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The defining ah-ha moments of my career (so far) - part 1
Tom Ahern

June, 2011

Every so often you run into an idea or a bit of research completely shattering. These are those for me.


Professor Adrian Sargeant. You remember "The Emperor's New Clothes," the Hans Christian Andersen tale?

     Two unscrupulous weavers sell the emperor a suit of "invisible" cloth which they claim only the worthy can see. The emperor, unwillingly to admit he can't see it, parades through the city "wearing" the magic suit. His subjects dutifully go along with the game. The hero is a child who cries out, "But he's naked!"

     Adrian Sargeant is this child. He was a professor of marketing in the UK before he turned his attention to the fundraising world. I think he was shocked to find that many "best practices" of fundraising, an enterprise undertaken internationally by millions of charitable organizations, seem based on little more than accepted wisdom and certainly not on science. 

     He is trying to change that precarious state of affairs by conducting original, rigorous research.

     He has unearthed, for instance, the principles that tend to increase donor loyalty. I use his principles every day in my writing and communications strategies.

     He advocates adopting Lifetime Value (LTV) as the true measure of donor worth, a concept that, in effect, turns every donor into a potential major donor.

    And he insists that fundraising programs cannot systematically improve their performance without adopting basic feedback mechanisms common in marketing, such as donor satisfaction surveys.

     The 3 books of his I have are Tiny Essentials of Donor Loyalty, Fundraising Principles and Practice, and Building Donor Loyalty.


Creativity training. If I were in charge of reforming public school education in America, I would immediately mandate one new item be added to the standard curriculum: creativity training.

     I am NOT talking about art classes or other "outlets for creative expression." I'm talking about equipping young minds with one incomparable success skill: the ability to have 20 ideas instead of just one, when confronted with a challenge. This is the stuff that makes great doers in business, the arts, the sciences, and all forms of human endeavor. Some of our foremost "geniuses" have had normal IQs. What made their life's work special was their ability to generate lots and lots of ideas ... instead of just one.

     I took my first creativity workshop out of curiosity, at mid-career. I was stunned by what I'd missed. The teacher was an award-winning advertising creative, Tom Monahan. (Sorry to say, some Amazon reviewers trashed Tom's book. But there are other books to consider.) 

     His warm-up exercise was this: Think up a new kind of tuna-fish sandwich, but don't use any bread. Your inner logician protests, You can't do that! Bread defines the sandwich! And that's exactly the point. You cannot have new, fresh ideas until you break free of your conventional, default patterns of thought.

     We all think in ruts; we just don't realize it. Confronted with a problem, we quickly offer a solution.

     But seldom, if ever, are first solutions the best solutions. Creativity training gives you, instead, the ability to generate potential solutions in abundance.

     Bosses enjoy challenging their employees to "think outside the box." Without creativity training, though, that's like telling fish to swim outside the water: it simply can't be done.

     Creativity training is something I use every time I sit down to write a case or a direct mail appeal.  


Coming NEXT >>>>  


In part 2 of my ah-ha moments memoir, you'll read about Mal Warwick's concept of "mental nods" and George Smith's dictum re: keeping it conversational. Both are secrets to fundraising success.




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