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Before Putting Pen to Paper, Understand Your Donors

By Tom Watson on February 7, 2007No Comment

Before Putting Pen to Paper, Understand Your Donors
By: Kathleen Brennan, 2/7/2007


An interview with Tom Ahern, author of the just released book, How to Write Fundraising Materials that Raise More Money: The Art, the Science, the Secrets, published by Emerson and Church ( He is also the author of Raising More Money with Newsletters than You Ever Thought Possible.

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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