I felt my blood pressure rise…

When a Donor Says Something Offensive

One of my wealthiest donors had just complained to me about the people we serve. Don had stopped by to drop off a check. As he walked into my office, he was shaking his head.

“I don’t understand why ’these people’ are so lazy. Every time I come here, I see people just sitting around. If they had some get-up-and-go, they’d get jobs.”

Don and many of his wealthy peers believe that poor people are lazy and that’s why they are poor. Conversely, they believe that they’ve earned their success.

I find it hard to handle situations like this, though I think they are quite common.

You don’t want to get angry and tell the donor flat out that they’re wrong. But you also don’t want to let the offensive comment go by without addressing it.

Use Feel-Felt-Found When Someone Offends You

Years ago, my colleague Michael Miller, from whom I learned a ton, taught me a valuable approach called Feel, Felt, Found. At the time, I wasn’t so sure. It seemed manipulative at best and downright dishonest at worst. But I’ve come to see it as a constructive and valuable approach.

The idea of Feel-Felt-Found is to find common ground with the person you don’t agree with and then turn it into a learning opportunity.

How to use Feel-Felt-Found

Here’s my version of how this approach works:

  1. Feel:  State that you can imagine (or understand) how the person FEELS.
  2. Felt:  State that you have FELT something similar.
  3. Found:  Then describe what you have FOUND that shifted your viewpoint.

Going back to my story about Don, I might have said something like this:

Feel:  You know, Don, I can imagine how you FEEL.

Felt:  Sometimes when I’ve seen people just hanging out, doing nothing, I’ve FELT that way too and wondered why they don’t do something constructive.

Found:  But, after I started working here, I FOUND that my assumptions were all wrong. Most of the people you see sitting here work two or three jobs and when they come back, they’re plum tired. They’re not lazy — they’re exhausted. And sometimes, they’re also discouraged.

Gradually, I’ve gotten to know many of their stories and I’ve learned how hard they work to overcome the obstacles they face.

I wonder, Don, if I might introduce you to [Sally] and ask her to tell you a bit about her life so you can better understand the complicated situations she’s facing and the amazing things she’s doing to change her life.

I made up that example, though it’s not far from conversations I’ve experienced.

You can see how this approach might be effective. It’s certainly more effective than just telling Dan he’s wrong. Making someone wrong seldom works very well.

Finding Common Ground: The Key to Feel-Felt-Found

To use the Feel-Felt-Found approach, you must find real common ground. And I’ve discovered, to my surprise, that I often have common ground with people whose views differ greatly from my own.

With a little bit of thinking, I really can imagine how someone else feels and I can point to a time when I might have felt something similar.

A personal example of Feel-Felt-Found

Let me give you one more example — this is one I face frequently.

I live in a poor part of New York City. My neighborhood probably isn’t what you might imagine as you think about me. There’s litter on the street and many more people with dark skin than people who look like me. And yes, there is a higher incidence of crime than in most suburban neighborhoods.

Sometimes, people tell me in one way or another that they are afraid to come to my neighborhood. My response is this:

I understand how you feel. When we first came up here, I felt that way too. But I’ve found that if I’m friendly and greet people here, they are friendly too.

In fact, over the years I’ve lived here, I’ve developed a wonderful sense of community with people of all sorts. It makes me happy to live here.

Give it a Try, and More

Try out this approach when you talk with donors or others whose views are different from your own. Let me know what you learn in the comments below.

Amy and I recently talked about this subject on one of our recent All About Capital Campaigns podcast episodes.

Lastly, if you’re looking for more ways to better connect with donors (and who isn’t), we recently did another great podcast you’ll enjoy. Find out why you should never use a script when communicating with donors, and a better alternative for donor conversations.


  1. Maura Byrnes

    Thank you for this! My mother is a psychotherapist and this is how she speaks when we differ in our opinions. While I did not learn this method of speaking from her, your words resonated, so I’m grateful for this post. I think this method of connecting and diverging could be invaluable at most people’s Thanksgiving tables, let alone work conference tables.

  2. Laresa Griffin

    Oh my, Andrea – this is good! I’m going to use this today. Seriously, something like this situation happens almost every day, and I have not found the best way to approach it or the most helpful way to react. Thank you for this article!

  3. Andy Robinson

    Good stuff, Andrea. And yes — your neighborhood is challenging AND amazing.

  4. Lorraine Fraser

    Thank you, Andrea – whilst I don’t have the same scenarios as you have outlined – I will certainly use your approach


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