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Sunday, January 21, 2018

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The Likely Success of Your Donor Communications? It's a Tale of Three Piles.
Tom Ahern

July, 2006

Gather around, team, and listen up. Coach wants to give you a pep talk.

< Most donor communications fail to connect. >

Thank you for your attention.


>>> Why is coach so pessimistic?

We assume donors will pay attention to what we send them. After all, they've given us money. Obviously, they care about our mission. So they must be motivated readers, right?

But are they?

At that exact moment when your communication (your appeal letter, your newsletter, your email update, your annual report) enters someone's hand and field of vision, will that person have any time to spare?

Or will the person instead be busily sorting ... and trashing things they feel they can safely ignore?

>>> Guilty until proven innocent: You are part of the onslaught

Every day thousands of messages aim for your eyes and ears via web, TV, radio, roadside advertising, phone ... and, most personally, mail and email.

Like many people (I watch the heads nod in agreement at my workshops), I sort this daily onslaught into three piles:

1. That pile of stuff I positively MUST pay attention to if I want to stay out of trouble. Family correspondence goes in that pile. Bills go in that pile. (Grrrr. I always feel like I'm in mental handcuffs until I pay my bills. Paging Dr. Freud.)

2. The considerable pile of stuff I can, without a second (or is it second's) thought, throw away, safe in the knowledge that nothing bad will happen to me as a result. Virtually everything else - including almost all direct mail - goes in that pile.

3. An exclusive, hard-to-get-into pile of stuff I am INTERESTED in (professional magazines, catalogs I like, postcards from friends, checks from my clients). On your BEST day, your donor communications (newsletters, appeal letters, annual reports, emails) have a shot of getting into this pile. If you've stayed in touch (you do have some form of donor newsletter, don't you?), at the very least the person on the receiving end will know your organization's name and recognize you as a "friend."

Note, though: Even though I am might be a donor, I am under no obligation to pay attention to donor communications. In fact, the more organizations I support, the less time I have to spend on any one of them. I gave them cash, I think. Isn't that enough?

>>> Meet "the uncommitted"

We live in an urgent, noisy, demanding world. Nobody seems to have enough time these days. And if someone does have a few minutes to relax, will they want to spend that downtime on your materials?

They don't know. They're not sure. They're uncommitted, all the time.

Most days we have a small amount of what you could call "disposable attention." It's similar to disposable income: it's what left over, once you've attended to everything else that demands your time (your finances, your job, your family, your projects, your chores, your favorite book, the newspaper).

You can spend that disposable attention on anything you want. And what will you spend it on? Typically, things that interest you. Things in pile #3.

Assume even your donors will ignore you most of the time. You'll be close to the truth. NOT because they suddenly dislike you. On the contrary: they are your truest of true believers; they've sent you a check in the past to prove it. But, like many of us, they're short of time. Which means they will not commit easily to reading your materials.

< Coach's transmission ends >

Tom Ahern is recognized as one of North America's leading authorities on how to make nonprofit communications consistently effective. He speaks frequently in the U.S. and Canada on reader psychology, direct mail principles, good (and not very good) graphic design as applied to fundraising and nonprofit branding. He is a writer and president of Ahern Communications, Ink., a consultancy specializing in capital campaign materials and other fundraising communications. Recent clients include a local Boys & Girls Club, a regional hospice in Maryland, a DC-based black HIV-prevention and treatment center, a national agency for low-income elderly housing, a North American Jewish education association, and one of the country's largest community foundations. He has won three prestigious Gold Quill awards from the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC). Gold Quills are given annually to the best communications work submitted by leading corporations from around the world. Tom is also a magazine journalist. His article on the devastating treatments for prostate cancer won a 2001 Sword of Hope Award from the American Cancer Society. 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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