Free advice (for what it’s worth)

Tom Ahern

Fifteen years ago, as I began my transition from commercial copywriting into the nonprofit world, I made an offer that proved popular with fundraisers: a free crit.

The deal was simple: they’d send me something. I’d go over it, applying what I’d learned during a successful career in marketing. In exchange for that, they’d let me publicly post their critiqued appeal or newsletter or annual report or case statement on my website … for other people to read and learn from.

Fundraisers pounced. Scores of items arrived, looking for a frank (but kind) review. I did those crits for about eight years. I learned a ton about how charities commonly spoke to donors. Then, around 2012, I updated my website and retired the offer.

Then came the pandemic

On March 1, 2020, Simone and I checked into a boutique hotel in Scotland. Loch Ness sparkled outside our bedroom window as we unpacked. Snow draped the distant Highlands.

This was The Inch. Fundraising superstar Alan Clayton owns it. In warmer months, it functions as a hotel (there’s good hiking right out the back door). In colder months, it functions as a training center for nonprofits from many lands.

On this Sunday, March 1, 2020: A single-malt whiskey bar nestled downstairs. About 20 students, mid-career fundraisers from all over the world, were clumping in with their luggage for a 2.5-day masterclass.

It wasn’t cheap. But it promised to be memorable: a Michelin-starred chef oversaw the kitchen, three meals a day. And fundraisers would learn about the psychology of philanthropy … and how to apply it in their communications, in just 2.5 intense days. I was the copywriter in residence.

This was how Simone and I first learned about the pandemic.

A contingent of fundraisers arriving from China were scheduled to arrive at The Inch, for this masterclass. Suddenly, they’d cancelled. They couldn’t leave their country.

Doing free crits again (a bit) during the pandemic

Pro bono is my new hobby for now. I’m helping with a case for an Indigenous museum. I’m chiming in on appeals at a North American hospital. A Texas charter school wants my opinion.

You want to send me your next donor comms item for a free crit?

Try me.

If I have time and I think I can help, I will try to be helpful. Fairly promptly. (Just saying: Board problems are far above my pay grade. Contact Simone maybe?)

Here’s an example of a recent response, from me to a fundraiser in the midwest U.S. Just so you get the flavor of these things….

.. still happy to walk through your Mom Day appeal by phone, if you care to … but I see Mother’s Day is coming up, so let me make this fast ….

Here’s the 1st question I’d ask you:

Did you do something similar last year … and did it work well enough to justify your time/cost?

If the answer is YES! ~ then I have very little useful to tell you.

Rule #1 in any comms audit is this: Don’t break stuff that’s working.

Donor comms are entirely about revenue. If they’re producing that, either directly … or over time, via good relationships (hence better retention) … then they get a pass.

My real work is fixing stuff that ISN’T producing sufficient revenue … or maybe when a nonprofit wants to grow its base.

At least half the time, when a fundraiser sends me something to look at, my answer is “it passed the 3-second test … just send it.”

My best,


You? Ready for your free crit?
Pandemic-limited offer. Can only do so many. And do please include fundraising results from prior years with your item. Then? “WELCOME!” or 401-397-8104 | @thattomahern | Tom Ahern’s own blog

  • Tom Ahern