EXCERPTED BELOW: The 14th chapter-in-progress, yanked squealing in protest (“please rewrite!”) from the 2nd edition of my how-to-write-effective-cases book

Tom Ahern

EXCERPTED BELOW: The 14th chapter-in-progress, yanked squealing in protest (“please rewrite!”) from the 2nd edition of my how-to-write-effective-cases book. >>>

The 1st edition was titled: Seeing Through a Donor’s Eyes. This extremely updated 2nd edition, due out in 2020 from Emerson & Church, adds all sorts of new material, from a variety of experts: world-class DM guru, Jeff Brooks; ground-breaking, Toronto-based Agents of Good; Maggie Cohn (best interviewer I know), Leah Eustace (Canadian super-star), The Case Writers (a collective of top creatives), more >>>

I’m not sure what to call this 2nd edition of this case book. It will include annual reports as well as cases, for one thing. Feel free to suggest a title solution. I’ve happily crowd-sourced book titles before. >>>

From the latest book: Chapter 14 (for the moment, anyway)

General case for support

Back then (roughly 2000) I was just entering the fundraising world.

For the 15 years previous, I’d made my living as a copywriter; hustling an array of products and services: industrial roof membranes, custom-crafted super-yachts, continuing education, disability insurance, retirement-savings plans, online lottery systems, zoo admissions.

Now I was dipping my toe (my pen, really) into good causes. And I’d just tripped over a term beloved in fundraising: “case for support.”

Color me clueless. As one does at such crossroads, I began to read. Stanley Weinstein, in his 2004 book, Capital Campaigns from the Ground Up, described the item thusly:

“A case for support, also called a case statement, is a body of language that describes the rationale for supporting a nonprofit organization. It is written from the donor’s perspective, primarily the desire to support worthwhile projects and organizations that help enhance the lives of others.”

Every word in Mr. Weinstein’s synopsis is dead-on accurate, by the way … as I finally realized after I’d written 20 cases. But right then? I panicked. What in the world did “a body of language” mean?[1]

Every fundraising program has, as its foundation, a general case for support

When I was new to cases and hungry for enlightenment (the consultant’s prayer: Please, Lord, don’t let me fail to do my part in this multi-million-dollar campaign), Stanley Weinstein’s description mystified me.

I must have raced through a half-dozen books on capital campaigns … and they all reached the same conclusion: “You’ll need a strong case for support.” At which point I’d turn eagerly to the next chapter … which generally began, “Now that you have a strong case for support.”

Apparently, if you worked in fundraising, you just knew what a case for support was. But I didn’t. What does a case really look like? I wondered. How do you use it? I worried. I wanted to know about cases as things … not as concepts.

Allow me, therefore, for anyone now wearing the same shoes I cluelessly wore at that time, to demystify the general case for support.


Before you can confidently ask strangers for money, your cause must have in hand … in mind … embedded in your corporate culture … and on the tip of every likely tongue (from the receptionist, to the CEO, to the chief fundraiser, to the board chair, to a marketing department which might not be familiar with the subtleties of fundraising) a thoughtful case for support.

What’s a thought-less case for support? “We’re a good cause. We deserve your gift.”

No, you don’t; not even close. The easy days of fundraising (if they ever existed) are generations behind us.

The charity world is congested. In the U.S. alone, we’re well on our way to 2 million government-sanctioned nonprofits; they were the nation’s third-largest employer in 2018, Johns Hopkins researchers found. And you know what? The rest of the world is just as busy, trying to get ahead of our home planet’s rampant, ramping problems.

So, yes, the competition for the donor’s dollar is fierce.

Tell me again: Why should I trust you with my hard-earned money?
What’s in a general case for donor support?
A general case for support summarizes why your mission might matter.

That’s job #1.

Your general case also makes abundantly clear why donors play an essential role in achieving your wonderful, most-needed, urgent, vital, unique, curious, world-changing mission.

That’s job #2.

I keep an eye on what Greenpeace has to say. This organization grew from a handful of brave activists on a leased (and leaking) fishing boat, challenging the U.S. military over nuclear testing … to 2.8 million members worldwide today, challenging the world’s most entrenched (and best-financed) interests over the fate of our planet.

Greenpeace tweaks its general case for support frequently … yet one aspect is eternal (“our campaigns are funded entirely by supporters, never by governments or corporations”). Here’s a recent iteration, from the online-donation page of the U.S. office:
Greenpeace is leading the charge with uncompromising global campaigns to win the future we all know is possible. [Job #1 accomplished.] The only thing that is missing is you — our campaigns are funded entirely by supporters, never by governments or corporations. [Job #2 accomplished.]
This is the time. This is the fight. Give what you can today — every single donation, no matter the amount, helps us win for the planet.

Here’s how a mental health service for local youth made its general case:
Safety net. That’s one way to describe us.

Ask a family who’s come to us for counseling, desperate for one small ray of hope.

Or someone we’ve brought along from homeless teen to self-sufficient young adult.

Or parents worried about drug use after school, a tragedy we now see in our community as early as the elementary grades.

We can do something about all these crises.

But only with your support. Every year, to meet the needs of local families and youth, we have to raise a half-million dollars from donors like you.
Words matter … but not as much as repetition
Your general case for support can be brief, sometimes no more than a sentence: “Listener donations power NPR’s network of community based public radio stations.”

What matters more than your exact words is sheer repetition.

The more frequent your message, the more deeply it will penetrate your target audiences.

Some version of your general case for support should appear in every communication – your emails, your direct mail appeals, your annual (“gratitude”) reports, your website, your social media posts, your newsletters, your press releases, your presentations, your voicemail messages, your thanks … any place you’re likely to meet an agreeable heart and mind.

[1] “Body of language” simply means “prose.” You use words to make a case. Images, too. As well as emotions, calls to action, drama, storytelling, glamour; and a pinch of reason: a good case involves the lot.

  • : Tom Ahern