask what level she would consider, and the donor pointed to the top level: $10 million. Leaving the meeting, the MGO was excited, but also wondered—that was a huge increase from prior campaigns. She followed her gut and checked back:

“Mrs. Jones, when I met with you last week, and you indicated the top number for the campaign, that number was $10 million. Is that your intention?”

In this case, the donor laughed and said, “I should have had my reading glasses on!” She then made a commitment at a very generous level, and the MGO felt confident in the relationship moving forward.

What about a situation where you have owed a donor a report on a project and the work was just never done? Months have gone by and now it’s over a year. To top it off, the donor is a very prominent member of the community. Set a meeting and tell the donor. Honesty here is so important. You don’t need to throw anyone under the bus, just tell the facts. (You’ll want to practice this conversation out loud several times, preferably with someone who is listening to you, so you get comfortable with what you need to say.)

“Mrs. Gonzales, I appreciate your time today, and I have to let you know the XYZ project just did not get off the ground. [List a few reasons.] I am so sorry. And I made it worse by delaying in telling you – I kept hoping it would come together, but it didn’t. Would you like to redirect the funds to XYZ?”

This was a real scenario. The donor was incredibly gracious, redirected the funds and gave additional support.

Finally, a personal experience I had early in my career. A donor gave a generous gift for an acquisition project. The execution went off as planned – but the results were abysmal. My stomach was in knots. How do I explain it to this generous donor – a nationally known figure? It took me a week to pull myself together. I practiced and practiced what to say. Then I picked up the phone and actually reached him, not his assistant. When I gave him the news, he said, “Diana, it was a test. They don’t always work the way we hope, but it’s okay.” 

The relief I felt was palpable, but it was also a lesson I have remembered for more than 40 years. Just tell the truth in a respectful and clear manner. There is so much we can’t control – but we can control our response to difficult situations.

So hang in there. We all have things that go sideways. Just own it!


Diana Frazier is a Senior Client Experience Leader at Veritus Group. With over 32 years of experience in the non-profit sector, Diana has helped organizations meet strategic objectives through fund and product development, marketing, and operations management. She has worked on staff or as a consultant in a wide range of non-profits including print and media organizations, missions, higher education, health, crisis counseling, and churches.