How the message switcheroo crushes your fundraising

Here’s a cautionary tale from Tom Ahern’s Love Thy Donor newsletter: Following in the footsteps of your promise.

It’s about a nonprofit that had an effective direct mail acquisition control that led with a powerful, uncompromising faith-based message. It brought in tons of donors.

Then something would go wrong: those donors would start getting the newsletter, produced by in-house experts on the organization’s staff. It was nothing at all like the letter that brought them aboard. It told the story in jargon and with lot of data. It had lost its religious passion and spiritual focus.

That’s a very expensive switcheroo. If you bring donors into the fold with the fervor of a missionary — then start talking to them like a social worker, you are going to lose donors. Donor retention will tank, because donors will wonder who the heck is talking to them:

Newsletter editors: have samples of your organization’s successful direct mail in front of you as you write. Look for key sales messages like “follow in the footsteps of your faith.” Use the same kinds of messages in your newsletter headlines. Reaffirm the values that first brought your donors aboard.

This problem isn’t unique to religious organizations. There are many fundraising programs that have high-powered, well-honed acquisition controls — and barely-related subsequent communications.

It’s not only revenue killer, it’s fundamentally dishonest. If your high-powered acquisition control is fundamentally untrue, then you have no business using it to get donors. On the other hand, if that high-powered piece is accurate and true, you have no business wandering away from it later. Either way is a kind of big fat lie. You owe it to your donors (and yourself) to be truthful.

(This story is adapted from Ahern’s forthcoming book about donor newsletters. Let me tell you, this book is going to be a must read among must-reads!)

Update: Link to Ahern’s newsletter now works.


Comments

10 responses to “How the message switcheroo crushes your fundraising”

  1. This speaks to something I have been wrestling with a good bit lately, but not necessarily related to fundraising in particular, but more a lack of consistent communication across an entire organization. My default is that is this is more of a symptom than the root cause.
    That said, in organizations in which you are seeing this done well, what traits are most common? What is true about those organizations that succeed in this, and what is true of those that don’t?

  2. This speaks to something I have been wrestling with a good bit lately, but not necessarily related to fundraising in particular, but more a lack of consistent communication across an entire organization. My default is that is this is more of a symptom than the root cause.
    That said, in organizations in which you are seeing this done well, what traits are most common? What is true about those organizations that succeed in this, and what is true of those that don’t?

  3. Whoa…now wait a minute, Jeff. I’m a fan of Ahern’s but he is off-base on this one. I work for the organization he is referring to, and I can assure you there was nothing dishonest about any of our materials. He’s taking two pieces out of context, and cataloging them incorrectly. Footsteps in Faith isn’t an acquisition control, it’s a direct mail package to join our monthly giving program. Our core fundraising materials have always been faithful in messaging, as 96% of our donors are weekly mass-attending Catholics. Our newsletter is decidedly a stewardship piece meant to share stories about the families whose lives are being improved because of their support, as well as showing how we spent the funds entrusted to us. Could we be doing a better job “speaking with one voice”? Absolutely. Who couldn’t. But to imply that we are deliberately trying to dupe donors with a bait and switch is absurd.

  4. Whoa…now wait a minute, Jeff. I’m a fan of Ahern’s but he is off-base on this one. I work for the organization he is referring to, and I can assure you there was nothing dishonest about any of our materials. He’s taking two pieces out of context, and cataloging them incorrectly. Footsteps in Faith isn’t an acquisition control, it’s a direct mail package to join our monthly giving program. Our core fundraising materials have always been faithful in messaging, as 96% of our donors are weekly mass-attending Catholics. Our newsletter is decidedly a stewardship piece meant to share stories about the families whose lives are being improved because of their support, as well as showing how we spent the funds entrusted to us. Could we be doing a better job “speaking with one voice”? Absolutely. Who couldn’t. But to imply that we are deliberately trying to dupe donors with a bait and switch is absurd.

  5. Tom Ahern Avatar

    Whoops. Thanks, Laura, for the correction on how the direct mail piece was used. But you’re reading something into my article that was not there at all, at least intentionally. I wasn’t talking about duplicity or bait and switch. I was talking about starting with one message … but later ignoring that message on the reporting side (newsletters) and thereby losing the opportunity to emotionally gratify your donors as time went on. I never anticipated that anyone would interpret my analysis as an accusation of bait-and-switch. Truly: it never occurred to me, since I’m fully aware of all the good work your organization does around the world. I was merely talking about a lost messaging opportunity on the newsletter side … and its potential for exacerbating donor attrition.

  6. Tom Ahern Avatar

    Whoops. Thanks, Laura, for the correction on how the direct mail piece was used. But you’re reading something into my article that was not there at all, at least intentionally. I wasn’t talking about duplicity or bait and switch. I was talking about starting with one message … but later ignoring that message on the reporting side (newsletters) and thereby losing the opportunity to emotionally gratify your donors as time went on. I never anticipated that anyone would interpret my analysis as an accusation of bait-and-switch. Truly: it never occurred to me, since I’m fully aware of all the good work your organization does around the world. I was merely talking about a lost messaging opportunity on the newsletter side … and its potential for exacerbating donor attrition.

  7. Thanks so much Tom, I appreciate the clarification, although while you didn’t say we were being dishonest, I think Jeff was. We are a large organization and we’ve been trying to do a better job at having more consistency in our messaging. It’s tricky – our donors are very devout Catholics, where many of our web/newsletter readers are secular (partners, corporations and foundations, USAID proposal recipients) and they want to hear about our efficiency and effectiveness in programming – not about the spiritual nature of our mission. It’s a constant struggle. Regardless, thanks to both of you for the feedback. While sometimes it can be a bitter pill, it is always good to know how our materials are being perceived out in the world.

  8. Thanks so much Tom, I appreciate the clarification, although while you didn’t say we were being dishonest, I think Jeff was. We are a large organization and we’ve been trying to do a better job at having more consistency in our messaging. It’s tricky – our donors are very devout Catholics, where many of our web/newsletter readers are secular (partners, corporations and foundations, USAID proposal recipients) and they want to hear about our efficiency and effectiveness in programming – not about the spiritual nature of our mission. It’s a constant struggle. Regardless, thanks to both of you for the feedback. While sometimes it can be a bitter pill, it is always good to know how our materials are being perceived out in the world.

  9. Laura, I’m the one who labelled the changing message as “dishonest,” and I should clarify: I’m not saying your organization (or any other nonprofit I’ve known first-hand) was lying. I’m sure everyone is earnestly doing what they think is the best thing. But the end result, as experienced by donors, can be a type of dishonesty. “I thought I was giving to a strong Catholic organization. Where are they now?”
    My advice: Boldly be who you are. Don’t let the fact that you have non-Catholic donors influence you away from that. You’ll find that most of your non-Catholic donors are completely fine with your faith, even if they don’t share it. They love what you do; that’s why they give. Donors in general are remarkably well-educated and tolerant and not interested in forcing you to hide your core.

  10. Laura, I’m the one who labelled the changing message as “dishonest,” and I should clarify: I’m not saying your organization (or any other nonprofit I’ve known first-hand) was lying. I’m sure everyone is earnestly doing what they think is the best thing. But the end result, as experienced by donors, can be a type of dishonesty. “I thought I was giving to a strong Catholic organization. Where are they now?”
    My advice: Boldly be who you are. Don’t let the fact that you have non-Catholic donors influence you away from that. You’ll find that most of your non-Catholic donors are completely fine with your faith, even if they don’t share it. They love what you do; that’s why they give. Donors in general are remarkably well-educated and tolerant and not interested in forcing you to hide your core.

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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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Jeff BrooksJeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 35 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com. More.


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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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Jeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 30 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com.

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