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Are You Boring Your Donors? Interview with Master Nonprofit Communicator Tom Ahern

Tom Ahern, author of Seeing Through a Donor's Eyes, How to Write Fundraising Materials That Raise More Money, and Raising More Money with Newsletters Than You Ever Thought Possible, recently spoke with his publisher about how to craft more effective donor communications. GuideStar has published several pieces by Mr. Ahern, and we're pleased to be able to share his additional thoughts with you.

You had a bracelet made for your wife, Simone. It won't strike many people as romantic, since the words you put on it were—well, you tell us.

I commissioned a bracelet for Simone that had seven flat links, with one word inscribed on each link. The words: anger, exclusivity, fear, flattery, greed, guilt, salvation. These are the direct mail's industry's "top seven" emotional triggers. Both of us teach these triggers in our workshops. We'd occasionally forget one or two. This seemed like a fun remedy, at least for her.

In Seeing Through a Donor's Eyes, you suggest a simple way—an exercise, really—for how an organization can discover its true importance. Describe it, please.

I ask staff and board to pretend that tonight at midnight your organization suddenly ceases to exist. Tomorrow, when people wake up to your absence, what will they truly miss? What will they regret losing? I use this exercise with boards to get them focused. Messaging is NOT about what insiders think. Effective messaging is about what OUTSIDERS think of you.

You say that most nonprofit communications are boring because they "swaddle themselves in interest-draining veils." What are those veils?

Look, would I rather read something written by a journalist at the Wall Street Journal, or something by a local environmental advocate? The question answers itself. Nine times out of ten the local environmentalist will put me to sleep with data and jargon. To be fair, charities don't usually have professional journalists on staff. So charity prose tends to be dull. It doesn't tell stories well, either. Which is a fatal flaw. The human brain is hard-wired to crave narrative. If you can't tell a good quick story, you won't hook many readers. Period.

What I gather from your books is that most donors, at best, glance at an organization's materials—they don't really read deeply. Considering the time and cost involved, why keep sending them?

I teach a workshop called "Writing for Results." It's about winning new donors and keeping existing donors. The first thing I tell the audience is this: Donor communications are NOT about reading; donor communications are about getting people to ACT on your behalf—either now or later. What does a newsletter do for a charity? It helps retain donors. Not because they read the articles and decide they'll stay, but because you show how you love and need them as they skim the photos and headlines.

In your books, you cite nine flaws that sabotage most nonprofit communications. We don't have time to discuss all nine, but maybe you can describe two or three of the most harmful.

I do a lot of audits, evaluating the "donor readiness" of nonprofit communications. And the big problem is always the same. Charities want to talk about themselves ... how good they are at their work ... how they do their work ... how their people are eminently qualified. They don't often talk about the donor, except as bystander who can be placated with perfunctory thanks. This gravely undercuts the potential of most communications programs.

CEOs need to realize that there are two very different types of communications a nonprofit can produce. You can do 1) "corporate" communications, which are all about how great the organization is. Or you can do 2) "donor" communications, which are all about how great the donor is.

Most nonprofits incorrectly choose #1. It's a bad strategy. Corporate communications raise the LEAST amount of money. DONOR communications raise the MOST, because they flatter the donor rather than try to impress him or her. I watched a hospital improve giving to its donor newsletter 1,000 percent between one issue and the next, to $50,000 in gifts per issue, by simply changing from a corporate communications approach to a donor communications approach.

Like others in fundraising, you talk about the importance of anecdotes. In fact, you claim that almost any complex issue can be—should be, in fact—revealed to donors through an anecdote. Got a good example?

There's this charter school. And like a lot of charter schools, they have an angle, which is using music to teach the ABCs. Sure, they could explain the science and pedagogy behind their method, but they don't. Instead they say this: "We had a mom show up with her 2nd grader. And mom was desperate. Her daughter was already falling behind because something wasn't clicking for her in the classroom. We asked the little girl, 'Honey, would you go to the chalkboard and spell "cat."' She got it wrong: K-A-T. That was a year ago. Flash forward to right now? That same girl can now spell Tchaikovsky." That's an anecdote. And in the course of that anecdote, we got to see the school through its amazing results. It's tempting to explain WHAT you do, because you have all the details at your fingertips. But don't lead with your pedagogy; only insiders care. Your donors care about results. So lead with a quick, illustrative story.

In How to Write Fundraising Materials That Raise More Money, you advise all fundraising writers, once they have a draft, to conduct the "You Test." What is that?

The "You Test" is easy in Microsoft Word. Select your text. Then do a "find and replace": replace all your black you's with red you's. When you've done that, you can easily spot the word's presence or absence. Rewrite any passage that is "you-less." Wondering why? The word you is a profound—and unique—emotional trigger as well as a pronoun. Uttering the word you, either in print or vocally, instantly causes the human brain to pay more attention. You is among the 10 most persuasive words available to copywriters in English. Without you, your communications seem distant. With you, they seem personal.

Other than presenting interesting copy, what's the secret to keeping someone reading?

Flatter me. Make me feel important. Make me feel loved. Make me feel good about myself. Make me welcome. Make me feel smart. Surprise me. Delight me. Give me something great to do.

Can someone who's not particularly good at writing measurably increase their skill by reading books like yours? Or is it the case that you either have it or you don't?

In my view, writing to donors successfully is mostly about training. The more training you have, particularly about how the brain works, the less doubt you'll have when pen meets page (and, yes, I handwrite all my first drafts). In that sense, reading books is pretty much a requirement if you want to be any good at the science and art of persuasive writing. But, truly, anyone can learn the skills. Writing to donors isn't like writing novels. It's advertising copywriting, which is straightforward, action-oriented stuff. Copywriting seeks to please and win the customer. Who is our customer? In fundraising, the customer is the donor. Every attempt to communicate with donors should begin with the same question: What do they need—and want —to hear?


© 2013, Emerson & Church, Publishers

are-you-boring-your-donors-interview-with-tom-ahern_Tom-Ahern.jpgTom 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 United States, Canada, and Europe to the principles of reader psychology, writing, and graphic design that make donor communications highly engaging and successful. His consulting practice, Ahern Communications, Ink, 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.

Topics: Fundraising