Archive for September, 2011

Your prospect has four sets of ears: Are you speaking to them?

This month we are featuring Tom Ahern’s recent book, How to Write Fundraising Materials that Raise More Money (Emerson & Church, 2011).

Despite our lack of Tom Ahern’s vast communications credentials, we find ourselves fully entrenched in writing tasks. No matter how you communicate, whether you are a social media fan or a champion of direct mail, your understanding of effective donor communications will be essential to nonprofit success.

While it’s widely accepted that no two readers are alike, we continue writing to them as if they are. Your donors are not target markets or segments; they are people with different motivations for giving to your nonprofit. No matter how well-intentioned your messages are, the reality is that you are still an intrusion. So we must raise the bar in writing donor-centric messages to inspire action.

Donors have special interests, and here’s a short list of what they care deeply about, according to Ahern: your accomplishments (What did you do with my money?), your vision (If I choose to give you more money, what amazing things could you do with it?), recognition (Are donors like me vital to your work?), and your efficiency (Can I trust you with my money?). Of these four interests, the most important will be your accomplishments. In other words, your donors want to back a winner. One caveat: leave room for improvement and link the accomplishments with need.

Donor-OPTIONAL language is: “We did this. We did that. We were amazing. Oh, by the way, thanks.” Donor-CENTRIC language is: “With your help, all these amazing things happened. And without your help, they wouldn’t have.” Further donor-centric language means you are appealing to all four sets of the prospect’s ears.

  1. One set is the AMIABLE side that responds to people and seeks community, sharing emotions and responding to one another. Ahern encourages you to “glow with humanity and heart and attract the amiable side of your audience.”
  2. Another set is the EXPRESSIVE side that responds to anything new and says, “Tell me something I don’t know!” They burn for the new. They crave the new. They are addicted to the new, the urgent, the different, the unique and the only. “Radiate news value and urgency,” says the author.
  3. The third set is the SKEPTICAL side and is wary from the start or cautious by nature. The courts say, “innocent until proven guilty,” but the skeptical ear says the opposite. Ahern tells us to “anticipate and answer the predictable objections … and allay the doubts that eat at the skeptical side of your audience.”
  4. Your final set of ears only wants to know what to do next. These BOTTOM-LINERS want us to make it obvious, make it convenient, and go, go, go. “Never forget to tell people exactly what you wish they’d do next … so the bottom-liner side of your audience can easily respond to your appeals,” says Tom.

A portion of this blog post was excerpted from a Page to Practice book summary at For more information about Tom Ahern’s book and more expert advice, visit

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Is your nonprofit worth saving unconditionally?


I can only think of one time you promise for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health. And it’s never applied to a nonprofit organization, let alone a business. If your nonprofit has sickly or feeble programs and is in a poor financial state, is it worth saving unconditionally? Should nonprofits rise above our treatment of failing businesses simply because they have a worthy mission?

This week’s article by Raylene Decatur, called “Should we strive for sustainable organizations?” is a must read. She and I recently discussed the occasionally misguided goal of sustainability, and I’m delighted she put pen to paper for a larger discussion. Raylene addresses the issue we as nonprofit leaders continue to orbit but rarely touch. Decatur says,

“Rather than investing so much energy in discussing and developing sustainable nonprofits, we should instead have a more animated dialogue about the best way for nonprofits to go out of business. Why should there be an aura of perpetuity around nonprofit endeavors? In 2010, 824,920 nonprofit organizations filed reports with the Internal Revenue Service. What percentage of these organizations is making documentable progress on their missions? Some may have made a real and permanent difference, and their mission can now be retired. Why is it acceptable to open a restaurant that might fail, but not acknowledge that a new nonprofit may not succeed?”

I would suspect that you agree with this statement but are you willing to accept the reality? Perhaps the collective conscience of our nonprofit sector is already tracking this logic as we watch the stage of mergers grow to a cast of thousands. There are a lot of different reasons mergers and alliances have grown as a popular alternative.

Two in particular are the fall of the subprime market in 2008 and the explosion of nonprofits in the last 10 years. In fact, The End of Fundraising author, Jason Saul, claims there are approximately 1,000 nonprofits for every type of cause. These systemic events have exposed feeble nonprofits and prompted them to look at integrating service delivery or tapping into peer organization’s strengths, says Tom McLaughlin, author of Nonprofit Mergers & Alliances.

Perhaps mergers or alliances at their worst are the palatable alternative to failure in our sector. Furthermore, self preservation could be more insidious than we think because it’s veiled as doing the greater good.

In contrast, Tom McLaughlin says the best time to consider an alliance or a merger is before it’s necessary. For the healthy organizations truly investigating mergers for the exchange of mutually beneficial gains, I give you McLaughlin’s Life Cycles of Nonprofit Organizations. Examine the stages below to discover your readiness for collaboration:

Formless: In this stage, there are not enough comparable nonprofits to constitute a recognizable type. Different groups respond to similar social needs and economic realities in similar ways without necessarily understanding why or even communicating with each other. Affiliations of any kind are virtually out of the question.

Growing: There is at least a general recognition that the particular nonprofit service is needed but most energies are devoted to building capacity and solving operational problems.

Consolidating: At this stage, the general type of organization is recognized and accepted by society and the nonprofit sector itself. Some organizations take on a leadership role while others struggle to come into being in order to cover geographic gaps left by the early types. The groups create formal associations and other support entities, and a recognizable national identity begins to emerge.

Peaking: As a field and as individuals, these nonprofits enjoy newfound acceptance and growing influences. The pace of new entrants slows, but those already in existence experience previously unimagined success in areas such as operations, public relations, financial and political. Mergers occur for strategic purposes when strong players take over the few weak ones, which falter.

Maturing: Maturing nonprofits have long ago hit their peak and are beginning to lose some of the strategic momentum they had earlier. The services they offer are now being offered at least in part by others or are no longer perceived as necessary. No one can doubt their collective influence, but some are beginning to doubt their future.

Refocusing: Once past maturity, some nonprofits find they must reinvent themselves in order to survive. Some do; others fade gradually away or merge what is left of their services with compatible groups at an earlier stage of development.

Is your cause worth sustaining in perpetuity? If you say, “Sure it is,” I would add, “But to what end?” What measurable and incremental results are you accomplishing? Are your efforts truly addressing the upstream systemic causes? And finally, ask yourself if your nonprofit would be saved by a merger or would it be strengthened by a merger. The ideal union is when both parties share their compatible strengths. If your nonprofit is looking for a savior in its merger, perhaps you should call off the wedding.

See also:

Why Charities Should Have an Expiration Date

Nonprofit Sustainability: Making Strategic Decisions for Financial Viability

Nonprofit Mergers & Alliances

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Don’t “blandify” your message, be bold

I read a blog post today called “Why Steve Jobs and I Hate Charity” by one of our featured authors, Joe Waters, who has generated a lot of mixed responses with this post, some even angry. I can’t help but be happy for him. Call me crazy, but this month I have author Tom Ahern backing me up on this one. We’re currently featuring his new book, How to Write Fundraising Materials That Raise More Money (Emerson & Church Publishing, 2011) at CausePlanet.

“Content that interests your reader is mandatory,” says Ahern. He says we should ask if our message is bold and passionate. (Not bland, predictable or boring.) I would say Joe Water’s post meets these requirements on all counts.

One of Tom Ahern’s chapters in particular had me jumping out of my seat because it’s so rarely discussed, much less overcome in the workplace. The chapter is called “On the delicate subject of committee and board approvals.” Tom’s remarks in this chapter further support the priority we must all put on preserving communications that are bold, controversial and surprising. Tom argues that your board and committee’s instincts and good intentions aren’t enough. Effective communications are, in Ahern’s opinion, 99 percent science and one percent art. You are a professional. You’ve done the research and understand what makes communications effective. Committees tend to “blandify” the piece and scrub away the bold, the controversial and the crazy surprises you’ve worked hard to incorporate into your piece, says Ahern.

I was so enthusiastic about this opinion after having survived numerous direct mail pieces written by committee over the years that I asked more about the subject in our interview and here’s what Tom had to say:

CausePlanet: We love chapter eight about how to mitigate the influence of committee or board approval on the written appeal. How liberating! Would you say the same rules apply for management?

Tom Ahern: There are two kinds of bosses: those who trust their employees and those who don’t. The trusting boss says to the fundraiser, “Look, this is your area of expertise. And it’s your neck on the line. Do what you think is best.” If that’s not your kind of boss, start looking for a new job.

Tom explains his book that there are seven ways you can guarantee poor results. I would argue that number seven needs to added as I’ve done below. Then again, he did dedicate an entire chapter to the subject.

  1. You don’t target your audience narrowly enough: You must sharpen your message by grouping your constituency by donors (at least two gifts), prospects (shown some interest or lapsed donors) and suspects (might yield a gift but show no proof yet of interest). The second layer of grouping is segmentation by demographics (age, sex, income, educational level, number of children or zip code) and psychographics or “lifestyle traits” (values, beliefs, attitudes and interests).
  2. You don’t know what your BIG message is: Choose one message for each target audience and beat that message to death for a few years. That’s how you get results, says Ahern.
  3. You don’t repeat your messages often enough: Marketers cite the “rule of seven,” which means you must bring the same message to a target audience at least seven times in an 18-month period in order for that message to penetrate.
  4. You don’t have real goals: Every goal should be concrete, measurable, achievable and worth doing.
  5. You think “bland” is a safe choice: You have to be BOLD to capture a person’s attention in today’s hyperactive messaging environment. Bold always outsells bland.
  6. You have unreasonable expectations: You hope for blockbusters. Instead, have patience with the slow trickle of interest. It will soon amount to a river of support, says Ahern.
  7. You use a committee and board approval process: Your board or committee’s instincts and good intentions aren’t enough. Effective fundraising communications are, in Ahern’s opinion, 99 percent science and one percent art. Professionals on staff have done the research and understand what makes a communications piece effective. Committees tend to feed each other’s doubts; they “blandify” the piece and scrub away the bold, the controversial and the crazy surprises you’ve worked hard to incorporate. (See # 5.)

Thanks, Joe, for the great post and keep your readers guessing. You have us in your court. Visit

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Community auctions: Collect creative items and boost the bidding process

Last week, CausePlanet asked its readers for questions they had about community auctions. As the author of SOLD: How to Run a Great Community Auction and owner of Community Auction Services, I was anxious to share what I’ve experienced over the years. I hope these answers help those of you who use this exciting fundraising strategy.

Q: What are first-timers most surprised to learn after completing their first auction?

Well, there are good surprises and bad ones! Many first-timers are overwhelmed by the checkout process, which has to take place in an organized way and very quickly. A chaotic checkout experience can turn any organization off auctions forever: it’s traumatic for those giving the auction and also for attendees.

The key to avoiding bad surprises is planning. Read up on how auctions should be run—there are a myriad of websites where you can get information, or you can purchase SOLD:  How to Run a Great Community Auction. Ask friends about auctions they attended to find out what went well and what didn’t. To avoid checkout trauma, a good data system is essential, whether it’s created by an organization member or purchased (like EasyAuction™).

Of course, the best surprise is to learn that the auction made more than was forecasted, which happens a lot with well-organized auctions, whether they’re first-timers or not. Items you didn’t think would sell end up making a lot; items you thought were real winners go for peanuts! But overall, you can find yourself amazed at the total. My favorite story:  a preschool wanted to raise $1000 and ended up with over $3500 by the end of the evening!

Q: What are some ways I can boost the creativity of the auction items my committee collects?

The number one rule when trying to improve your donations is: find out what the bidders want and give it to them! How can you do that? Look at the population who will be attending the auction. What do they like to do?

·         If your organization is a community (a church, school or other organization where people know each other), encourage people to offer dinners and other social events in their homes. This can be an untapped source of fantastic items.

·         Are a lot of the attendees’ families with children? Host ice cream socials or magic shows in a backyard, or sponsor a family softball game complete with hot dogs and root beer. People love buying things for their kids!

·         Combine smaller donations into attractive and desirable baskets. Have a gift certificate for an oil change? Buy some wax and a car wash mitt and create a “Love Your Car” basket. Hand-thrown pottery mugs? Add a Starbuck’s gift card and a bag of gourmet coffee. You can get baskets at thrift stores and use leftover Christmas ribbon to make them more appealing.

·         Borrow ideas wherever you can find them! If you know of another organization that’s giving an auction, get a copy of the catalog. (By the way, I’m happy to share ideas from some of my previous auctions—just ask!) Again, a web search will turn up lots of information.

·         ALWAYS analyze your auction after it’s over to determine which types of items sold well and which didn’t. Then get more of the former next year.

·         Ask potential bidders what they’d like to bid on. Put a “donation tree” in the lobby or on your organization’s auction information table. Encourage people to write their desired auction items on “leaves” and tape them to the tree. Then find someone to donate them. Note: of course, in today’s world, this can be a virtual tree via email or a Facebook page.

Q: What are the best strategies for keeping people bidding in a live or silent auction without being annoying?

Of course, the best way to keep people bidding is to have great items, but you can stir up a little excitement with these techniques:

·         Use Psychology: People tend to start bidding more when they think the auction is almost over, so have several (two or three) closing times for silent auction items. (This helps your data entry people too.) You can close a whole category at one time or choose to close individual items, generally those that will not benefit by extended bidding. Mark the bid sheets with colored dots to indicate which closing time applies. For example, Red Dot items might close at 8:00, Blue Dot at 8:15 and the rest at 8:30. Be sure to announce, “Red Dot items closing in five minutes!”

·         Provide Bargains: About 15 minutes before the silent auction is over, reduce the price of items that have no bids by marking the bid sheets with a marker or pen. Then, be sure to announce that you’re doing it—people will come out of the woodwork anticipating a bargain. I often reduce minimum bids by one-third to one-half. Remember:  you’ll make more by selling the item cheaply than by not selling it at all.

·         Entertain: For oral/live auctions, hire a professional auctioneer if at all possible. This makes a huge difference when it comes to keeping people interested. If you can’t afford a pro, use entertaining ways of describing the items for bid. For example, have one of your helpers dress in an evening gown to display the items in a Vanna White-type walk across the stage! Make sure the auctioneer includes a lot of humor, including stories everyone will relate to.

·         Keep it Simple: Don’t include too many items in your oral/live auction. It’s hard to set an absolute number, but if you keep the number at 20 or below, you will have more interest (and higher bids) for the items offered. Be sure the items are chosen for their general appeal, not necessarily just their value. You can offer the other items in your silent auction.

See also:

SOLD: How to Run a Great Community Auction

Fundraising with Businesses

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Write fundraising materials that raise more money

Tom Ahern, one of our top authorities on nonprofit communications in North America, has written a book for those of us who are not full-time professional writers: How to Write Fundraising Materials that Raise More Money. Critically important advice, game-changing strategies and valuable trade secrets are packaged in this light and breezy format of short chapters containing straight talk. Ahern easily traverses psychographics, demographics, structural tips, and building a case, so you can feel as if the mountain of communications you face is a task worth climbing. We kick off our feature with Tom’s advice on what belongs in the communications. Content that interests your reader is mandatory. How do you interest people?
Here’s a checklist of what Ahern considers when he writes for donors or prospects:

Have I said what amazing things the organization did or would do with their gifts?

Did I mention worthwhile results? Real accomplishments?

Did I link these accomplishments back to charitable giving?

Did I celebrate the donor as the hero?

Did I talk about the organization’s cost efficiency?

Is it bold, passionate? (Not bland, predictable or boring?)

Is the tone conversational?

Is the publication as a whole a quick read using short sentences and action verbs?

Have I eliminated jargon?

Am I using statistical evidence like a spear to make a single important point?

Can I use a testimonial anywhere to inspire the faithful and calm the doubters?

Have I made at least one offer they can respond to?

The secret to the response: the offer is king, says Ahern. The richer you make the offer, the better the response. For example, people can’t resist matching gift campaigns. Don’t bury the offer at the end of your copy—make it bold and not easy to miss.

For more information about Tom Ahern’s book and more expert advice, visit

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Taking risks for the public good

Earlier this summer, Pablo Eisenberg shared his thoughts in his article, “The State of the Nonprofit Sector.” There are many gems to contemplate and wrestle with, but my favorite portion of the article comes toward the end:

The heads of many, if not most, of our nonprofit organizations, large or small, traditional or non-traditional, seem afraid to speak out publicly on important public issues, go on the record with their positions, confront controversial problems or critique their weak or unethical colleagues and failing organizations. Their timidity would be laughable were it not so damaging to a sector that begs for vision, introspection, intellectual rigor and integrity. We appear to have socialized a large group of nonprofit executives more interested in promoting their own careers and turf, in being collegial to a fault and in avoiding all risks than in pursuing what is best for the field and the public.

I love this paragraph. As I’ve tried it on for size, I’ve thought about how I might reframe this sentiment. Not that Pablo Eisenberg’s work needs a reframe, but as an exercise: if I’m talking to someone like me who aims to be a visionary but harbors fears of being complacent, how might I approach this? I understand how nonprofit leaders can get distracted by the many onerous tasks of keeping an organization alive and kicking. In addition to managing relationships with a Board, staff, and the community, the pressures of constant fundraising, strategic alignment, and fiscal management can be overwhelming. When a nonprofit leader has managed to successfully balance all those demands, it is a huge accomplishment and should be celebrated. But sometimes nonprofit organizations can achieve all those things without giving enough consideration to one thing missing from the list: is the organization pursuing what is best for the public good?

It’s difficult to pull away and look critically at the organizations we lead. We sink so much of ourselves into building and growing a cause-based business. I don’t think most of the nonprofit executives Eisenberg refers to are being selfish or self-aggrandizing, but I do think there is a temptation to feel a sense of achievement by landing a powerful position at a reputable nonprofit. Not only are people in these positions sometimes afforded the opportunity to enjoy some well-deserved perks, but they can do so feeling that they are still making a difference in the world. The sector can be alluring that way. And we can become confused about the difference between working for a nonprofit and doing what is best for the field and the public. They are not the same thing, although the trappings of the sector sometimes lead us to believe they are.

Becoming the Executive Director of a nonprofit is not the goal. Working at a foundation is not the goal. Effecting the kind of change we want to see in the world is the goal, and that doesn’t happen without conflict, tension and risk.

We know nonprofit engagement in advocacy is dismally low: Eisenberg states only about 1% are involved in legislative advocacy. The top reasons nonprofits don’t engage include a misunderstanding of the rules around 501c3 lobbying, and the definitions of advocacy and constituent education can be complicated and intimidating.

But another big reason nonprofits are hesitant to be advocates is a fear of upsetting the people who help them on all those onerous tasks: Board members, volunteers, foundation funders, individual donors and other kinds of resources. Fundraising is a competitive, demanding, never-ending marathon, and once you’ve figured out how to make it work, you don’t want to risk anything that would harm that success. But declining to speak up out of fear for your organization’s bottom line or your career security or a reprimand from a powerful person is harmful. It’s undercutting the very reason we set out to do this work. Nonprofits represent the needs and interests of some of the most vulnerable populations in our community. These are the populations that often get attention on the campaign stump, only to be forgotten after the ballots are cast. They are sometimes misunderstood and marginalized and have accepted that their positions in our society are viewed as less important than the interests represented by so many lobbyists on Capitol Hill. We are hurting our cause if we don’t speak up for them, not only to policy makers, but to the people in our own sector. We have to speak up about what is working and what isn’t working and not wait until we have the opportunity to fill out an anonymous survey. If we put the needs of our organization above the needs of the public we claim to serve, we are hurting our cause.

In this economic climate, most nonprofits are dealing with too few resources to meet an increased demand. It’s understandable that nonprofit leaders may feel risk-averse in order to seek stability for their organization. But as Joseph Campbell suggests, “Opportunities to find deeper powers within ourselves come when life seems most challenging.” Now, not despite these challenges but because of them, it is important to speak up for the needs of our sector and our communities.

See also:

The One-Hour Activist

Charity Case

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