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Book Review: Turning Doubters Into Donors: How to Make a Compelling Case for Your Cause by Tom Ahern

Let me tell you a neurotic secret about myself.

I hate writing.

Well, it would be more accurate to say I love it, but it brings out some of my weirdest tendencies. Maybe you experience this too.

A few years ago, I was in the middle of the biggest writing challenge I’d ever faced. I was writing a book. My first.

I had a publisher, who’d approved a couple of sample sections and the outline. So I was good to go, right?

Nope. Not at all!

I was afraid to even open the document that was the book project. When I tried to work on it, I felt like I was slamming my head against the wall. In fact, I may have done some actual head-slamming.

I was convinced that what I was writing was so bad it would spell the end of my career and my general employability. 

At that point, I called Tom Ahern.

He said, basically, “Jeff, pull your head out of your butt. Stop worrying. Just write the darn thing!”

It was exactly what I needed to hear. After that, the project seemed possible. And I eventually finished it.  (And it didn’t wreck my career.)

I’m telling you this because something similar may have happened to you, too. Saved by Tom! I think almost everyone in the  fundraising industry over the last few years can say that: Tom Ahern told me exactly what I needed to hear!

That’s what he does. Whether by email or through his many excellent books.

He’s done it again, this time in a surprising way, with his latest book, Turning Doubters Into Donors: How to Make a Compelling Case for Your Cause.

I’ll be frank: When I first saw this book, I thought, “My, but that’s specialized. Maybe too specialized.”

I thought that because the book is about creating “cases” — a very specific type of fundraising document — usually for high-end donors, often connected with capital campaigns. I’ve written three or four of them in the last 30+ years. 

I want all the help I can get with my fundraising knowledge, but I didn’t feel a real need to know more about writing cases. I have a stack of books three feet high that I want to read ASAP, so I thought maybe I could skip this one.

Fortunately, I remembered that when Tom Ahern writes a book, there’s no way reading it is not worth it!

I’m so glad I read it.

Because it opened my eyes not just to how to create an effective case, but to the idea that you can create different types of cases, not just the fancy big-donor type that I knew about:

There’s the feasibility case, which is a less formal document, used to solicit advice and interest from very high-end and closely connected donors. 

And there’s the internal case, used for staff and others involved in fundraising to equip them with the information and approaches that will help them be more effective. A document of this type could help bring about the transformation of a nonprofit. It could rally people around effective, donor-focused fundraising. (I’m going to be all over this in the coming year!)

If you find yourself needing to write a case, Tom’s book will help you find the paths, ask the right questions, avoid the pitfalls, and make it work.

But there’s something else in this powerful book. Even if you are never going to write any kind of case document — you will be a lot smarter about fundraising after you read it.

You see, the book is packed with real-life examples of all kinds of fundraising — not just cases. You’ll read stories of success, stories of failure (less inspiring, but sometimes more instructive), and insider advice from professionals all over our industry.

Here’s just one example. It’s in chapter 18. (There are 54 chapters in the book; at less than 200 pages, you can see how easy a read it is.) The chapter is about the “Is this me?” test.  It’s a way of making sure you connect with donors, who give mainly because of who they are. What we have to do is speak into donors’ identities — a combination of their values, their experiences, their fears, their hopes, and more. They donate when your fundraising connects with those identities.

As Tom puts it: “If the first thing I look at in your appeal doesn’t connect somehow with my self-identity and my emotions … Nor does the second thing connect … nor the third? Well, you bored me. And I move on. You’ve lost me and my gift.”

Gulp. How often have I written fundraising copy that was about everything except the donor’s identities?

Here’s how you do the “Is it me?” test: before you send your project to the printer (or hit the send button), look at everything you’ve said and every image you’re showing. Put yourself in your donors’ shoes and ask yourself about each element, “Is it me?”  Is it connecting to your donor’s identity?

It’s eye-opening. And, sometimes, quite disturbing!

That’s one chapter. There are 53 more in this powerful book. I urge you to read it now!

Tom Ahern teaches one of the most popular Moceanic online courses, Making Money With Your Donor Newsletter. You can take his course (and many others) by joining The Fundraisingology Lab. You’ll get an amazing array of fundraising courses, cheat-sheets, templates, and other resources. You’ll also have access to our Facebook community, where Tom is known to hang out — ask an interesting question, and he just might appear like Aladdin’s Genie to answer you. Get the details on membership here!

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