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One Rule That Can Turn Your Fundraising to Gold

“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.

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Pop Art Woman playing golf e1561503932786
Blithering Nonprofit ExecutivesBequests and Legacies

VIDEO: Blithering Nonprofit Executives Decide: Golf, Not Bequests

Why should you put any time or energy into bequest fundraising? Sure, it means creating a stream of large gifts that will fund your organization for years to come …

But not right now!

And who wants to talk about death? Or focus on older donors, when there are young donors to be cultivated?

The Blithering Nonprofit Executives make it clear: Golf events are where they want to put their emphasis!

Discover how you can master bequest fundraising for your cause and transform your income! Take our online course, Your Complete Roadmap to Raising Money with Bequests. It’s available for members of The Fundraisingology Lab. Check it out.

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Blithering Nonprofit ExecutivesFundraising

VIDEO: Blithering Nonprofit Executives Worry About Canada

What is the deal with Canada?

Specifically, Canadian fundraising?

Which seems to be a generation or so smarter and more donor-focused than US fundraising.

Which has the Blithering Nonprofit Executives worried.

Canada is making us (meaning US fundraisers of a certain approach) look bad! With their usual acuity, they propose some solutions. Check it out.

Discover how you can connect more with your donors, grow your fundraising income, and master your career — no matter what country you’re in. Join The Fundraisingology Lab and you join the thousands of smart fundraisers who are becoming EXTRAORDINARY FUNDRAISERS. Check it out.

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BrandingBlithering Nonprofit Executives

VIDEO: Blithering Nonprofit Executives Consider Re-Branding Their Organization

A new brand will solve all your problems!

The Blithering Nonprofit Executives believe this with all their hearts.

And they’re ready to spend big money on a total brand transformation that will change everything, from the font they use to their target audience of donors.

Have you ever wanted to be a fly on the wall when the bosses discussed re-branding?

Here’s your chance!

Please share your experience on re-branding by leaving your reply below. We’d love to learn from you!

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Pop Art Mail with Wings
Direct MailBlithering Nonprofit Executives

VIDEO: Blithering Nonprofit Executives Discuss Making Direct Mail Great Again

The Blithering Nonprofit Executives decide they can make direct mail a lot better by making a few much-needed “reformations.”

  • Communicate a lot less often!
  • Get rid of all that syrupy emotion and instead use facts and stats!
  • Replace the boring old letter with a cool-looking brochure!
  • Stop communicating with the top donors!

You might recognize these ideas, as they are brought to the table on a regular basis.

Be careful about what the Blithering Nonprofit Executives want to do. They can do deep and long-lasting
damage to your fundraising.

Want to know what really works in direct mail fundraising? Take our online course, 7 Steps to Creating Record-Smashing Direct Mail. It’s your hands-on workshop in what works, how to do it, and how to apply these truths to your cause! It’s available when you join The Fundraisingology Lab.

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VIDEO: Does Fundraising Make You Feel Like a Used Car Salesman? GOOD!

Fundraising professional, meet Crazy Eddie.

You probably aren’t going to like him. He’s loud and obnoxious. I mean, really REALLY LOUD and OBNOXIOUS.

But Crazy Eddie can teach us fundraisers a thing or two, especially when it comes to that “used car salesman” feeling we sometimes get when we do strong (meaning effective) fundraising.

This came up the other day over in the Moceanic Fundraisingology Lab (a Facebook community that’s open only to people who have taken a Moceanic online course or coaching). One of our community members noted that something she’d learned from Tom Ahern’s Making Money With Your Donor Newsletter course made her feel like a used car salesman. That got an interesting conversation going.

I thought you’d like to get a taste of what we’re learning from those darned used car salesmen that we don’t want to be like.

I think you’ll find it helpful!

Do you sometimes feel like a used car salesman? How do you deal with it? Please share your experience by leaving your reply below. We’d love to learn from your experience.

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Does Your Fundraising Secretly Say, “Don’t Bother Giving”?

Let’s say you go to a shoe store and find a perfect pair of shoes: comfortable, great looking, right style. You ask a clerk (“footwear specialists” they’re probably called these days) how much the shoes cost.

“You can purchase footwear for $50, $100, or $250,” he says, with no expression on his face.

“Shoes?” you ask.

He nods.

“How much will it cost to buy this pair of shoes?” you say, holding up that perfect pair.

The clerk scurries away. He can’t (or won’t) give you such intimate details. You are left wondering how a store with pricing policies like that stays in business.

That may sound like a story by Kafka, but it’s the way a lot of nonprofits sell their causes to donors: Make our work possible. Just write the check. Donors aren’t allowed to have any real connection with what they make possible.

When you do that, you give donors no connection between how much they might give and what might happen as a result of their generosity.

An effective fundraising offer connects a problem and its solution with the donor’s pocketbook. After all, if you’re a skillful communicator and you stir them to care, there are many things a donor might do beyond giving money. They could volunteer, write to their congressperson, pray, or march around with an oddly worded sign. But we are raising funds. We need to get the donor to give money.

Money is integral to the conversation. It needs to move beyond selling shoes (or “footwear solutions”) to selling specific pairs of shoes for specific prices.

I know an organization that, among many other things, provides orthopedic shoes for people with disfigured feet. These shoes cost $15 a pair, and they can transform someone’s life—dramatically improving their mobility and even their health. This is a great offer: it’s a specific amount, it “buys” something tangible, and it’s a good deal. Let’s peel that open:

  • This isn’t a wide-open offer about preventing disability or improving economic output in downtrodden communities — even though it’s part of all that. It’s shoes. You don’t have to be a development expert to understand what they are and what they can do.
  • You can take a photo of a pair of shoes. You can hold them. Everyone knows what they are. No abstract concepts here.
  • A good deal. Everyone loves a bargain. The best offers give donors “bang for the buck.” The strongest offers seem amazingly inexpensive for what they accomplish. That doesn’t mean they must be cheap: a $12 million building could transform the cultural life of a city—a bargain!

Are you serious about raising funds? Make sure you take the cost of the transformation you’re offering donors seriously. When you don’t, the message you’re really communicating is either (or both) of these:

  • Your gift doesn’t really do anything specific or important.
  • We have no idea what your gift is going to do.

Don’t let that happen to your fundraising!

(This post is excerpted from The Money-Raising Nonprofit Brand by Jeff Brooks.)

What costs have you been able to take to your donors? Please share your experience by leaving your reply below. We’d love to learn from your experience.

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How a Now-Defunct Fundraising Agency Discovered the Power of Donor Newsletters

Back in the early 1990s, a fundraising agency based in Seattle called the Domain Group accidentally made an important discovery: You can raise funds with a nonprofit newsletter.

At the time, most people in the fundraising industry considered newsletters to be money-losing projects. Necessary, but not typically profitable. Newsletters were almost always created in-house by nonprofits because it was not considered a worthwhile use of an agency’s time. Domain did them only rarely, and always as a sort of “favor” for clients who didn’t have the capacity to produce newsletters themselves.

The other thing you should know about newsletters back then is that they were filled with facts, figures, and news about what the organization was accomplishing. They were meant to inform and educate donors and make them feel that they’d made a good choice for their charitable giving.

The Domain Group people couldn’t leave well enough alone. They started tweaking and testing the content and presentation of newsletters. Results started to improve. Before long, their newsletters became revenue-positive. And they kept improving until they rivalled and sometimes surpassed direct mail. (This all happened before email was a viable fundraising medium.)

Each test they ran on their newsletters revealed new (and sometimes surprising) best practices for newsletters.

But the big discovery was the true purpose of a newsletter: It was not to report on the successes and excellence of the organization. It was to show the donor that her giving made a difference.

Thus the new name for newsletters: Donor newsletters.

That’s what made newsletters into powerful fundraising vehicles. They also helped drive significant improvement in donor retention. Domain typically saw a client’s overall retention rate leap by 10 percentage points or more when donor newsletters were added to their communication line-up.

Along the way, they built an established “formula” for donor newsletters. Here’s what the Domain Formula included:

  • Mail the newsletter in an envelope. This is far more effective than mailing the newsletter as a self-mailer. It is worth the small extra cost.
  • There’s a reply device and return envelope. Omitting one or both of them will seriously depress response.
  • The envelope says some variation of Newsletter enclosed.
  • Most of the stories are about the great things the donor made possible through her giving.
  • Most of the stories directly address donor to make that completely clear.
  • Most of the stories are human stories, not statistics or descriptions of programs.
  • Headlines are dramatic and specific and built on strong verbs. Written the way the tabloids do it.
  • Every image tells a story. Photos should be expressive faces making eye contact, understandable action, or interesting context.
  • Designed for scanability. Lots of entry points into every story: Subheads, pull-quotes, short paragraphs, photo captions, plenty of white space.

The Domain Formula began to spread around the industry. When I learned about it and began applying it to my clients, I routinely saw their newsletter revenue triple, quadruple, or increase ten-fold or more.

I tell everyone who will listen about the Domain Formula. And the beautiful thing is that organizations all over the world are now using it — and continuing to refine and revise it. It’s getting better and better!

It can work for you too!

Do you want to learn more about putting the Domain Formula to work for your newsletter? Take my new Moceanic online course, Making Money with Your Donor Newsletter. It’s all-new, all-practical, and will help you raise more money and keep more donors.

When you join The Fundraisingology Lab, You’ll get all my best thinking on making your donor newsletter effective. And you’ll have direct access to me and other Moceanic gurus in the online community for our students!

CFRE Points:
Jeff Portrait
NewslettersBlithering Nonprofit Executives

VIDEO: Blithering Nonprofit Executives Brainstorm a Donor Newsletter

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Two Blithering Nonprofit Executives … old farts … excuse me, make that nonprofit leaders — the kind of people who make a lot of decisions in fundraising these days (though not a whole lot of the actual work), brainstorm the content of their donor newsletter.

We at Moceanic managed to record the video of their web conference, and share it with you as a warning:  Don’t let this happen to you and your newsletter!

A well-built donor newsletter can raise a lot of funds — and really improve donor retention.  Because it meets the needs of donors. It makes them glad they gave … and more likely to keep on giving.

But none of this is likely when your newsletter is based on the opinions and likings of people who don’t know the sometimes counterintuitive truths about what makes a donor newsletter work.

You can resist the uninformed direction of Blithering Nonprofit Executives (who can be found in all ages, backgrounds, genders, and IQ levels) by knowing the facts.

This is why you should join The Fundraisingology Lab and get access to Tom Ahern’s powerful Moceanic course, Making Money with Your Donor Newsletter.

It could be one of the most important and impactful decisions you make this year.

And when they see the results, even the Blithering Nonprofit Executives will thank you for doing the right things in your donor newsletter!

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3 Things You Could Do to Totally Ruin Your Donor Newsletter

I’m pretty obsessed with donor newsletters.  I’ve planned, written, and directed a lot of them.  (A few years back I tried to count how many … it was around a thousand issues at the time. It’s much more today.)

There are a lot of things you can do to make a donor newsletter great — as in money-raising and donor-retention building.

Here are three things that can make a donor newsletter less great. I bring them up because they’re surprisingly common, which tells me these three things tempt many people. So take these as a word to the wise.

Newsletter Killer #1: A column called “From the Executive Director..”

Don’t get me wrong — having a column from your executive in your newsletter is perfectly fine. But merely labeling as being from that person is just boring.  I promise you, nobody (other than your ED’s mother) is sitting there thinking “I wonder what the ED has to say?”

And being boring is the least of your worries.  When you give a leader a soapbox, your leader will most likely use it as a soapbox — that is, a platform to talk about whatever she finds interesting.  Not what donors care about.

Having a Director’s column isn’t a terrible thing.  It can help connect her or him to the donors.  But to do that, it must be about topics of interest to the donor.  And it really needs a headline that entices people to read it.  (And really, the ED should probably not write it — have a professional do it and get sign-off!)

Newsletter Killer #2: Too many pages

I’ve tested this over and over: Newsletters that are longer than four pages don’t do as well than four-pagers. I’ve never yet seen the longer version outperform the 4-page version.

Which came as a surprise at first: It flies in the face of another fundraising truth: that longer messages work better than short ones.  It doesn’t apply to longer newsletters.

I don’t know why this is so, but I have a theory:  The shorter newsletter forces you to focus on what is really needed and truly donor focused. You end up omitting the Staff Profiles, the Calendar of Obscure Events, the photos of glassy-eyed major donors holding champagne glasses.

And guess what:  Even shorter newsletters do well also.  In extensive testing, I’ve found that two-page newsletters — that is, one single sheet, front and back — do as well as and sometimes better than four-pagers. If they do just as well, the smaller version is more successful, because it does so at less cost.  Give it a try!

Newsletter Killer #3: This photo

Don't add photos like this to your newsletter

It’s tempting, I know.  Some excellent group or maybe a company has donated a large amount to your organization.  You had a ceremony where they handed over the symbolic giant check for the amount of their wonderful donation.  The ceremony was fun and uplifting.  They’re really great people.  They deserve recognition … and as a smart fundraiser, you know that recognizing them is a smart thing to do.

But here’s the problem with putting this photo in your donor newsletter: What it says to and about every single other donor who gets this newsletter.  It tells them that their gifts are small! Less important.  Less interesting.

If you want to honor these excellent donors, find another way to do it:  Buy an ad in a local publication they read that says how appreciated they are.  Or send them a framed photo.

Just don’t muddy what you want to say to all your other donors with the giant-check photo.

Want to know more about creating super-effective donor newsletters? Check out Tom Ahern’s course Making Money With Your Donor Newsletter. You can access it when you join The Fundraisingology Lab.  Uncover the secrets and strategies from the leading evangelist of great donor newsletters – and discover how you too can create successful donor newsletters that will raise tons of new giving from your EXISTING donors.

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