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Writing Fundraising Materials That Raise More Money: On the Delicate Subject of Committee and Board Approvals

March 2007

Excerpt from How to Write Fundraising Materials That Raise More Money: The Art, the Science, the Secrets

Moments like this happen quite often in my workshops.

I'll mention something that industry professionals pretty much all agree on. The perfect example: Repeated tests find that four-page letters used to acquire new donors typically outpull one-page letters, all else being equal. Counter-intuitive? Absolutely. But much of direct mail practice seems at first glance contrary to common sense.

A hand goes up. It's a worried query from an attendee who smells trouble ahead. "My board chair says he throws away four-page letters whenever he gets one. So he'll only approve one-pagers. What should I do?"

Show him this chapter.

Hope that reason prevails.

Be well trained. Know what you're talking about.

And realize that his opinion is entirely personal and applies nowhere outside his head.

Humans have this bad habit of generalizing from the particular. "I don't like it" gets all too easily confused with "No one will like it." It's bad logic and even worse statistics.

Beware Who Gets Approval Rights

With fundraising communications, there are only two states of being: "I know what I'm doing" or "I don't."

Professional staff members are supposed to be the in-house authorities. They should know what they're doing.

They either have the technical expertise themselves to write and design fundraising materials ... or they hire that expertise from a freelancer, consultant, or vendor.

Or they have on hand expert books that demonstrate how to do these things the right way. I can't think of any topic in fundraising or advocacy communications that can't claim a book written by a credible expert.

It's unusual, though, to find that kind of professional expertise in board or committee members (or in many executive directors, for that matter).

Yet we often cede the weighty responsibility of "blessing" fundraising communications to higher authorities: boards, committees, the executive director. That's irresponsible. Uninformed opinions and second-guessing can, without malice or intent, easily ruin competent work and undermine your ability to raise money. When untrained people have the final say on what goes out the door, you run a serious risk.

Let's look at why.

Instincts Aren't Enough

No one is born with an instinct for correctly judging direct mail.

Even longtime direct mail professionals, people with hundreds of properly conceived and executed efforts in their memory banks, admit they're never quite sure if a new appeal will succeed or not. Which is exactly why these same professionals test so religiously and rigorously.

And that's just direct mail. There's a body of knowledge behind every professional communications piece, whether it's an annual report, a newsletter, a case statement, an e-mailed appeal, or a Web site. Acquiring that body of knowledge requires training.

Effective fundraising communications—solicitation letters, promotional ads, case statements, and the rest—are in my opinion 99 percent science and 1 percent art. If my assessment is right, training and experience, clearly, make all the difference.

An untrained person might (unlikely, but possible) guess a few things right out of the 25 basic things one needs to know to succeed in the tough business of communicating with strangers. But those many other mistaken guesses will kill your chances.

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.'"

That profound remark also neatly makes a point germane to our discussion: 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.

The Problem with Committees

Though I've known exceptions, committees, by their very nature, tend to make things worse.

They feed each other's doubts. They're protective of the organization's image. They try to sand off all the edges and find a solution everyone agrees is inoffensive. But during the "blandifying" process, they often also scrub away the interesting bits: the bold, the controversial, the crazy surprises.

BIG mistake.

Advertising legend David Ogilvy once wrote, "You cannot bore people into buying your product; you can only interest them in buying it."

Sound advice, widely applicable. You cannot bore people into paying attention. You cannot bore people into becoming supporters. You cannot bore people into acting on your behalf.

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 even a belief that if no one complains, you haven't pushed hard enough. If no one calls your office to say, "I just got your latest fundraising appeal. How dare you show a picture like that!" then you're not close enough to the edge and your income will suffer.

Unfortunately, that's not how humans on committees tend to behave. Risk aversion is more likely the order of the day. In his classic Confessions of an Advertising Man, Ogilvy flashes this dismissive rhyme:
Search all the parks in all your cities;
You'll find no statues of committees.
But, as I say, I have known exceptions.

Good Research Is the Best Defense

Unfortunately, fundraising by a committee is a fact of life for many of us. So let me reiterate ways to limit the damage:

  • Show the committee members this chapter.
  • Hope that reason prevails.
  • Be well trained. Know what you're talking about.
Tom Ahern, Ahern Communications, Ink.
© 2007, Tom Ahern. Excerpted from How to Write Fundraising Materials That Raise More Money: The Art, the Science, the Secrets. Excerpted with permission of Emerson & Church, Publishers. All rights reserved.

Tom Ahern is author of How to Write Fundraising Materials That Raise More Money: The Art, the Science, the Secrets and Raising More Money with Newsletters Than You Ever Thought Possible and president of Ahern Communications, Ink., a consultancy specializing in capital campaign materials and other nonprofit communications. He speaks frequently in the United States and Canada on reader psychology, direct mail principles, and good (and not very good) graphic design as applied to fundraising and nonprofit branding.