4 Fundraising Case Statement Lessons from Abe Lincoln


You ready? I’m going to make you read the entire Gettysburg Address.

That Abraham Lincoln, he sure knew how to write a case statement.

“Fourscore and seven years ago…” all the way to “…government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.” The Gettysburg Address. Length: 266 words.

And what was the case he was trying to make? What was Lincoln hoping to raise support for at that moment in 1863?

A political vision, a vision we hope is still true, a national vision worth having: a country “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Emancipation. A united people with a high purpose.

You know the outcome. That vision still inspires many. Let’s learn from Eloquent Abe, Master of the Case Statement.

Lincoln’s lessons: (1) an effective case statement can be surprisingly brief, as long as it (2) seeks an emotional response, (3) doesn’t overdo it on the details, and (4) presents a clear picture of a solution.

Lincoln’s case breaks down into five easy pieces:

“Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.

[PIECE ONE: He presents the problem immediately: your nation’s noble founding concept is under threat. The solution is the vision “our fathers brought forth….” He has pulled at least two emotional triggers here: fear and anger. Anyone who has been through my workshop knows how important the seven emotional triggers are in selling your vision.]

“We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

[PIECE TWO: This is classic misdirection, one of the great secrets of capturing audience attention. Basically, President Lincoln gets people’s minds moving in one direction. Then in the next section he changes direction.]

“But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.

[PIECE THREE: Abraham Lincoln just made an offer. He has said, “You can feel the flattery, and escape the guilt, and find the salvation,” three more emotional triggers of response, “If you stay the course, and this vision comes true.”]

“It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us–that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion–that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain,

[PIECE FOUR: For those of you who’ve attended, remember how in my workshop I show you that slogan from Texas Monthly, “Make it mythic”? Lincoln just made it mythic. He has also just said we can save lives, a strong donor benefit. Or save deaths anyway. “…that these dead shall not have died in vain.”]

“…that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”

[PIECE FIVE: A wonderfully perfect future…if you give today. Good closing call to action. Squint and you’ll see it.]

Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address also teaches us by omission.

In every workshop I do, I STRONGLY emphasize the frequent use of the word “you” (and its variants). “You is glue.” For one hardwired deep-seated psychological reason, the word “you” virtually alone (second only to the person’s actual name) keeps the reader glued to the page. I STRONGLY discourage use of the word “we” as a synonym for “you and I together.” And yet what does Lincoln the Master do? Never utters the word “you.” Instead he uses “we” as a vast echo that embraces every listener. “We are engaged…we are met…We have come to dedicate…we should do this…But…we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow….”

We can. We cannot. Where do you turn for resolution?

Directly into the vision: “It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here” – there were 60,000 casualties at Gettysburg, North and South together, killed, wounded or missing – “have thus far so nobly advanced.”

Of course, that was Lincoln. Do not try this at home. Never substitute “we” for “you” unless you’re really good at rhetoric.

This post originally appeared in the Ahern Donor Communications newsletter.

Tom Ahern
Author of four books, Tom Ahern is considered one of the world’s top authorities on donor communications.
Tom Ahern

Latest posts by Tom Ahern (see all)

By |2017-06-10T19:22:01-04:00August 26th, 2014|Donor Communications|

Leave A Comment