Exceptions Handling: Tending to the Details of Donor Care

I’ve been with Merkle Response Management for over seven years, beginning in our Quality and Implementation departments overseeing the Quality Management System (ISO 9001:2008) and annual Statement on Standards for Attestation Engagements (SSAE16) certification processes as well as assisting with the on-boarding process of new clients. In 2011, I was promoted to Assistant Manager of Client Services while continuing to oversee Merkle’s Quality Management System. In 2014, I became the Fulfillment Manager in the production area, and earlier this year I moved into Merkle’s Exception Services department where I oversee all the exceptions handling for our clients donors.

In my spare time I enjoy being with my extended family including my parents, grandparents, sister, aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews. I spend every second with them I can. One lesson I’ve learned is life is short, so let the ones you love know it whenever you can – never put it off until tomorrow.

My job in Exceptions Services is all about the details of properly handling the non-standard transactions that occur in direct mail donation processing. The issues that our clients and their donors indicate need attention are what I’m concerned with. Exceptions include donor requests such as changes in contact information (names, addresses), comments (ranging from “take me off your mailing list” to donor feedback on the work of the nonprofit), responses with no reply coupon (white mail), tributes, sustainers, matching gifts, rejects, and literature requests.

Exceptions processing begins in the initial processing of incoming mail. It’s important to have documented procedures for every possible scenario so we know ahead of time how to handle whatever we may find in each envelope. At Merkle Response Management Group, our new client implementation teams make recommendations and document the client’s business rules that govern how all the non-standard requests we may encounter should be handled.

Work Instructions – These are documents required by our ISO-certified processes that detail how each client’s work is to be handled and every department has them. As you would expect, mail processing has the most, and they are particularly detailed regarding Exceptions Services. We work intensively with our clients so we understand exactly how they want Exceptions to be handled. This can change as different situations arise, so we keep in close touch with clients, updating the Work Instructions documents frequently.

Our account managers work closely with our clients on a day-to-day basis and make sure any changes in a client’s business rules for Exception Processing and other areas are properly documented and communicated to the impacted operational departments. Managers in each department acknowledge in writing that they have received and implemented the changes. This internal feedback loop is important, as it makes sure everyone is clear on the procedural changes that have been made.

Handling of Exceptions By Type

Following are some categories in Exceptions Handling that go beyond changes in basic contact information:

High dollar donor gifts:

Each client has their own rules for what is considered a high dollar gift and how they want them handled. Most clients want to be notified of these on the same day they are received so they can follow up quickly with phone calls and/or highly personalized acknowledgment letters. We also offer autopen abilities enabling a “hand-written” response for high value donors that we are able to execute. In political fundraising, there are rules that govern limits on the amount that can be donated. We make sure donations are compliant and alert our clients if gifts exceed the allowed amount.

White mail response:

These envelopes include just a check, or don’t contain the original source documents. When this happens, we have to access the client’s database and perform a search to determine if the donor is already in the database. We write the ID number on the check or supporting documents and send it back for processing so it can be properly captured as a new or existing donor.

Rejected/invalid credit cards, or checks made out incorrectly:Sometimes, donors identify in the source documents that they will donate but then forget to include the donations. Another difficulty we encounter is when the check is made payable to a different entity. Checks may be stale, or out-of-date, and cannot be cashed. Credit card numbers donors provide can be invalid, or expired. When any of these situations occur, we either send a letter, or in the case of incorrect credit card information, recommend using our call center to contact the donor via phone. With a phone call, there is a 40 percent success rate in obtaining a valid card number, versus 20 percent with a letter. Challenges with checks far outweigh those with credit cards since the average age of most donors is 65 – 75 years, and donors in that age bracket prefer to donate by check.


Comments require specialized responses as they can run the gamut. We sort these and respond with a standardized letter where possible, again following the client’s business rules. Where a custom response is needed, we rely on the close relationships our account managers have with clients to get the required information and craft the best response.

Matching Gifts:

This is where employers will match the gifts made by their employees. Many of our clients want us to complete the necessary forms (whether paper or online) and send them to the client for review and signature. Some clients give us power of attorney to sign the forms for them. More and more employers offer the ability to submit requests for matching gifts online, about 50 percent, currently.


These gifts “In honor of” or “In memory of” are typically keyed directly into the client’s donor management system. We also print and mail cards informing the recipient of the tribute or memoriam. This category shows why it’s important to have staff dedicated to Exceptions handling with an attention to detail that ensures the correct response. For example, in tributes, there is a big difference between “In honor of” and “In memory of” and if you’re not careful, there is a high probability of antagonizing donors by sending the wrong response.

For some of our clients, we handle the uploading of the data we capture into their donor management system. As with everything we do, Merkle Response follows strict procedures for securing the data we handle on behalf of our clients.

These are perfect examples of the different levels of expertise that Exceptions handling can require and the need for a very high skill set and careful training of our personnel to be able to execute successfully.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about Merkle Response’s approach to Exceptions Handling, and if you’d like to share some of your own experiences or processes, please do.