Guest Post: Handling Fundraising Complaints

The fourth blog in a series by the Fundraising Regulator. In this one Sarah Fox, Head of Casework, focuses on the first lesson of donor dissatisfaction: Don’t get complaints about your complaints process!

How big a priority is your complaints process?

With a few exceptions, the majority of fundraising charities we work with in Northern Ireland are relatively small, with an income of £500,000 or less. The good news is that, to date, we have received few fundraising complaints about these Northern Ireland based charities. The bad news is that when concerns are raised, smaller charities are just as vulnerable to problems resulting from inadequate complaints handling. While smaller charities generally receive fewer complaints than their larger counterparts, they also have fewer resources to deal with those complaints.

We know that charities can be run by 1,000 people in an office or by one person at home. That is why the complaints handling guidance we have issued for fundraising organisations isn't about mandating how many staff deal with complaints or precisely what you should be saying on the phone or how quickly complaints should be resolved. 

But, whatever the size, all members of the public should be able to expect a basic level of response should they have a problem. Based on the cases we have received over the last year, the Fundraising Regulator has identified some key features of complaints handling processes that should consistently apply across all charities.

The first and most basic of these is that it should be easy for members of the public to know how to complain. That might sound obvious, but lack of clarity over how members of the public can make a complaint  and what they can expect from the process is one of the most common reasons why issues get escalated to the Fundraising Regulator. This is demonstrated by the large number of complaints we see that have not been raised with the charity. Complaints procedures should be simple and clear and they should be easily accessible to members of the public.

Secondly, all charities should know how to recognise a complaint when they see it. That means having a common understanding of what a complaint is across the people who work in your organisation. The Fundraising Regulator defines a complaint as “an expression of dissatisfaction, however made, about actions taken or a lack of action”. Of course, not all complaints are easily categorised and some concerns may not be articulated as such. But generally, we say that when in doubt, err on the side of caution.

Thirdly, complaints should be investigated thoroughly, objectively and avoiding undue delay to establish the facts of the case. This includes reviewing and keeping a record of all relevant evidence and might include speaking to any individuals complained about as well as the complainant and any third parties involved.

Fourthly, organisations should be respond to complaints fairly and proportionately. This  means attempting to answer each of the points raised by the complaint, acknowledging  if things have gone wrong and, in such cases, taking action to put things right. This may include apologising where appropriate. It is surprising how reluctant many charities can be to own their mistakes, but this can often be a key influencing factor in how individuals perceive an organisation

Lastly, all of the above means very little if complaints aren’t influencing the way you fundraise in future. The Code and our guidance state that organisations should review their complaints regularly, considering what lessons can be learnt.  Above all complaints, whether a charity believes it to be justified or not, should be seen as an opportunity to  improve the experience of donors.

No responsible Northern Ireland charity wants to hear that someone feels let down by them. But good complaints handling, treated as a constructive part of your fundraising process, can be a key factor in fundraising success.

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