By Mary Cahalane at Hands-On Fundraising
Or why too many cooks who don’t know what’s already in the pot can make a mess.
Years ago, my family was gathered at my parents’ home to celebrate Christmas. By now, we were a big crowd – I have three siblings, and each of us has two children.
So my mom planned to make eating easy: simple, hearty stuff we could help ourselves to as we wished.
That included a big pot of chili.
Now, my mom’s chili was known to all as a little… cautious. Definitely not highly spiced.
But no one wanted to hurt her feelings.
So without saying a word, I added a little seasoning to the pot.
And without letting anyone else know, my husband, sister, and brother all did the same.
Each of us just wandered into the kitchen, took something from the spice rack and tried to fix the chili.
You can guess what the result was, can’t you?
From a bit bland, the chili became inedible.
Our well-meaning contributions hadn’t been coordinated. Nor had any of us really tasted what was in the pot as we worked.
Without coordination and tasting, we didn’t know what we were doing.
We took “almost right” and made “what a mess”.
My mom’s chili is what happens when people who don’t know what they’re doing mess with your writing.
It could be board members.
It could be staffers. (Or even sometimes consultants.)
But it usually involves people who don’t know as much as you do about writing to your donors.
They mean well. They want to help.
But they haven’t considered everything. They can’t taste what’s in the pot.
If you’re the expert – if you’re the one charged with writing to your donors – then you need to be in charge of the chili.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t seek out some help.
Had Mom asked one of us to take charge, all would have been well. (My husband makes some good chili, for instance.)
If you’re new to donor communications, bringing in outside help is smart. (Then trust them to do the job.)
But if you’re the fundraising copywriter, you should know your stuff and be trusted to do your work.
But I get it, often that’s not the way it works.
So let’s take some lessons from mom’s chili.
Before you start cooking: collaborate on the front end
If we’d thought to coordinate better with Mom, I could have brought the chili – already seasoned.
Think about why you will write, what you will write and who will sign the letter before you even begin.
What story will you tell?
Get all the permissions you need now, instead of later.
(“We couldn’t possibly use her name!” “Well, yes we can. She loved the idea.”)
If you’ve found the perfect story, but the subject of the story is uncomfortable, find a different story. It’s hard to dance around the edges without wrecking the details that make a story work.
A conversation at the start will uncover ways to collaborate that will make the subject feel good.
Who will tell the story in your appeal?
If your board chair has an impressive degree and will not allow his signature to go on a letter that uses contractions, look for a different person. Do it before you even begin.
In many cases, he’s not the best person anyway. Go past position:
- What about someone personally affected by your work?
- A staff member who works directly with clients?
- Even a truck, like my friends at Agents of Good used?
Get creative. Find someone whose voice and signature enhance your appeal.
Who will approve the appeal?
Do you need approval from your Development Director or Executive Director? Talk through your concept now, before you start writing. Get them on board from the start, and you’re more likely to get that approval later.
The idea here is to build trust.
The people you have to run your appeal by aren’t trying to make life difficult. They feel responsible.
But if they’re not experts, their well-meaning help can derail your work. When you bring them in early and keep them updated, it helps them feel comfortable.
When you use those early conversations to show them you know what you’re doing, that helps even more.
Consider every objection an opportunity at this stage. Explain why the letter will likely be more than one page. Why the language will be conversational, not formal. Why, yes, it will be emotional, but that’s not manipulative. Back up your arguments – try sending them to SOFII for Jerry Huntsinger’s tutorials. Or read Lisa Sargent, Pamela Grow, Sheena Greer, Ann Green or Jeff Brooks or Tom Ahern.
After you pull the ingredients together: say no to committees
You can work up front with the person who will sign and approve your next appeal.
Everyone has their own agenda – and unlike yours, theirs is likely not focused on your donors. Or not focused at all. (Don’t use your P.S. for all the “oh yeah, tell them this!” requests.)
A committee – staff or board – is a sure-fire way to wreck an appeal.
They are not all donor communications specialists. And they don’t understand the appeal is about donors, not about how they want to present the organization. They’re probably convinced that good arguments win the day.
You and I know that’s not the case.
A tasty finish
Since you’ve already helped those who have to approve understand what works, you’re more likely to get that yes.
But here’s the truth – you will rarely get through without some changes.
We all make mistakes. Or facts have changed.
Chances are you’ll have to make some changes. Negotiate a little. Just try to keep the changes to things that won’t ruin the final creation.
Then serve it up
You’ll learn about your audience when you see your responses.
If it’s just right – to their taste – you’ll see gifts coming in. If you’ve missed, they may pass this time. Learn, try again, do better.
That’s what we all do.
Photo by Charles Brooking (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons