“In a billion-dollar campaign case,” she wondered, “where do you stick the ‘letter from the Dean’?”

Tom Ahern


Good question, Echo.

¶ In our little world [The Case Writers], where we pretty much get to write and design whatever we think is best, working with a group of clients who want exactly that, every “normal” element is questionable.

You start each day with this question, “What if everything I think I know is wrong?”

¶ In other words, if something normally goes first (like a CEO’s letter), you automatically ask WHY?

How did it earn that pride of place? Is that CEO/chair letter maybe just a convention that no one’s ever questioned?

If you find no convincing answer, you start from scratch: “Why are we doing this? Can we do without it? Can we do something way better?” (In pretty much all cases, the answer to that is YES … as you learn in “creativity training.” There is such a thing. Everyone should endure it.

You will hear, “Everybody else does it. We should, too!”

That’s how a lot of nonprofit communications have ended up in the sad, non-lucrative, donor-ignoring, under-performing stale and ugly state they are currently in. Nobody knows what they’re doing.

¶ Is it [the answer to Echo continued] these days maybe even a REALLY BAD IDEA to put that CEO letter first?

See, now we have a lot more neuroscience handy than we had back in 1950, when this convention might have been hatched.

“Anchoring,” for instance, was discovered in the 1970s by two Israeli psychologists (one became a Nobel Prize winner).

“Anchoring” ( … in my reductive and low-brow but actionable terms … ) discovered that whatever comes first sets the framework.

So let’s assume your CEO’s letter comes first.

IF that letter is a cumulus cloud of BS crossed with PR crossed with jargon crossed with smiley faces, then basically the framework, the anchoring, just set up is this: “Here we go again. The usual crap.”

On the other hand, IF that president’s letter is like the one that opens the billion-dollar-plus “Yale Tomorrow” case (2008), it will talk about this distinguished university entering its sunset years, with a steadily declining reputation … unless there’s a HUGE infusion of donations as fast as possible.

Yale (of course) went over-goal.

There is nothing like loss-aversion to stir response.