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One Rule That Can Turn Your Fundraising to Gold

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“This is why people should give!” the new executive director said. He dramatically threw a newspaper on the table, leaned back, and glowered at everyone sitting around the conference room.

The newspaper was folded open to A13. Near the bottom was a smallish article headlined “Study: Homelessness Up Sharply.” It related how there were nearly 20 percent more homeless people in the community than there had been three years before.

“We need to be straight with our donors,” he continued. “Show them these facts—not emotional pabulum.”

I was the one who’d cooked up the pabulum.

Specifically, it was a direct mail letter focusing on an unemployed local man who’d lost everything after two years. He was living under a bridge, on a diet of what he called “homeless mac and cheese” — made from a packet of ramen noodles with a handful of cheese puffs mixed in. The resulting orange stew is warm, fills you up, and tastes almost like real food. But it won’t keep you healthy for long.

The executive director hated my letter because it zeroed in on one person, not the “real problem” of increasing homelessness. It wasted an entire paragraph on homeless mac and cheese — a meaningless distraction. And my letter never once cited the new study on homelessness. Worse yet, it never mentioned the organization’s pioneering program that helped the homeless recover their shattered self-esteem. My letter was about meals.

“Anyone can serve up meals,” the director said. “Our self-esteem program is unique.”

In fact, he’d gone to the trouble of composing a letter to replace the travesty I’d written. It was one-page long (mine was four). It opened with an extensive quote from the newspaper, then went on to describe the self-esteem program. Finally it bullet-listed several other programs he was proud of. It didn’t directly ask. It just sort of hinted: “Many in our community are banding together against the scourge of homelessness.” He didn’t want his organization to be known as one that begs for quarters in the street. There was no P.S. (“That’s unprofessional,” he sniffed.)

You’ve probably been in a situation like this, so you can guess the outcome. We mailed the executive director’s letter, and received the lowest response in the organization’s history. It was a devastating loss of revenue, so deep the organization had to let staff go and scale back their services.

The worst thing about this story I’m telling you — and you’re probably already thinking this — is that it happens all the time.

What is it about fundraising that causes people who know nothing about it to feel so confident they can do it better than the pros? People who’ve never read a fundraising book . . . never read one of the hundreds of blogs on the topic . . . never been to a conference rich with useful content . . . never labored under a mentor who knew the profession — they know they can do better than those who’ve done all that.

Houston, we have a problem. And it’s costing us millions, maybe billions, in lost revenue. If Congress were debating a bill that even hinted at doing as much damage to revenue as the misguided red pens do, we’d march on Washington!

How can we stop this!?

There’s a solution, and it’s already at work: the Ahern Rule.

It’s named after master craftsman Moceanic course-creator Tom Ahern, who has an agreement with his clients: “Unless I’ve spelled your name wrong, you don’t change my copy.” (He calls it the Verbatim Clause; I’d rather name it after him.)

When Tom writes your fundraising copy, you agree to let him apply his expertise without your guesswork. You have to let him succeed without interference. He’s not quite as it sounds. He happily hears suggestions from his clients, and he freely admits they often make suggestions that strengthen his work. But the rule keeps the destructive garbage out.

Not every fundraising writer is Tom Ahern. Many don’t have the mastery to justify a hands-off privilege. And every writer, no matter how talented and experienced, can benefit from the thoughts of someone who knows fundraising and can comment based on facts and experience.

But we could raise a lot more money for our causes if we could say, “Thanks for the feedback, but no thanks,” to misguided attempts to fix our work. Someday. Maybe.

(Adapted from How to Turn Your Words into Money by Jeff Brooks.)

Read these great posts by Tom Ahern:

Want to take terrific online courses from Tom Ahern and other fundraising masters? They are all available for members of The Fundraisingology Lab. Check it out.


  • Jeff Brooks

    Jeff Brooks is a Fundraisingologist at Moceanic. He has more than 30 years of experience in fundraising, and has worked as a writer and creative director on behalf of top nonprofits around the world, including CARE, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Feeding America, and many others.

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