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Sunday, January 21, 2018

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Running backwards on retention: A two-part post Part 2 -- The Good News
Tom Ahern

November, 2015

Charities can't reasonably expect 100% retention: deaths and other natural attrition chip away, after all.

But you can shoot far higher than 50% donor retention.

One public radio station in the US regularly attains 90% retention of new donors. Of course, public radio has an advantage: it provides a welcome service (great programming) to its "listener supporters."

Still, improving your donor retention by 10%, 20% or more should be easy enough, if you accept (as I do) Stephen Pidgeon's advice.

Stephen built and then sold a major UK direct mail agency. In his 2015 "everything I know" advice book, How to Love Your Donors (to Death), he makes this point: "It is the fundraiser's job, your only job, to make the supporter feel good about supporting your charity. You have to love your donors. The money will follow." Get out your highlighter and mark Stephen's words.

While you're at it, highlight these words by Mark Phillips, too, written in October 2015:

"The only thing that matters a damn is the donor experience. If we'd got that right, we'd have never been in this situation. I still don't understand why so many organisations dropped fundraising for brand awareness and an addiction to interruption recruitment techniques. The result is that we have a massive pool of people who - at best - tolerate how fundraisers treat them." Mark is founder (1997) and managing director of Bluefrog, an award-winning London-based creative agency serving many of the UK's top-performing charities.
Who's NOT your customer: your boss or board
So, yes, subpar retention is an easy enough problem to fix.

Or it would be, if ignorance regarding how to properly communicate with donors were not so firmly rooted inside nonprofits, especially at the approval level, among bosses and board.

I have a rule. I call it the Verbatim Rule. I will not accept any new direct mail client unless they promise to mail what I write without changing a word (except to correct factual errors, of course).

The Verbatim Rule protects my clients from their native urge to rewrite whatever comes before them.

Being literate does not make you into a competent direct mail writer. Nor does receiving a daily handful of uninvited direct mail appeals, most of which you throw away unexamined. Believing otherwise is akin to assuming you could win an Olympic sprint because you have two legs.

On the other hand, I've studied and practiced direct mail writing for 20 years and have a track record of decent results. So what I think about direct mail matters. And what you think on that particular and complicated topic does not. In fact, uninformed opinions in direct mail are very dangerous. It's a sensitive, expensive medium. It's extremely easy to fail completely and very, very hard to succeed.

And yet....

If I had a penny for every fundraiser who's approached me after a workshop to complain about her boss second-guessing her direct mail appeals, I'd own a penthouse in Paris.

If your goal is to please your boss, your board chair, or fellow staff, you might as well close this book right now. My forecast: your achievements will never exceed the mediocre.

Why? Because your boss, board, and fellow staff are NOT your target audiences. Though they often presume to judge and fiddle with your work, in the end their likes and dislikes are irrelevant to your charity's fundraising success.

You might hold onto your job by kowtowing to their ignorance. But you're unlikely to wildly succeed in job #1: satisfying your "donor customer."

Highlight the following two paragraphs:

In donor communications, untrained opinions are not only worthless, they're dangerous to your nonprofit's bottom line.

In a professionally run operation, the chief fundraiser will have full, autonomous control over all donor communications, print and digital-appeals, thanks, newsletters, donation landing pages on the website, social media, multichannel campaigns, whatever.

After all, its your neck on the line if your stuff doesn't work; not theirs.
Non-professionals use the wrong criteria
Inventor Henry Ford once observed, "If we'd asked the public what they wanted, they would have said, 'faster horses.'"

People work with what they know. Ask an untrained person for an opinion, and you'll get one, particularly if it's about the written word. But the context and references on which that opinion is based will be personal, not professional.

When an untrained person says, "I like it," it's a matter of taste.

When a trained person says, "I like it," it's a matter of judgment, using recognized and proven criteria.

In a professional approval process, personal taste is irrelevant and often misleading because it tends to favor the safe over the bold. It's risk averse.

BIG mistake.

Advertising legend, David Ogilvy, wrote, "You cannot borepeople into buying your product; you can only interestthem in buying it."

Ask any good marketer: Bold outsells bland every time. And that goes for fundraising, too. In the bowels of the direct mail industry, there's a belief that if no one complains, you probably haven't pushed hard enough. Someone should call to give you an earful: "I just got your latest fundraising appeal. How dare you show a picture like that!"
BTW: Communications committees are crap
The "communications committee"-that time-honored confection of clueless boards-just multiplies the problem.

Instead of a single untrained opinion making uninformed decisions, now you have several, working together gamely but lamely. Fundraisers with training (and a sprig of pride) will avoid such committees like the plague (unless they can control and use them for other ends). In his classic, Confessions of an Advertising Man, Ogilvy reminds us of this apt rhyme:

Search all the parks in all your cities;
You'll find no statues of committees.


[The article above is from my book-in-progress, the fully updated and revised 2nd edition of How to Write Fundraising Materials That Raise More Money, for publication in 2016 by Emerson & Church.] 
Check out more of Tom Ahern at


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