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Sunday, January 21, 2018

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When you're feeling a little irrelevant...
Tom Ahern

April, 2009

In 2007 Maureen Welch, then at the Antiquarian and Landmarks Society in Connecticut (now Connecticut Landmarks), sent a plea. She asked me to consider writing a book titled, Who Are You Kidding: Help for Non-Essential Nonprofits.

Her suggestion was a jest. But not entirely. There are plenty of nonprofits who suspect they're in a similar fix: nice but non-essential; and therefore not very compelling or competitive in the philanthropic marketplace.

Connecticut Landmarks is first-rate outfit, just so you know. It manages, preserves, and creates public programming around a distinguished portfolio of magnificent old homes dating as far back as 1678. They are lovely relics, kept fresh and relevant.

Still, Maureen found it hard to imagine why people would care enough about old buildings to donate to their preservation.

Short answer: A charity doing anything remotely worthwhile probably has a natural base of potential supporters, if you can just find them.

There are many reasons I might love historic homes, for instance.

  • I might be into house restoration and interested in investigating old construction techniques.
  • I might collect antiques and want to see them in their natural setting, when they were objects of everyday use.
  • I might have an interest in local history because of my family origins.
  • I might be a theater or movie set designer researching period interiors for a production.
  • I might live in the community and appreciate what a well-cared-for historical structure does for local property values.


It's easy to forget that people support causes for their own quite personal reasons. And every reason is slightly different, like a snowflake.

The following is an exercise I strongly recommend for all nonprofits, whether they suffer from "non-essential-itis" or not.

This dirt-simple but deeply revealing exercise forces you to zero in on why your organization and its activities really matter to outsiders. Guaranteed: the fresh perspectives you uncover will help you create fundraising communications that are far more persuasive.

Here's what you do.

Gather a half-dozen or more stakeholders in a room: staff; board; donors, too, if you can.

Pose this problem: Let's pretend. Let's pretend our organization and its programs disappear tonight. Tomorrow, we're gone. What will the world / the community / individuals regret losing?

This is not a make-work exercise. This is a core exercise.

Attendees in my workshops who try this exercise for even a few minutes are shocked, surprised, and then empowered by what they discover about their organization's true importance and impact.

Takeaway: In their business bestseller, Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath warn organizations against the "curse of knowledge": the creeping inability of insiders to see themselves the way outsiders (i.e., donors with all their many values, concerns, interests, and connections) do.

The curse turns nonprofits tone-deaf. They talk about things that do not matter, in ways that do not persuade. Going through the exercise of asking - If we were to disappear tonight, what would the world shed tears over losing? - helps break the curse of knowledge and gives you a wealth of well-grounded answers to that most important of questions: Why would a donor care about the things we do?

This article was adapted and abridged from Seeing through a Donor's Eyes, by Tom Ahern, published March 2009. Available on Amazon or directly from the publisher.

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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