Tom Ahern is the author of four books on fundraising communications, with a fifth on the way. An award-winning magazine journalist, he has written case statements for numerous campaigns and is a popular communications trainer and consultant. The interview was conducted by Don Akchin, a principal ofand a frequent contributor to the .
MKC: You’ve written four books. You’ve trained hundreds, maybe thousands of communicators, and by now you’d expect everybody knows what to do. Yet you’re still in high demand! How do you explain this?
TOM: How fast can you actually change the characteristic habitual behavior of communications in an industry as big as the nonprofit industry? At one point there were 1.6 million charities in the United States alone, and we’re not the only mature philanthropic market.) Some of the models that are well entrenched are just, I think, wrong. Yet everybody borrows from each other, they copy each other. And so you’ve got widespread bad practices, not best practices.
MKC: Is there something in particular in the model you can point to that’s not right?
TOM: Sure. And trust me, this is not something I discovered, it is kind of a large Aha! moment that is happening at large in our industry right now. There are researchers like Adrian Sargeant, an academically trained market researcher, who does everything by the numbers and tests presumptions, and he’s finding pretty much that every presumption he tests has been wrong. So the “empirical” approach of fundraising – which is, we don’t quite know what works but we’ll try stuff and then we’ll pretend it was based on great information – the ad hoc nature of this industry is not strong enough to sustain what the world really needs, which is a very powerful nonprofit sector.
I come out of a commercial marketing background. In commercial marketing, your customer is your obsession. But in fundraising, which is just a type of marketing, the customer is almost ignored. That struck me basically as an opportunity. Because if you could still raise these billions of dollars in charitable giving when you’re doing it in a kind of donor-neglectful way, how much could you raise if you did it in a donor-embracing way? What charities are posting in their newsletters, in their appeals, on their websites, etc. etc., is called, technically speaking, corporate communications. The defining pronoun for corporate communications is “we.” We do this great thing, we do that great thing. But donor communication is a completely different animal. The characteristic pronoun of donor communications is “you.” You’re always talking directly, and thankfully, to the donor. You helped us do this, you helped us make these great things happen.
Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare in Minnesota used to publish a so-called donor newsletter, which went out to about 20,000 people, and it was classic corporate communications. In four issues every year they’d lose about $40,000, and get back $5,000 in gifts. So they took a workshop that I’ve put together that teaches how to do a newsletter well. It’s based on a formula developed by . They went back, they applied it, and pretty much between one issue and the next, they went from bringing in $5,000 in gifts to $50,000 in gifts. And the biggest change they made was changing from doing corporate communications, where they talked about how great the hospital was, to donor communications, where they talked about how great the donor was.
When you put thanks and praise and flattery in front of the donor on a regular basis, you get a far more profitable response because you’re actually delivering what donors want. They want joy, they want to feel that they’re doing something worthwhile, they want to feel important, they want to feel valued, they want to feel their money has been well invested, etc.etc. I rarely run across anything in the nonprofit world which is truly donor-centered. That suggests to me there’s a ton more money that could be made in philanthropy if we just stopped doing that bad practice. I think the golden age is ahead of us.
MKC: Is a good fundraising letter that hard to write?
TOM: No. Not hard at all, actually. My proof is some of the people who come to my direct mail workshops and just absolutely blow me away with the results they get. I was just teaching one of these yesterday and showing a letter that was written by a volunteer for a small-town library. She had never written a direct mail appeal in her life, was not a professionally trained writer, and turned out a masterpiece the first time out that raised $56,000 in a few weeks.
MKC: What about other communications besides direct mail?
TOM: You have three things in the virtuous circle–your appeals, your thank yous, and your reporting. The reporting is done typically through newsletters or e-newsletters or gossip letters from the executive director, or whatever. But the reporting is the part that retains donors. And that is a major weakness for most organizations. International Fundraising Congress in 2011, reported on research in the UK about retention of new donors, and basically said, ‘This is pathetic.’ Six out of 10 first-time donors do not make a second gift, and there are some well tested ways to improve on those very sad statistics. One of those ways is to have a newsletter that just delights me every time it arrives., at the
MKC: Wow. I haven’t seen one of those in quite a while.
TOM: If ever. Newsletters are awful, just awful. The new book I’m writing is the second edition of my newsletter book. The first one basically existed because I had at one point the opportunity to see 60 or more donor newsletters, kind of a national sampling of the U.S., spread out on my counter. I discovered they all shared the same bad habits. I had worked as a magazine journalist, so I knew the value of keeping the reader very entertained, having great headlines, using photography to keep them pinned to the page, and all the rest of it, and I thought, ‘Oh man, these are weak! No wonder it goes in the trash all the time.’ I decided to write a book where I outlined all the mistakes they were making and how to fix them, of course. I could probably name about 10 common errors, and they are so common they fatally flaw almost every newsletter I’ve ever seen.
MKC: What’s the most fundamental thing a good communicator can get right?
TOM: Be donor-centric is the number one thing, by far. Right now, most charities by default talk about themselves. Let’s say you’re a charity trying to create direct mail in house. What will you do? You will sit down and start to tell me how wonderful your organization is, and you will write what is, in effect, a brochure. It will have perhaps the formatting of a letter, but even there organizations get that wrong and make it look like a business letter, not like a personal letter. They don’t use the word “I” over and over to establish a conversation between the writer and the person reading the letter, they don’t understand the power of offers to move people to action, and the list goes on. You cannot guess how to do direct mail. You’re either trained or you’re not. If you’re not trained, you’re just not going to be good at this. Nobody accidentally writes a good direct mail letter. But you asked, is it easy? It is! I’ve got it down now to a workshop I can give in two hours. Plenty of examples, and we’re not talking theory, we’re looking at an actual package and here’s what the results were, here’s why it worked.
MKC: Has the entrance of social media into the scene changed the game of fundraising noticeably?
TOM: It’s changed conferences noticeably. Now we have six sessions on social media. Those replaced the six sessions we used to have on branding a few years ago. There’s always going to be some flavor of the year. And it isn’t that social media doesn’t have a huge impact. It does – it steals a ton of time.
What seems to be the case – and the jury is definitely not in on social media, that’s going to take another generation to see what the true impacts are – is if you don’t have your other stuff working, social media is not going to save your hide, because it produces hardly any revenue. It is, at best, a relationship-building factor, but we’re not even sure of that. In September at a conference in Australia, I listened to a man report on what it took to make his entirely social media-based charity successful. In order to generate $350,000 for operations, he has to put in 80 hours every week, week in and week out, generating content for Facebook. He’s getting decent results, don’t get me wrong, but it’s costing him 80 hours a week. So I would say, ‘You know what? Prove to me that your newsletter, your basic reporting mechanism, is bringing in good retention and bringing in good money, then you can go bounding off after social media. Otherwise, stick to your knitting.’
Guest blogger Don Akchin writes frequently about marketing and philanthropy at donakchin.com
This interview series is produced with the generous support of the Nonprofit Marketing and Fundraising Zone.