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Thursday, January 18, 2018

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Release your inner archer: Learn to shoot message arrows
Tom Ahern

May, 2010

Welcome to the writers' clinic.

Today we examine this common problem: "I want to put ideas in your head. I want to pierce your heart and have it bleed for my cause. How do I do that?"

Answer: shoot "message arrows." Lots and lots of message arrows.

And what are your bows, with which to shoot message arrows?

Your bows are all the various media you already use to contact and inform your donors and prospects: direct mail, newsletters, the website, emails, annual reports, brochures, talks, Facebook, pitches, presentations, phone calls, program books at your events, signage ... and so on.

Can you spot the message arrow in this opening sentence from a direct mail appeal?

I'm writing to ask your help with something important.

Let me highlight the message arrow in bold:

I'm writing to ask your help with something important

Who wants to help with something unimportant, after all? Here's a message arrow (bolded) that applies to every charity I know:

These are things [programs, initiatives, ideas, advances] that only philanthropy buys.


Repeat that particular message arrow 1,000 times and watch your charitable income start to rise. Your donors want the responsibility for doing something important and unique.

Incidentally, message arrows are not about choosing words or styling. Message arrows are ideas. Using any phrasing you like.

Let me repeat:
Use. Any. Phrasing. You. Like.

Just say the same message as often as you can.

Repetition of one clear message ... as often as possible ... to the right audience ... is the real secret behind advertising success. (You thought the secret would be more glamorous?) If you repeat the same message enough times to the right audience, it will sink in. Eventually.

Here's the predominant "message arrow" (a.k.a., "theme") of Yale University's $3+ billion campaign for unrestricted endowment:

Tomorrow, everything will be different.


The entire case for support is one big echo chamber for that particular idea. Here's an excerpt from the opening message of Yale President Richard C. Levin. I've bolded his message arrows:

I seek your support to ensure that the accomplishment of recent years is not remembered merely as a bright moment in Yale's long history, but rather as the foundation for a Yale of permanently greater breadth and strength, a Yale with the capacity to contribute - by means of its scholarship and its graduates - not only to the nation but also to the world.


He's telling his prospects that complacency is not a good long-term strategy for maintaining Yale's reputation, that in fact this august institution needs a super-generous infusion of new, unrestricted cash to pull off a massive, future-oriented curriculum reform. Despite the hallowed tones, it's a pretty audacious pitch. And by the way, the campaign has almost made goal.

Here's the opening of a welcome-to-first-time-donors letter. I've bolded the message arrows:

      I'm writing you today for two joyful reasons.


      Reason number one: I wish to thank you deeply for making your first gift to []. That's quite an occasion for us.

      And my other reason? It is my special privilege and pleasure to welcome you - warmly - into the [] family.

Let's review. What are the message arrows in the letter? All the expressions of what I call "donor love."

Sometimes the message arrow is merely one adjective: "joyful."

Sometimes it's a description: "...quite an occasion for us."

Sometimes it's an embrace: "...welcome you...into the family."

>>> Takeaway>>> Think of every day as Valentine's Day, when you're fundraising. And every chance you get, you want to more-than-just-thank, you want to outright LOVE!!! the donor.

Tom Ahern can be found at


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