Scary Supporter Horror Stories

People share their nightmares with me. Well, ok – maybe that’s overstating it. They vent. And it freaks me out.

Friends and family know I work with a lot of nonprofits. On the plus side, they tell me about the coolest groups, and how they’re getting involved. On the down side, I’m the complaint department.

So in honor of Freaky Friday, here are 13 real supporter horror stories, none of which involve zombies. Well, ok – maybe one involves zombies. I’ve changed a few details to protect the innocent (and/or guilty).

  1. A one-letter typo nearly cost an organization a dedicated supporter. After years as a donor, she started getting every mailing with her husband’s name spelled wrong. His name wasn’t too hard ( “Joe”), but now every envelope, enclosed letter, and reply card read “Jow.” There was that momentary flinch every time she’d get one. Her husband made fun of her. She felt guilty for letting it bother her. Years passed. You probably don’t want to know how the situation was resolved – it’s too gruesome.
  2. A volunteer got stranded out of state. It would mean he’d miss his shift at a major event. He wrote a sob-story email to the volunteer coordinator. (I got the sob-story, too, and I agreed it was a good excuse.) After the event, though, he got copied on the heartfelt volunteer thank-you note the organization sent its volunteers. It mentioned how hard they’d worked, being so short-staffed. They couldn’t have driven the knife deeper in his chest. Ashamed, he could never face them again.
  3. A musician nearly cried telling me this one. She served on the board of a grassroots group, and the weather gods decided to be cruel. Months of planning went into a fundraising concert, only to have the afternoon arrive to the tune of tornado warnings on every channel. They deferred the event. Yet, ironically, no tornados appeared, and while the wind was wicked – it was the perfect night for the music of her new album. And they only raised half what they’d planned at the rescheduled concert. (This might have gone better if they had had more emails on file and could have implemented rapid-response.) I’d never seen anyone literally shake a fist at the sky before.
  4. This one’s only scary because it repeats millions of times every year, and probably costs us all billions. “I gave at the office” seems to never end well. She’d always given to her workplace giving campaign, trained from being a freshout at a major corporation, signing over a portion of her paycheck every other week. But one year, she stopped because she never heard ANYTHING from the groups who got her money. I asked if the groups even knew who she was. Her face went RED – how DARE they take her money without even knowing who she was!
  5. You might be haunted by this demon right now. He was a board member, but also a lawyer. He knew the value of his legal services down to the penny, and charged quite a number of these per minute at his law firm. And so he tallied up the hours he spent serving on the board, multiplied by his hourly rate, and called that his monetary contribution year after year. He certainly set a precedent here, and MANY board members chose to forego cash contributions, leaving the organization maimed from the top down.
  6. And what about the time when a major gift check got “misplaced at the post office”? Was it gremlins? It was certainly embarrassing to the donor who told me he finally called – weeks after mailing – to see why it hadn’t been cashed. He left an awkward inquiry on voicemail. I’d be scared to call him back & try to explain that one.
  7. Then there was the would-be donor who got virtually slapped in the process. She liked what she saw the org doing, and went to fill in an online form on the organization’s website. But she came to a required form field, where she’d have to state that she was either a doctor or a medical student. There was no way around it, though she later found there is NO actual requirement for donors to be anything in particular at all (it wasn’t a professional association). Evil red asterisk.
  8. The Executive Director was leaving because her partner’s job was relocating. And away with her brain went all the years of evidence that a certain supporter had played an integral role in getting grant funding from a couple of key local foundations. This loss of memory, and the months that passed before a new ED was hired, saw this supporter adopt a new cause – wholeheartedly, in fact. And coincidentally, so did the foundations.  (And if you want that old ED’s brain back, ask yourself if you are a hungry zombie?)
  9. And speaking of zombies, what about the zombie duplicate contact records I must have at dozens of nonprofits? I’m an interactive gal, so yes, I write my legislators a lot, etc. And I can tell when I’ve been in a hurry, and find myself addressed as “Dear Jen” … because I usually type out the full “Jennifer.” I’m in the biz, so these zombie emails don’t spook me, but if nobody’s minding the duplicate data, are others as unperturbed by multiple notes gnawing at their inboxes? Or do they think you don’t know or care about them? I’m pretty sure I haven’t gotten duplicate credit card offers from the same bank before, so I know the data can be tamed…
  10. Maybe you’ve been this person: the volunteer prospect who cannot get her phone calls or emails returned. All she wants to do is give her time! Let her.
  11. This will make you shudder. What about the board member who does not give? Now don’t get angry at him; he’s not giving because the staff forgot to ask. Talk about a freak accident.
  12. Here’s one to hurt your heart. An organization has their gala/luncheon/whatever and makes an ask. So far so good. A happy event attendee reaches into his wallet, pulls out a check, puts it in the envelope and…well leaves it on the table because nobody told him what else to do with it. And then it gets picked up in the trash pile instead of the “take back to the office and process” pile. The once-happy-attendee is left wondering when the check will clear and when his thank you note will come. And the organization has unwittingly donated to the landfill.
  13. And last but not least. A new supporter attended the big event, had a blast and decided she’s 100% going again next year and bringing her girlfriends. But then the next year, the orgnization can’t find her contact information and so doesn’t send her an invitation. The event comes and goes without her. Her feelings are hurt because she wasn’t invited to the party and the orgnization missed out not on one event attendee but a whole gaggle of them and prospective long-term relationships with them.

Many of these nightmare scenarios involve information systems. Bad information. Misfired information. Information gone overboard. The nonprofit professionals who gather information and keep it immaculate, detailed, and up-to-date are like the movie heroes/heroines, who can protect the supporters, staff, and program recipients from meeting gruesome ends. Please be the supporting actor/actress to your data guru. Help them get the data you will all need to survive and thrive. Support them with tools and processes that deliver good, actionable data. For all our sakes.

Happy Friday the 13th!