Four steps for making your sorry, a good sorry

Caroline Sefton, former Case Officer, and Rob Baker, Case Officer at the Fundraising Regulator

Being sorry should be easy. But – as we can all find – according to the well-known song, ‘sorry seems to be the hardest word’.

As Case Officers, we investigate complaints about fundraising where these cannot be resolved by organisations themselves. Our experience, reflected in the Fundraising Regulator’s Annual Complaints Report 2019/20, is that organisations can improve their complaint handling in general and, in particular, the way they say sorry. 

Though handling a complaint well will not always guarantee that a complainant will be satisfied with the outcome, it is important to remember that people generally respond positively when apologies for letting them down are sincere. Being able to say sorry in the right way is fundamental to meeting the fundraising standards in the Code of Fundraising Practice.

Learning from the complaints we have handled, here are our four steps for making a ‘good sorry’.

1.    Start from a position of empathy

Even if you feel you have done everything right, try not to feel indignant or take things personally. For example, it can be better to start a message with a phrase like ‘Thank you for contacting us’ rather than ‘You are complaining that’, which can sound blunt or accusatory to the recipient.

A long letter or email may be time-consuming for a complaints handler to digest. However, you should recognise that people can be very motivated to pursue a complaint if they feel a strong sense of injustice or outrage. When responding to a long message, it may be helpful to acknowledge that the complaint was ‘detailed’, ‘informative’ or ‘comprehensive’. 

If you feel a complainant is mistaken or incorrect, you should still be objective. For example, if you are confident your organisation followed the correct procedures but a person says a request was unwelcome, you can say that you recognise how stressful unwanted charity appeals can be and offer a means to prevent future contact if they wish. 

2.    Make it kind

Some complaints may seem trivial at a time when charities are in difficulty, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, a sincerely courteous response to a complaint might be the only positive communication some people receive from your charity. 

Often, people may not need you to literally say the word ‘sorry’, but they will appreciate you showing empathy and courtesy. Try to avoid sounding condescending. A phrase like ‘On reflection, it would have been better if’ can suggest that you want to understand how the other person feels. 

3.    Avoid just using the template

The point of using standard paragraphs or template letters to construct complaint responses is so you have more time to tailor your message to acknowledge and respond to the details of the specific situation. 

Used thoughtfully, phrases like ‘With hindsight, we could have’; ‘I am unable to explain’, ‘I apologise for the effect this will have had’ or ‘This experience must have been worrying’, can make a person feel they have been heard.

4.    Slow down

Apologise if you mean it and once you understand the facts. A quick ‘sorry’ can sound like an easy fix, but generally people will spot if you are insincere. 

If a complaint seems unfounded or you don’t know enough information, the answer may be to slow down. Try to talk to the person. Consider the equality issues that might mean you need to adapt your own style to understand people’s concerns and give them a measured response. 

If you do not have the time to consider a complaint in full straightaway, an interim reply shows that the complaint has reached a real person, not just an automated inbox.

For more advice on how we define a complaint and how we expect organisations to handle complaints they receive, refer to our complaints handling guidance. We also publish investigation summaries regularly to help the fundraising sector learn from the recommendations we have made and share examples of good practice.