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The Hidden Killer: A Simple Misunderstanding
Tom Ahern

February, 2011

Most donor communications do not achieve anything like the desired results, thanks to an error as common as salt in sea water

Here's the news.


There's a 90% chance (at a minimum) that the communications you're sending out right now (maybe even today!), in an attempt to "steward" your "relationship" with donors, are saying ... wait for it ... exactly the wrong things.




And I know this why? Because I look at a lot of stuff. Not tens of pieces of donor communications. Nor dozens. Nor scores. But in the hundreds, annually; in the thousands, over the years. 


I've noticed something: most nonprofits apparently do not realize that there is a critical difference between "corporate" communications and "donor" communications. 


Well, please note: Corporate communications and donor communications are separate pursuits with dissimilar goals.

Corporate communications are soft-sell public relations activities, meant to burnish image and reputation.


Corporate communications obsessively talk about how smart and effective the organization is, intending to impress. The emotion they are most likely to invoke? Respect.  


The all-time favorite pronoun of corporate communications is "we." We are the best. We are groundbreaking. We are calm in the face of calamity. We combine yesterday's steadfast values with tomorrow's big ideas. We are innovative. We are exciting. We are the future. 


The favorite pronoun of donors communications, on the other hand, is "you." As in, "You, the beloved donor...." 


[corporate communications]

I feel very fortunate because in my travels I am able to meet the people that we have helped...


[donor communications]

I feel very fortunate because in my travels I am able to meet the people that you have helped...


[Above examples, adapted from a direct mail appeal written by Sean Triner/Pareto.]


If you're looking for a quick litmus test of your stuff, the "you test" will do quite nicely. It's fast. And it's 100% accurate. Donor communications love the word "you." They use it every chance they can. Corporate communications don't.


So, here's what you do. Right now: look at your website's home page. Go on. Do it. Open it in a new window. Are there a lot of you's? No? Then I guarantee you that your home page is not donor-ready or donor-appropriate. It's that simple. Same for your newsletters. Same for your annual reports. Same for your appeals. 


By now you might be thinking, "Okay, maybe I am doing corporate communications rather than true donor communications. Who cares? Why does any of this matter?"


Bombshell #2.


Here's why this particular distinction does make a difference: because corporate communications are intrinsically lousy at fundraising.


Corporate communications can only snag the lowest of low-hanging fruit. They can't go any higher. They're not built to, psychologically. They don't have the emotional hooks to climb into the loftier branches. So a lot of philanthropic fruit is left on the tree, unharvested, just waiting for the right kind of communication to come along.


Who knows how much philanthropy is beyond reach of the corporate communications issued by many, if not most, nonprofits: 10%? 20% Personally, I think it's closer to 50%; and I'll give you two examples. 


I know intimately two cases, where major charities abruptly switched from doing corporate-style communications to doing donor-appropriate communications instead. 


In one case, giving to a hospital newsletter soared 1,000% after the change, to $50,000 per issue.


In the other, an international group saw gifts triggered by its revised newsletter swell to a half-million dollars annually, thanks to just three far-from-perfect issues sent to just 10,000 selected donors. That's income of $50 per address on the list, for a per address cost of probably no more than a buck. Not a bad ROI. 


What's your charity's potential for gain, by making your communications less corporate and more donor-appropriate? Who knows. But fantasize just for a second: multiply every address on your mailing list by $50 in additional income, above and beyond your usual appeals. It's a juicy sum, I'm guessing. 


Donor-appropriate communications are...

  • Unabashedly personal
  • Unabashedly emotional
  • Unabashedly appreciative

The front-page headline of the Gillette Children's Foundation donor newsletter that prompted $49,600 in gifts:


Zawadi Says, "Thank You!"

You Helped a Tanzanian Girl Stand Tall on Her Own Two Feet   


The corporate communications version would have read (and produced 1/10th the giving):


At Gillette, Medical Pioneers Set the Standards for Correcting Feet




Another shining distinction between corporate communications and donor communications is the value placed on the reader's time and interests.


Good donor communications treat the reader as sacred -- and a squirmy beast, eager to escape.


Corporate communications treat the reader as a foregone conclusion, like students in a college classroom. Corporate communications like to lecture. They make points. They explain at length. They unashamedly use "insider" language (a.k.a., jargon that insiders understand and outsiders can only guess at).


"All fundraising copy should sound like someone talking," says George Smith. The admirable Mr. Smith is among the UK's most celebrated fundraising writers. His advice is not limited to direct mail, either. It applies to all communications meant for donor prospects and donors.


Writing for those audiences must (at a minimum):


  • Entertain them
  • Interest them
  • Gratify them emotionally
  • Exalt them (this is what donor-centricity is all about)
  • Make easy-to-spot and -understand offers
  • Exhort people to act now -- and make action quick and easy 

That last is key. The worst and first enemy in donor communications is inertia. Getting anyone to do anything is hard, even when they are predisposed. The only safe attitude I know is this: assume no one will respond to your communications; now what can you do to improve on that?


From the field >>>>   

I spent the day in Baltimore working with the entire communications crew at Catholic Relief Services. We had a lovely, productive time. Created an "emotional profile" of a major donor. Based on a real person, then expanding out to look at all the various emotional reasons that lead people to possibly give, including faith; Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs was in the room. Talked about what the research tells us about major donors and their special preferences. Talked about the critical distinction between corporate communications and donor communications [see above]. We talked about "donor-centricity" (the real kind, not the trademarked kind) and how you write donor-obsessed content. CRS has a lot of serious talent on staff. Admired their very fine writing and design work. We dipped into eye-motion studies. Had a headline-writing contest and goofy prizes. We ate a nice little lunch and chatted about social media. It was a 9-4 day. For me, it was a golden moment. And entertaining both ends. My taxi driver in was the father from the Ukraine. My taxi driver out was the son. The son had a side business, buying cars in the U.S. and shipping them abroad for profit. He drove to impress me with his insouciant style, which was semi-terrifying; no blinkers (sign of weakness), at high speed, with contemptuous inches to spare when he (frequently) passed. I loved it. We survived.


Visit Tom Ahern at


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