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Tom Ahern

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How to Write Fundraising Materials that Raise More Money
The Art...The Science...The Secrets...
by Tom Ahern, 187 pp., $24.95. (Click here for quantity discount information)

As journalist Gene Fowler put it, "Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until

Seeing through a Donor's Eyes

Also by Tom Ahern: Seeing through a Donor's Eyes.

drops of blood form on your forehead."

Certainly, many of us in fundraising feel that way.

Whenever we’re called upon to draft a solicitation letter, or write copy for the website, or produce a few passages for the annual report, or, heaven forbid, long stretches of a proposal or case statement, we sit there … and if we’re lucky crank out serviceable prose.  Few would call it sparkling.

And too few are moved to write a check in response.

Each year, bland writing costs organizations mountains of revenue.

There’s the expense of producing the materials – the printing, production, and processing, to say nothing of the postage costs.

But much more consequential is the lost revenue – the money not raised when these homogenized materials fail to connect with the very people who would donate if they were motivated by what they read.

It needn’t be this way, and it won’t be this way any longer for those who invest a few hours in Tom Ahern’s new book, How to Write Fundraising Materials that Raise More Money.

But here’s a twist: Even if you don’t write much, you should read this book. Why? Because it’s about more than writing – much more.

In truth, the publisher might have called the book: Getting inside the mind of donors and communicating in a way that inspires their loyalty and generosity.

What Ahern does ­– while showing you how to craft your materials – is to plumb the psychology of donors, uncovering what stimulates interest and instills confidence. His advice applies to all forms communications, written and verbal.

The short odds are that How to Write Fundraising Materials that Raise More Money will secure a spot in the pantheon of the best fundraising books ever written.  Communicating with donors is the bedrock of all fundraising. And no book addresses this topic with such virtuosity.

About the Author

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 (www.aherncomm.com). 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.

Excerpt This article is excerpted from How to Write Fundraising Materials that Raise More Money, by Tom Ahern, ©Emerson & Church, Publishers. To obtain reprint permission, call 508-359-0019.

On the Delicate Subject of Committee and Board Approvals

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 out pull 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 long-time 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 emailed appeal, or a website. Acquiring that body of knowledge requires training.

Effective fundraising communications – solicitation letters, promotional ads, case statements and the rest – are in my opinion 99% science and 1% 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.

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Table of Contents

  1. Why communicate? To spur action
  2. Setting your expectations: Be pessimistic
  3. The almighty predisposed
  4. Making it interesting (mandatory)
  5. Secret to response: The offer is king
  6. Why your fundraising communications fail to get the results you want
  7. Writing your strategy
  8. On the delicate subject of committee & board approvals
  9. What is branding, really?
  10. Warning: You are an intrusion, too
  11. What interests donors
  12. Being donor-centric
  13. Communicating on all four wavelengths
  14. What the Amiable side responds to
  15. Anecdotes bring your successes vividly to life
  16. What the Expressive side responds to
  17. News story ideas: A checklist
  18. Sorting the wheat from the chaff
  19. What the Skeptical side responds to
  20. Honesty and information: Reassuring the skeptic
  21. What the Bottom-Line side responds to
  22. The emotional imperative
  23. Emotional triggers
  24. Choosing your emotional twin set
  25. Answering the most important question: Why your organization matters
  26. Aren’t sure why you matter? Here’s a tip
  27. AIDA: Formula for an elevator speech
  28. Making your case, step one: Collect information
  29. Making your case, step two: Answering the donor’s three big questions
  30. Making your case, step three: Telling your story
  31. The smallest case there is: Your tagline
  32. Headlines: The critical importance of
  33. Making a weak headline strong
  34. Finding the angle
  35. Write for browsers
  36. How to keep them reading
  37. Do the “you”
  38. The dangerous “and”
  39. Will you ever be a good writer?

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Interview with Tom Ahern

Before you can write a fundraising piece, you need to understand what donors respond to, do you not? Is that as simple as putting yourself in a donor’s shoes?

Ahern: I think Dale Carnegie got it right when he said, "You'll have more fun and success when you stop trying to get what you want, and start helping other people get what they want." Fundraising isn't about picking pockets. Donors aren’t ATM machines. I don't think successful fundraising is about keeping the staff paid and the lights burning. It's far more about giving your donors a vivid sense that they’re changing the world. It's about recognizing that people want to feel important – something Carnegie learned from Sigmund Freud and philosopher John Dewey. And one way we feel important is when we feel we've made a difference, by making a gift to a terrific organization. I think fundraising's real job is to give donors a powerful sense of accomplishment.

People who pick up a brush don’t presume they can paint. Why do so many people who pick up a pen think they can write?

Ahern: Literacy is essential to a modern economy, a healthy society, and to America's well-being as a democracy. We need to read. We need to write simple sentences. But writing to persuade is a whole different kettle of fish. To write successful fundraising materials, you need to know a dozen other things first, secrets hidden in the worlds of marketing, psychology, and journalism. You also have to forget what you learned in school about good grammar and presenting your case, a huge stumbling block for a surprising number of people since it's the only training they know.

Why are so many fundraising materials, well, flaccid today?

Ahern: Money's at stake, and that tends to freeze people. They're desperate not to offend, not to make a mistake. The truth is, despite a depressing amount of lip service paid to the need for good communication, very few people in nonprofit agencies have any clue how communication actually works. Executive directors mostly don't. Board chairs almost certainly don't. And committees are hopeless. They all strongly suspect (wrongly, alas) that it's better to be safe than sorry. I quote to them David Ogilvy, who built one of the world's largest ad agencies by following this golden rule: "You will never bore someone into buying your product." You will never lose money being bold, in my experience. You WILL, though, lose plenty of money being bland. There's a lot more to this discussion, by the way. But it takes a book to explain it all.

Whatever happened to writing from the heart, just sitting down with a piece of paper and honestly telling your story? Seems like that’s been replaced with a concern for formula (“Make sure you ask for the gift at least three times … remember to balance emotionality with rationality … use anger to your advantage….”)

Ahern: I urge people in my workshops to treat direct mail as conversations. It's advice I've heard so many times I forget who said it first, although I suspect Mal Warwick: pretend you're at the kitchen table, having a conversation with a friend about something that really moves you. George Smith, one of England's top writers, insists, "All fundraising copy should sound like someone talking." Even so, let's not dismiss formula out of hand. Formulae often derive from hard-won experience or research. One reason you ask for a gift repeatedly in a direct mail appeal is because people don't always start reading at the salutation. They jump right to the middle or the end of a letter. Getting direct mail right is very counter-intuitive. Knowing a formula can help.

When you write, do you usually visualize a particular reader, say, your mother or your Uncle Fred?

Ahern: Yes. I will try to visualize someone who is in the right demographic and a friend. Fundraising materials should be friendly in tone. I imagine them raising objections and asking questions, too. That's very important. If you anticipate and then frankly answer objections in your fundraising materials, you’ll build trust. I've always been a bleeding-heart liberal. When I'm visualizing someone, I like to imagine our friend, Laura, who's an avowed conservative in her political views. It keeps me from getting lazy.

If you had to give one and only one piece of advice for improving fundraising materials, what would it be?

Ahern: Realize that people will skim it first. If you don't hook the person somehow during that quick skim, your game could well be over before it even begins.

Submitting a piece of writing to a committee for approval seems like a guaranteed route to blandification. But considering how concerned we are with “offending” people, can anything really be done about this?

Ahern: As long as people trust committees and consensus opinion, no. Being bold is not about being offensive, though. It's about busting through indifference and turning inertia into action. Offended people don't write checks, so a competent professional doesn't head off down that road. But here's what committees do all the time: they prejudge things and remove anything with a spine. In one case statement I wrote, the committee approved every word except one: the word "outrageous," as used in a headline that mentioned "outrageous hopes." I predicted the committee would. I'm sorry to report I was right. They talked themselves into a panic. Committees are designed to make smart people stupid, in my opinion.

You mention the Flesch-Kincaid scale in your book. What is it and how should people use it?

Ahern: I've never bothered to look up who Kincaid is or was, or how he got involved with Flesch. Rudolf Flesch contributed greatly to the English language through his study of what makes our writing easy to comprehend and quick to read. Flesch is known as "the man who taught the Associated Press how to write," among other achievements, all quite remarkable for an Austrian who trained first as a lawyer in his native country. You wouldn't think simple English would be in his blood. But he showed how writing in simple words and sentences made a vast difference to readers. His method for determining the grade level of writing is built into Microsoft Word, as the Flesch-Kincaid scale. Let me reduce the discussion to a bottom line: the lower your grade level, the faster your prose can be read and understood. A good direct mail letter probably scores at around the 6th-grade level. Newspaper journalism hovers around the 8th-grade level. I check the grade level of my writing every few minutes, to make sure I'm staying at the 8th-grade level or below. As the grade level starts to rise above that, reading starts to slow. And once reading becomes laborious, people start to find other ways to spend their valuable time.

OK, I’ve done my research, I have pen in hand, and I’m ready to write. What should be foremost in my mind as I start?

Ahern: These are some of the first questions I ask myself before I begin writing: Who is my target audience? What do I know about them? What will interest them? What will surprise them? What emotional triggers will they respond to? What's the most important thing I can tell them?

Can writing be learned?

Ahern: I don't know any other way to acquire the skills, actually. Training and practice yield the only sure results. Talent has little or nothing to do with it, in my opinion. Nor do academic degrees; in fact, university writing is often dreadful. The biggest barrier to good writing is murky thinking, often cloaked by jargon. If you don't know what your message is before you begin to write, you won't write well. It's simply not possible. Probably a third of my "writing" time is spent staring into thin air or doodling, trying to get my thoughts organized and clarified. I write myself little questions like, "Why would a donor care about what we're doing?"

Speculate on this hypothetical situation. A masterfully crafted letter is sent to a scrupulously targeted and receptive audience. A bland letter is sent to the very same group. Would you be willing to bet your house in France that the former would raise, say, 20 percent more money than the latter?

Ahern: No. Not the house in France. Nothing in direct mail is that certain that I would risk my favorite getaway to a place where I can't understand a word that's spoken and vineyards begin at edge of town. But I'd bet you a hundred dollars in a snap. I have plenty of proof in my files, testimony from fundraisers who have attended the workshops, then applied the lessons and seen their income soar.

For you personally, what’s the hardest part of writing for fundraising – the biggest challenge in terms of the craft itself?

Ahern: The first 15 minutes of every assignment are the hardest. I have to flog myself or lavishly reward myself to begin the work. It's fear of failure I think. There's no such thing as writer's block, really. As long as you have a plan, know your target audience, have finished your research, you'll always have something you can write about.

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