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The Questions I'm Most Often Asked About Donor Communications

I speak to thousands of fundraisers every year, at conferences around the world. And the question I hear most often is a plea for help: "How do I convince my boss?"

Fundraisers might well be the most second-guessed professionals in the world.

I wasn't at all surprised by the 2013 Underdeveloped study that found "many nonprofits are stuck in a vicious cycle that threatens their ability to raise the resources they need to succeed." A joint project of CompassPoint and the Evelyn and Walter Hass, Jr. Fund, Underdeveloped found that about half of development directors in the United States longed to find another job and about half of executive directors wanted to find another development director. Houston, we have a problem.

What we have here is a deep and abiding lack of trust. And where's that lack of trust obvious? I see it in the weeds, among the tiny tactics that make or break success in donor communications.

I explain, for instance, why a P.S. at the end of a direct mail appeal is a good thing (you'll find more about this and other matters I touch on here in my books, How to Write Fundraising Materials That Raise More Money and Making Money with Donor Newsletters). We talk about Dr. Siegfried Vögele and his eye-motion studies. I quote Vögele's insight about the P.S. being the real first paragraph of an appeal letter.

A hand in the audience goes up. "My boss says a P.S. is undignified. He won't sign any appeal with a P.S. What can I do?" the fundraiser asks.

I don't have an answer for that most common of questions.

I explain how to check direct mail letters and newsletters for grade level, using the Flesch-Kincaid scales built into Microsoft Word. We talk about Rudolf Flesch and his contributions to modern English. I recommend keeping direct mail appeals to the 7th-grade level or below.

And a hand goes up. "My boss says that's talking down to people. He wants me to write at the 12th-grade level. How can I convince him?"

I further explain that grade level has nothing to do with the education of the reader. That it only has to do with the speed at which people can process your prose. Page-turning crime novels score at the 4th-grade level. Professionally written direct mail scores at the 6th-grade level. And the only things that score at the 12th-grade level are insurance policies and academic research.

"But how can I convince him?" she begs again.

I'm clueless. I don't know how you convince willful and ignorant bosses to stop imposing their uninformed opinions.

I explain why pictures of sad kids raise 50 percent more money than pictures of happy or neutral kids, a finding of the American Marketing Association.

Another hand goes up. "My boss only wants pictures of smiling kids. She says smiling kids show we're succeeding. She also doesn't want us to exploit the suffering of those kids. So, do you have any other proof?"

Other proof? Well, I could probably find some more, if I cared to. I'd start with psychologist Dan Ariely's fascinating work and see where that took me. I could rummage through the pioneering work of neuroscientists Antoine Bechara and Antonio Damasio. I'm sure they'd have some supporting evidence.

But why bother? I will never overturn a resolutely held position of ignorance. Ignorance is solid as the Rock of Gibraltar. Bosses who think sad photos exploit children in need will never accept the psychological truth that unless a donor feels empathy (triggered immediately by a sad photo), she is unlikely to make a gift.

I explain why longer acquisition letters tend to outperform shorter letters.

Another hand shoots up right away. "My boss insists I write only one-page letters. He says nobody these days reads long letters. What can I tell him?" Tell him that when you asked this question, I curled up into a fetal ball on the floor and refused to go on.

What I actually say is this: "I doubt you can tell him anything that will change his mind. But you can quote me: he is making at least two mistakes that could prove fatal to your results.

"First, he clearly has no exposure to what does and does not work in direct mail. If he were to poll in 2014 some of the most successful direct mail fundraising firms in the world—Pareto in Australia, Bluefrog in the U.K., Stephen Thomas in Canada, Mal Warwick or TrueSense in the U.S.—he would discover that four-page acquisition letters are pretty much the default. Not because these firms are stuck in the past, but because they test different formats all the time—and the four-page letter remains the workhorse, bringing in the largest numbers of new gifts.

"Second, he should know that his personal opinion about a highly technical matter like this is ignorance squared. Not only does he not know what the facts really are ... worse, he thinks his personal opinion is representative of everyone's opinion. That's a logic flaw of the first order."

I now have about 8,500 subscribers to my "tips" e-newsletter. About a year ago, I asked my subscribers, mostly fundraisers, to tell me what kinds of questions came up about donor communications.

I was flooded with cries for help.

Typical was this: "We showed a board member our new appeal. It opens with a one-word paragraph. She objected, 'Is this how we represent our organization, as the grammatically incorrect organization?'"


I long ago came to this conclusion: no one but the chief fundraiser should approve donor communications. The untrained can only mess things up and reduce the potential for giving. One of the first lessons I learned in my own consulting career was this: Fire resistant clients quickly because you simply cannot help them.

The-Questions-Im-Most-Often-Asked-About-Donor-Communications_Tom-Ahern.jpgTom Ahern
© 2014, Emerson & Church, Publishers

Tom Ahern is author of Seeing Through a Donor's Eyes, Making Money with Donor Newsletters, and How to Write Fundraising Materials That Raise More Money.

Topics: Communications