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Learning from Loss • Finding the Words

A couple of years ago, a well-known and well-loved nonprofit organization contacted our team with a bit of a problem. The organization had been sustained by a loyal following of recurring donors, but their leadership had noticed a concerning trail off in contributions. They had lost some of their most important donors and they needed to figure out why. 

This week’s essay comes from the Finding The Words column, a series published every Wednesday that delivers a dose of communication insights direct to your inbox. If you like what you read, we hope you’ll subscribe to ensure you receive this each week.

Episode Transcript

Carrie Fox
Hey there, it’s Carrie Fox, host of the Mission Forward podcast. And some of you probably already know that I write a weekly column on communications and life, in addition to hosting this podcast. And on this season of the show, I’m lifting up a few of my essays here as short form episodes of the podcast. If you like what you hear, I hope you will head over to and sign up to get these insights delivered to your inbox each and every Wednesday morning. And in addition to that, if you like what you hear today, I hope you will give this show a five-star rating and maybe share the episode or any of our other awesome shows with the people in your network. But now onto today’s show, “Learning From Our Losses.”

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A couple of years ago, a well-known and well-loved nonprofit organization contacted our team with a bit of a problem. For so long, this organization had been sustained by a loyal following of recurring donors, but their leadership had noticed a concerning trail off in contributions. The donations weren’t coming in as consistently and some of the most loyal donors had actually ended their relationship with the organization. For one reason or another, these donors decided to move on from the organization they once believed in. The organization had lost some of their most important donors and they needed to figure out why.

We suspected there might be more to the story. So first we set out and conducted some research, namely a set of one-on-one interviews with donors, current, lapsed, and lost, to understand the situation better. What we found was fascinating. The organization had not shifted away from its values. It hadn’t been fiscally irresponsible. The leadership hadn’t done anything to cause a hard break in the relationship. But repeatedly, we heard that this focus of their work had dissipated. And in doing so, it had started to lose connection with its core audience.

The slow, well-intended shift to grow a donor base led actually to a loss of loyal donors instead. Trying to balance communication to current audiences, whether donors, customers, or even staff members, with that need and desire to appeal to future audiences, that can be a really challenging balance, right? Sometimes it works and sometimes it fails. What we know is that when an organization focuses on a new audience, without bringing the existing audience along. No, assuming it’s an audience they want to keep, stakeholders can feel like they’ve been taken for granted, left behind, maybe even forgotten about, and that is where loss happens. That’s where this organization found itself.

So with some deeper insights from those interviews, the organization was able to right size and rebalance its communications efforts, taking time to rebuild relationships where trust had been lost. But it was also an aha moment that this organization could engage its current audiences who did want to be part of the organization’s future in the process of engaging future audiences. It didn’t need to be one or the other. So this week, I’m gonna share a few lessons drawn forward from that assignment for when you need to engage and communicate with this most difficult of audiences, those who say they don’t want you anymore. Lesson one, remember the ones who leave. And it’s easy to do. Sometimes someone leaves you, and a donor, a member, a volunteer, and so you stop investing in them. Try not to do that.

Instead, use the change in the relationship as an opportunity. The first step is identifying and remembering the individuals or organizations that have moved on. As much as you can track why they first joined you and what caused them to leave. Capture the data for all audiences, regardless of the length of the relationship, the contribution size, or any other means of measuring the relationship. Hold on to that information so you can put it to use later.

Lesson two, make the most of learning moments. Look for the right time to send a follow-up message to the ones who have left. In some cases, that might be right away. In other cases, let some time go by. Let the circumstances of the departure be your guide and use your instincts on when to reach back out. When you do follow up, consider the right person and a vehicle to carry the message. Should it be a personal phone call from the executive? Would it be better to write a personal handwritten note? Maybe an email may do. Take full consideration of the nature of the relationship and the circumstances surrounding the change, and use those as your guide to finding the right voice and channel.

Lesson three, don’t expect a change of heart, but do remember why they left. When you make that outreach, keep your expectations low. Don’t expect the individual or organization to return right away. Instead, use the opportunity to improve your practices of listening and helping to guard against future loss. Consider what could have been done better and do your best to understand and learn from what caused the breakdowns in the relationship. If you genuinely want to improve, that will speak volumes to your organization’s character. And if it feels right, offer an on-ramp for the individual or organization to return. Let them know that they can always re-engage if circumstances change.

Bottom line this week, losing a previously invested donor, partner, or team member is challenging, yes, but a loss without any related learning is the worst kind of loss. In losing, find ways to uncover essential insights and small wins that make the most of difficult situations.

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And that brings us to the end of this short form episode of Mission Forward. If you heard something that’s gonna stick with you, drop me a line at and let me know what’s got you thinking. And definitely check out some of our longer form shows on the power of communications. Mission Forward is produced with the support of Sadie Lockhart in association with True Story FM. Engineering by Pete Wright. If your podcast app allows for ratings and reviews, I hope you will consider doing just that for this show. But the best thing you can do to support Mission Forward is simply to share the show with a friend or a colleague. Thanks for your support, and we’ll see you next time. (upbeat music) [Music] Subscribe for more.

This season, we are taking you on a journey to meet ten people influencing and shaping how we communicate at scale for social change. From advertising executives to coalition directors, news editors, campaign managers, and authors, they're all people who are shaping and challenging the deep power of communication. If you’re working to become a more inclusive and thoughtful communicator, there’s nothing holding you back—except you.

Carrie Fox

Carrie Fox is the founder and CEO of Mission Partners, a woman-owned strategic communications firm and Certified B Corporation that guides high-potential nonprofits, foundations, and socially responsible corporations in realizing their greatest social impact. Since launching her first firm in 2004, she has guided hundreds of organizations around the world to lead with purpose, fueling organizations and their missions forward in new and more impactful ways.