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Sunday, January 21, 2018

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A troubled mind walks into a bar
Tom Ahern

January, 2011

Ted Hart was kind enough to invite me onboard his online "blogtalkradio" show, The Nonprofit Coach, streamed live to your computer's speakers every Tuesday at noon. (Subsequently available as podcasts; well, so they say. I couldn't figure that part out.) As a guest on Ted's show, you get to write questions in advance. I wrote questions and answers.


"When do you really need a case for support?"

Always. It doesn't matter whether you're sending out a direct mail appeal or chasing millions for a capital project: you need to know what you're selling.

It's a common flaw: having no better reason for your "ask" (direct mail or in person) than a weak excuse like "...because our cause needs money."

A major hospital group I know in California has held its own philanthropically for the last two years, against the sucking drain of the Global Economic Crisis, which has knocked 20% off giving at many charities. Why? It's simple, I think. The hospital's foundation has articulated a strong, brief case for support that is repeated and reinforced in every direct mail appeal. The case goes like this:

Insurance pays for ordinary healthcare, yes. But extraordinary healthcare - the kind you count on [here, at the hospital that serves you and your family], the kind that attracts national awards - is only possible thanks to donors like you.


Do you need confirmation that focusing on a single easy-to-understand and emotionally relevant message makes a big difference? Read (as I am right now) the business best-seller, Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, by Chip and Dan Heath. It will change your life, almost guaranteed.



"Is direct mail dead?"

No. But it is deadly boring.

Direct mail is still the best way to get into most homes.

But you have only 1-3 seconds to make a good impression in today's attention-deficit-disorder society. Most of us, after all, throw away most of our non-personal mail most of the time.
It's brutal. And yet, what an opportunity....

Job #1 for today's direct mail writer is to be a good guest ... which means, you have to be entertaining. There are a thousand ways to entertain. Here are two that always work:

ONE: Be grateful.

TWO: Surprise me. This commandment is "merely" neuroscience: human brains are hardwired to pay more attention to things that are new and different (as opposed to routine and familiar). If you surprise me, I will pay attention.

I no longer think of a direct mail letter as "just a" conversation (per George Smith). Now I see direct mail letters as, each, an intimate speech (per Barack Obama, MLK, FDR), saying something special to thousands of hearts who share my values.

Furthermore, there's this: When you're writing direct mail, pretend you're writing to a bloke, not a ponce. You'll end up sounding friendlier.

When I write direct mail appeals, personally? I pretend I'm writing to a TV sit-com Australian. [[ Or to Sean Triner, licensed poisonous-snake wrangler and co-founder of Pareto, a world-important direct mail house based around Sydney. ]] Why? Because I can easily imagine such a person. (And the accent's cute.) Because in America (my home port), Aussies are thought to be proper English ... without the reputed anal broomstick.

Look: you have to have someone in mind when you write direct mail. Otherwise, as Peter Jackson, the NZ-based movie director of Lord of the Rings said, "You'll turn out boilerplate crap."


"What is the biggest problem you see today in fundraising communications?"


The single biggest pitfall I see today that SERIOUSLY reduces giving is the utter absence of donor-centricity in almost all donor communications.

If it weren't actually true, it would count as one of the great practical jokes of business history: We're trying to raise money from people we ignore. Candid Camera plays outlandish pranks like this -- but that's just for giggles.

Alas, in the nonprofit world, it's no joke. It's an industry. Well, an attempted industry anyway. An industry that ignores its customers? Good luck with that.

I spoke in October at the IFC, which is a $60 cab ride from Amsterdam. For my presentation, I looked at and evaluated the websites of more than a dozen attendees, brand-name charities all. And ... yikes, shocking, ohmigod?!? Only ONE of these brand-name charities even bothers to mention the existence of, or need for, donors in its public mission statement.

That's the 21st-century equivalent of, "The world is flat. Trust me."

Fundraisers talk about "being donor-centric." Experts like Ken Burnett (first) and Adrian Sargeant (later) have rattled on about the need to be donor-centric for decades. Come-lately Penny Burk even went and trademarked the term, so she could own it, and you couldn't use it. (Please treat her accordingly.)

Problem is....

Everyone knows you're supposed to be donor-centric. But how in fact do you do the deed? What does donor-centricity really look like? What's the proper "messaging attitude" to take?

My answer: write "flattery baths."

Overwhelm the donor and prospect with praise. And, you know what? That flattery better be sincere as well as copious. Nonprofits are so full of themselves, I'm surprised more don't explode.


Any other problems you see?

My three peeves are these: (1) No one knows how to properly criticize creative work (minor problem). (2) The approval process, with rare exceptions, is designed to produce failure, not success (this is especially a problem with cases for capital campaigns). (3) Fundraisers do not fully control their own sales effort; they get second-guessed routinely by their bosses.

This last is the number one complaint I hear at workshops ... and it costs nonprofits a lot of lost revenue.

Chief fundraisers SHOULD control all fundraising communications dictatorially, WITHOUT needing approval from anyone else. The fundraiser should pick every thought, every word, and every punctuation. But that is rarely the case.

Visit Tom Ahern at


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