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How to make your billion-dollar goal? Universities: Ban deans from the case approval loop. Hospitals: Same goes for the chief of staff.
Tom Ahern

July, 2008

P.S., all fundraisers: Read this even if you aren't engaged in a capital campaign. Why? Because, Houston, the fundraising industry has a BIG problem. Approval of fundraising communications is often ceded to those least-qualified: people at the top of the org chart.

I write case statements for part of my income. I teach how to write case statements for another part. And for the unmatched excitement of receiving a small royalty check every quarter, I've even written a book about case statements (out in November from Emerson & Church).

I don't guess at any of it. I don't dare: there's too much at stake. I've read every major textbook on capital campaigns. I work as a contract case writer for one of America's leading capital campaign consulting firms. And I seek out and interview top solicitors at hospitals and universities, people who commonly raise millions. Why? Because these are the people who actually use case statements. As a writer of same, I need to know how.

To repeat: I teach case-writing, more than a dozen times this past year alone.

And here's the lament that arises at every workshop, without exception, without fail: "Well, that's fine, Tom; and I agree with you. But my dean/president/boss will never approve. He/she thinks more verbiage is better; and that jargon and lofty language are the best."

Look, we all know what we know. But sometimes people in unassailable positions (think tenured) fall into an eerie intellectual trance. They start to assume they know everything; and that what they don't know, they can easily guess at, using the mighty instrument of a big brain stamped Ph.D. Common human failing? Absolutely. Tolerable human failing in a capital campaign attempting to raise $1 billion? Please.

A case statement is a sales document.

As a sales document, its success depends on many things: an understanding of applied psychology, eye-motion studies, best practices in advertising, journalistic training. To name just the cream.

A case for support speaks to generalists, not specialists. Consider. The University of Toronto's $1 billion campaign convinced more than 112,000 individuals to make gifts. About half were first-time donors. Altogether, a vast throng. Virtually none were specialists in any academic sense.

Jargon-riddled, lofty-leaning, and (hence) tedious writing does not impress this crowd. It fatigues this crowd. It frustrates this crowd. It confuses this crowd. And pity the poor solicitor in a face-to-face solicitation (the font of most cash; 97% of the money is raised from just 3% of the donors, after all) who ends up blurting, "Look, I know; it's kind of vague. Here's what they're trying to say."

Consider this the first commandment for case writing: A competent, professional approval loop for case statements includes NO ONE but (1) solicitors; (2) their designated writers; and (3) content experts.

Deans can be content experts. Chiefs of staff can be content experts. Content experts check facts. And that's ALL they do. They do not rewrite for style. They do not put their "stamp" on anything. That's not their job. And unless they've worked as a copywriter, it is certainly not their expertise.

A case statement is nothing like a grant proposal or a peer-reviewed article, things an academic might have some familiarity with. Why does this distinction matter? Target audience. A case has to persuade a target audience of generalists, not specialists.

Specialists read grant proposals and peer-reviewed articles. You can reasonably expect specialists to grind their way through every tortured phrase. Call it professional courtesy.

Generalists read case statements. These are your gift prospects. They are volunteers, lending you a few minutes of their valuable time. Keep in mind: outside of work, they mostly read for entertainment. They're used to news articles that give them the whole story in under 50 words. Bore your generalists, confuse them, irritate them at your peril.

Specialists vs. generalists: know the difference ... or else.

Tom Ahern is recognized as one of North America’s top authorities on nonprofit and donor communications. His "Love Thy Reader" workshops win rave reviews at fundraising conferences across the U.S. and Canada.

Tom's workshops have trained thousands of nonprofit staff and board in the revenue-building secrets of psychology, marketing, writing, and graphic design. In 2005 he joined other world-class experts as a faculty member for the IFC's weeklong conference in the Netherlands, attended by fundraisers from 80 countries.

He is the author of The Mercifully Brief, Real World Guide to Raising More Money with Newsletters Than You Ever Thought Possible, released in October 2005 by Emerson & Church. A second book titled How to Write Fundraising Materials That Raise More Money. John Wiley & Sons, the premier publisher of books for the nonprofit industry, in January 2006 contracted with Tom (and his wife, consultant Simone Joyaux) to produce a new book with the working title, Nonprofit Fundraising Communications: A Practical and Profitable Approach. Tom is also an award-winning magazine journalist, for articles on health, women's rights and other social justice issues. Visit


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