Correcting Mistakes in Donor Communications

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Building and maintaining trusting relationships with donors is essential for every nonprofit. Even when an organization keeps a close eye on its communications with donors, whether they gave in the past or might give in the future, errors can slip through the cracks. Sometimes the errors are small—a misspelled name, an incorrect date—and the problem can be corrected with a simple follow-up message. But some errors can be a significant problem that requires a more thoughtful response.

What sort of mistakes are we thinking of? Here are some examples:

  • A communication that violates a confidentiality obligation of the organization, such as by disclosing a partner’s financial information, breaching health privacy laws, or tipping off donors about a new initiative that is subject to third-party confidentiality rights.
  • A communication that can be construed as giving tax advice to donors, for example by promising that all gifts will be tax deductible.
  • Communications that accidentally disclose donor information, such as email blasts that list recipients in the “To” line instead of the “BCC” line.

As these examples suggest, communication errors can fall into different categories. Some may not be big problems for the donors themselves, but they create potential liability to third parties (e.g., the confidentiality example). But others can create significant friction with donors, potentially destroying the relationship and doing serious harm to the organization.

The breadth of potential errors is an important reason for adopting a clear communications policy as part of a broader risk management program. Ideally, serious problems like our examples do not happen because the people involved in crafting donor communications are sensitive to the organization’s risks. If a problem does happen, leadership should be notified quickly so they can examine the problem, consult with outside advisors if necessary, and develop a strategy for controlling the damage.

Whenever an error raises potential legal liability, consulting with an attorney is important. The attorney can help the organization understand the scale of the problem and craft strategies for addressing it in a way that can protect the organization while also trying to salvage donor relationships. 

The Church Law Center of California counsels religious and secular nonprofits on governance and risk management. If your organization needs help crafting a communications policy or responding to problems with its donor relationships, we can help. Call us today at (949) 892-1221 or reach out to us through our contact page.

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