The art of giving bad news


bad news 2In this field, we receive bad news from funders and donors as often as people get eaten by zombies on the Walking Dead, which is pretty often (by the way, if you are running into a trailer to escape a zombie attack, it is a good idea to close the door behind you. Jimmy, you exquisite fool!). VFA has received our fair share of bad news over the years. You would think that repeated exposure would desensitize us, but no, it is still pretty painful each time. When it comes down to it, any sort of bad news from a funder or a donor or The Next Iron Chef first-round auditions is a personal rejection, and it hurts. You intellectualize it—“Well, we got our foot in the door; it’ll increase our chances next year,” but it still stings.

Despite the ubiquity of rejection notices, people are awful at giving bad news. No one wants to do it, especially when it concerns huge grants that could potentially keep an organization floating another year, or fulfilling someone’s dream of being America’s first vegan Iron Chef. I have received a bunch of rejections, and as an Executive Director I’ve given out a bunch too, so I’ve learned a few lessons that I hope will help us all be better bearers of bad news.

First, the timing. Get it over with! There is absolutely nothing worse than waiting. It is terrible to exist in that sort of limbo. You may be dreading giving the news, but it is infinitely worse for the receiver, who has probably been checking their email or mail with a combination of hope and fear. Format is not nearly as important as timing. Once you know someone did not get the job, or the grant, or the consultancy gig, let them know right away and end their torment. Sure, it may be Friday and you want to wait till Monday so you don’t ruin their weekend, but I say it’s still better to get it out of the way, so that they can start going through the stages of grief, which for me are denial, anger, consuming an entire bag of wavy potato chips (with Sriracha), sending out a depressing email to the staff, intellectualizing, more anger, sadness, three or four Long Island Iced Tea, calling up several ED friends to complain, and finally, acceptance. Or maybe more anger. [Author’s note, based on feedback: Don’t give bad news on major holidays or Superbowl Sunday].

Second, the format. In general, I like emails, especially for job rejection notices. I know it is more personal to receive a phone call. You’re hoping the receiver will think, “Aw, how thoughtful, he’s personally calling me; this softens the blow and makes me feel better that I didn’t get this job after going through the application process.” Well, maybe precisely because it is personal that it should be reconsidered. After raising someone’s hopes up, probably the last thing they want to do is talk to the rejecter and hear the pity in your voice. It’s just awkward all around. You may disagree with me on this, which is OK. Overall, I think it’s best to send an email notice and include the option for the rejectee to call you to get feedback. Then, if they do decide to call, at least it’s their choice, and this feeling of control can be helpful and maybe prevent them from having that fifth Long Island.

Third, the sequence. No matter the format, rip the band-aid off immediately. Because bad news is no fun to give, and because most of us try to be thoughtful, we end up with notices like this: “Dear Vu: Thank you for applying to the ABC Foundation. We really appreciate the work that you and VFA do. We received a lot of good applications this year for the Awesome Program Grant. Yours was one of them. But due to the economy and the Euro crisis affecting the strength of the Yen…”

It is agonizing! Start like this: “Dear Vu: Unfortunately you didn’t get the Awesome Program grant. We received a lot of good applications this year, blah blah…” Start your notice with either “Unfortunately” or “Congratulations.” Everything else is filler. I once sat through a horrific minute on the phone after applying for an $80,000 grant: “Hello Vu, thank you for calling me back. How are you doing? Great. Well, I wanted to let you know that 16 organizations applied for this grant. 8 from small organizations like yours, and 8 from big organizations. The review committee selected 10 for a site visit, (remember how much fun that was when the four of us showed up early? Ha ha). After heavy consideration…hold on, are you in a car? Are you driving? You’re not? Your staff is driving? Well, wonderful! Safety is really important you know, so I’m glad you’re not driving. Anyway, after much consideration, VFA is selected as one of the six organizations we’re funding. Congratulations!”

I was clawing at my face, and at one point, my life started flashing before my eyes. Thank God that was good news. If it had been bad, I probably would have jumped into traffic.

Get to the point immediately. In fact, do it in the email subject line. I got an email just two weeks ago with this subject line: “Regrets from XYZ Foundation.” I did not get the $15,000 grant. But I really appreciated their approach. Let’s follow their example. For all notices from now on, let’s agree to standardize the subject line to either “Regrets from” or “Congratulations from.”

I’m getting ready to send out a bunch of “Regrets from VFA” emails today regarding a consultancy gig. It’s not fun to dash someone’s hopes, but you know, the Euro crisis has really been affecting the Yen. After I deliver the bad news, I’ll be in my cubicle, eating a bag of wavy potato chips with Sriracha.

Sigh…XYZ Foundation, why, why don’t you like us, why?!!!