We have all made mistakes.
That might be the most universally correct statement ever. (Or not!)
Admitting to them can be embarrassing. But it can also be educational. Today, I want to use early mistakes of mine to underline why we should avoid the temptation to be clever when we can be sincere instead.
At the very beginning of my fundraising career, I had a remarkable opportunity. I was hired as a new development staff person. I had no fundraising experience, but several years of nonprofit experience at another theater.
Then the development director left.
Should have been a disaster, right? But it meant the marketing director and I could completely reinvent how the organization did fundraising.
We were wise enough to enlist a couple of consultants. And we hired a copywriter at first, as well. Then I called many of our peer theaters across the country to learn how they did things.
We laid the groundwork for an annual giving program that is thriving today.
An experiment that missed
One thing we didn’t understand well was the difference between marketing communications and fundraising communications. At that time (long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away) renewing subscribers usually involved a brochure and renewal form. Direct mail, of course, because we didn’t even have email yet.
So we used the same formula for fundraising. We enlisted the pro bono help of a designer who was also designing the graphics for one of the shows in the season – or who hoped to in the future. And the creation of this brochure took most of our time. Meetings, brainstorming, creative back and forth… it was fun!
It was also stupid.
Because – though we didn’t know it yet – brochures tend to depress response in fundraising. All that time and effort and it was likely hurting, not helping.
But once, as we were really having fun playing at brochure design, we really got carried away. Delighted ourselves with our cleverness.
We were sure this one would be a big hit.
Here’s what we sent. (Forgive the photo quality.)
So, while I was having a self-satisfied chuckle, guess who was missing? Donors. Or, any particular care about what donors wanted.
And here’s what happened. (You’ve probably guessed already.)
Some annoyed donors. Some who thought it was funny but didn’t send money. Mostly, a lower response than we’d been getting.
So you try, and you fail, and you learn, right?
To some extent, yes. Brochures went away… though I cannot remember whether it was right away.
But a year later, I was feeling clever again. (Danger, Will Robinson!)
Another experiment – done for the wrong reasons
You see, I had taken over the copywriting. (Thanks to Jerry Huntsinger’s mailed newsletter – oh, how I wish I’d been able to take them with me! But you can find an invaluable collection of his at SOFII.) As best I can recall, I had a particular audience I had to please before a single donor saw the letter: my bosses.
I think this was meant to make them happy. (My fault, not theirs.) And indeed, some donors were quite taken with it. One wrote to tell us how clever they found it and sent their first-ever donation.
But it was all about clever, and not enough about the donor.
Why am I offering you this biography of mistakes? So you know that we all make them. So you give yourself room to try and miss. And maybe, just maybe, so sharing them helps you or someone else avoid the same mistakes.
What donors want
Here’s the real point: writing to your donors isn’t about you or your organization. Writing to your donors is about your donors.
Give them a problem to solve. Let them know you trust their kindness and generosity can help solve it.
Step out of the way.
If the problem you’re presenting is big enough to warrant a request for help, then it’s big enough to take seriously. So take the problem seriously. Take your donors seriously. And give them the spotlight.
Your cleverness is not the point.