Who’s destroying your fundraising messages?

“This is why people should give!” the new executive director said. He dramatically threw a newspaper onto the table and glowered at everyone sitting around the conference room table.

The newspaper was open to page A11. Near the bottom of the page was a smallish article headlined Study: Homelessness Up Sharply.

We were in the depth of the recent recession. A study showed that there were now nearly 20% more homeless people in the community than there had been three years before.

“We need to be straight with our donors,” he continued. “Show them these incontrovertible facts. Facts, not emotional pabulum.”

I was the one who’d written the pabulum: an appeal letter that focused on an unemployed local man who’d lost everything after two years without work. He was living under the end of a bridge. On a diet of what he called “homeless mac and cheese”: you cook a packet of ramen noodles and add a handful of cheese puffs. The resulting orange-colored noodle stew is warm, fills you up, and tastes almost like real food. But it’s not going to keep you healthy for long.

The executive director hated my letter. It zeroed in on one person, not the “real problem.” It wasted an entire paragraph on “homeless mac and cheese,” and never once mentioned the important new study on homelessness and the facts and statistics it had uncovered. It never even mentioned their great new program that helped the homeless recover their shattered self-esteem, focusing instead on meals — “anyone can serve up meals,” he said. “Our self-esteem program is unique.”

In fact, he’d gone to the trouble of writing a letter to replace the horrible one I’d written. It was one page long (mine was four). It began with an extensive quote from the newspaper article, then went on to describe the self-esteem program and several others. There was no P.S. (“That’s unprofessional,” he sniffed.)

The worst thing about this story isn’t the predictable outcome: We mailed the executive director’s letter, and experienced the lowest response in the organization’s history. It was a devastating loss of revenue that took them more than a year to recover from. The worst thing was this: It happens all the time. It’s probably happened to you.

What is it about fundraising that makes people who know nothing about it so confident they can do it better than the professionals? People who’ve never read a single book about how to do fundraising right … never read one of the hundreds of blogs that focus on the topic … never been to one of the conferences that are rich with useful content about it … never labored under a mentor who knew profession inside and out — they’re completely sure that they can do better than those who’ve done all that?

We have a problem.

It’s costing us millions of dollars in lost revenue.

I propose we lobby for what I call the Ahern Rule. It’s named after master craftsman Tom Ahern, who has an agreement with his clients: You don’t change my copy. Hire him or fire him, but let him apply his expertise to your organization. Let him succeed for you without interference.

He explains it here: Workers of the nonprofit world, unite! Pretty please?

Frankly, not everyone is good enough to merit the Ahern Rule. But I’m pretty sure we’d raise a lot more money if it were in force across the industry.

So let’s go to it. Let’s spread the Ahern Rule until it’s the normal thing. Until ignorant bosses get laughed out of the room when they present their unprofessional attempts at our profession.

We have work to do. Let us do it.


Comments

12 responses to “Who’s destroying your fundraising messages?”

  1. This scenario is where you insist on a split test. A “put your money where your mouth is” straight up challenge. Explain that you believe in your letter & are happy to rise to the challenge… are they?

  2. This scenario is where you insist on a split test. A “put your money where your mouth is” straight up challenge. Explain that you believe in your letter & are happy to rise to the challenge… are they?

  3. “What is it about fundraising that makes people who know nothing about it so confident they can do it better than the professionals? People who’ve never read a single book about how to do fundraising right … never read one of the hundreds of blogs that focus on the topic … never been to one of the conferences that are rich with useful content about it … never labored under a mentor who knew profession inside and out — they’re completely sure that they can do better than those who’ve done all that?”
    If there are Executive Directors who haven’t done at least any three of the four things you mention in this paragraph, they’re probably in the wrong profession.

  4. “What is it about fundraising that makes people who know nothing about it so confident they can do it better than the professionals? People who’ve never read a single book about how to do fundraising right … never read one of the hundreds of blogs that focus on the topic … never been to one of the conferences that are rich with useful content about it … never labored under a mentor who knew profession inside and out — they’re completely sure that they can do better than those who’ve done all that?”
    If there are Executive Directors who haven’t done at least any three of the four things you mention in this paragraph, they’re probably in the wrong profession.

  5. Did you at least have the satisfaction of going over the poor results with the ED?

  6. Did you at least have the satisfaction of going over the poor results with the ED?

  7. Even (or sometimes especially) Executive Directors, even those who are good one-on-one with donors, are still clueless about donor communications and what works. I don’t know why. Perhaps they are in the wrong profession. But they’re still the ones who end up deciding what goes out to donors.
    I’m with you on the Ahern Rule, Jeff! As a consultant, it’s easier to say, “I know this stuff, trust me. I’m the expert,” than it is as an employee.

  8. Even (or sometimes especially) Executive Directors, even those who are good one-on-one with donors, are still clueless about donor communications and what works. I don’t know why. Perhaps they are in the wrong profession. But they’re still the ones who end up deciding what goes out to donors.
    I’m with you on the Ahern Rule, Jeff! As a consultant, it’s easier to say, “I know this stuff, trust me. I’m the expert,” than it is as an employee.

  9. I so feel you, follow Tom A closely, and I hesitate to ask, but can you re-write this so I can give it to my boss without offending him? He’s really nice, despite his lackluster writing. 😀

  10. I so feel you, follow Tom A closely, and I hesitate to ask, but can you re-write this so I can give it to my boss without offending him? He’s really nice, despite his lackluster writing. 😀

  11. Speaking as a clueless executive director, I agree, but I don’t. Hyper-emotional appeals are not always right, and they can in some cases be destructive.
    My response is here (and yes, I agree with the first commenter that the real answer is an A/B test).
    http://blog.law.cornell.edu/tbruce/2013/12/12/a-fundraising-rant/

  12. Speaking as a clueless executive director, I agree, but I don’t. Hyper-emotional appeals are not always right, and they can in some cases be destructive.
    My response is here (and yes, I agree with the first commenter that the real answer is an A/B test).
    http://blog.law.cornell.edu/tbruce/2013/12/12/a-fundraising-rant/

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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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