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Saturday, January 20, 2018

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Sad but true: Most donor communications are built to fail
Tom Ahern

June, 2009

Does your boss or board chair get to approve your stuff? Abandon all hope, ye who enter here. 
There was a moment when it stopped seeming sad. Or tragic.

When it just seemed pathetic instead. That moment?

When I heard for the umpteenth time that a director of development had to route her donor communications through her boss' office for approval, before she could send them off to make money.

Jumping through flaming approval hoops is part of my job.

And in the course of things, during 15 years of nonprofit work, I've met more than my fair share of marketing committees: insiders and volunteers assigned to "help" some put-upon fundraiser create materials intended to woo donors.

So let me share a trade secret: most bosses and boards wouldn't know a piece of effective donor communications if it kicked them in the shins.

There are exceptions. I recently met several fundraisers from the Child Advocacy Center movement overflowing with sweet praise for the marketing professionals who had volunteered their expertise and time to sit on committees.

Yes, it can happen. By and large, though? Volunteers and bosses aren't professionally trained in the dark arts of effective communications. They're guessing -- and badly. Lord knows how much this "amateurization" of the approval process costs nonprofits every year.

I'll be brutal and brief: being able to read and write does not qualify you as a communications expert. There is an immense body of knowledge that the untrained never encounter, nor even suspect.

Chief among their sins of ignorance? They do not know (care? accept?) that fundraising is nothing more than a branch of sales and marketing (made occasionally more fragrant by the odor of sanctity that "doing good" gives off).

As a fundraiser, you're selling. You're selling the impact of your mission. You're selling the excitement and promise of your vision. You're selling (door to door, if you're engaged in direct mail) the "warm glow" (as one psychologist termed it) that an act of charity can uniquely stir in a donor.

You're mainly selling JOY and HOPE. And people are eager to buy. Tell me a time in recent history when joy and hope were more desperately in demand. (See Obama campaign.)

Most donor communications fail because they are built on the wrong foundation. Their choices of topic and tone reflect the interests and fears of the organization and its internal approval squad. These communications have a low-to-zero success rate.

Profitable donor communications, on the other hand, are built backwards from the special interests and psychology of their target audience.

In a nutshell, donors want to change the world with their gifts. They want to heal (think Smile Train), they want to help NOW (think tsunamis), they want to prevent harm (think child advocacy centers), they want to add to the world's richness (think museums).

I've mentioned in previous e-newsletters a hospital foundation that recently transformed its donor newsletter (despite internal resistance) from one that focused on what the institution cared about to one that focused on what donors care about -- and saw an immediate payoff, as donations soared from a mild $5,000 an issue to a passionate $50,000 an issue. (Read case study. Scroll to the second posting for April 22.)

Clueless communications don't get those kinds of returns.

Takeaway: In a rational world, no one but the person responsible for getting results -- the chief fundraiser -- would have final say over what goes into donor communications.

The nonprofit world, though, is widely irrational. Bosses and board members get to nay-say vital donor communication materials such as appeal letters, newsletters, websites, and cases.

The #1 complaint I hear from fundraisers in my workshops is this: "I know what you're saying is true. But I also know my boss won't allow me to do it." I comfort them; as a fire-scarred veteran of many approval fiascoes, I empathize with their predicament. I also ask, and this question is meant to make someone uncomfortable, "Why does your boss think you're incompetent?"

Because that's what it comes down to. If you, the fundraiser, do not have final authority over your communications, you've been judged unworthy by the powers that be. You do not have their full respect or trust. Sad but true.

Tom Ahern is recognized as one of North America’s top authorities on nonprofit communications. He began presenting his top-rated Love Thy Reader workshops at fundraising conferences in 1999.

Since then he has introduced thousands of fundraisers in the U.S., Canada and Europe to the principles of reader psychology, writing, and graphic design that make donor communications highly engaging and successful.

He founded his consulting practice in 1990 ( His firm specializes in capital campaign case statements, nonprofit communications audits, direct mail, and donor newsletters. His efforts have won three prestigious IABC Gold Quill awards, given each year to the best communications work worldwide.

Ahern is also an award-winning magazine journalist, for articles on health and social justice issues. He has his MA and BA in English from Brown University, and a Certificate in Advertising Art from the RI School of Design. His offices are in Rhode Island and France.


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