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It's Time To Stop Second-Guessing Donor Communications

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I’m speaking to a sold-out room, talking to attendees at the 10th annual ADRP International Conference. Five hundred professionals at round tables are listening to the opening plenary, which is me. I’ve got a mic attached to my tie. I am loud and proud because I love these folks! These are my peeps! They do what I do – a lot of them anyway – at hospitals, at universities, at all sorts of charities.

ADRP stands for Association of Donor Relations Professionals. They’re the people who write. They’re the people who try to keep donors happy via communications. They’re the stewardship people. Professionals like me! I want to join this organization!

And yet this morning’s crowd has a big problem, judging by the response that roars across the audience when I say:

“The charity world will continue to raise a meager fraction of what it could raise from donors … as long as the approval loop contains PhDs and know-nothing second-guessers, like, unfortunately, many of your bosses.”

Applause erupts, like a flock of a thousand starlings exploding from the trees. Not a standing ovation, true. But an ovation none the less: a sitting ovation. A dark ovation.

What was it, really? A cry of pain.

A cry of pain from a working class too often oppressed by ignorance. “I felt a great disturbance in the Force,” Obi-Wan said softly. “As if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror, and were suddenly silenced. I fear something terrible has happened.”

Obi-WanI know the difference

Ain’t it grand?

These days, I only work with clients I want to work with.

It took 15 years of specialization, business strategy, and authoring books to get here. But now the right people and charities find me. If there is a “work heaven,” this, my friends, is it. And by the way? I love you guys! All my clients challenge me. All my clients are fun. And I’m not the only agency that’s chosen to become highly selective: Agents of Good in Toronto pursues exactly the same approach.

Writing fundraising copy is interesting work. But it’s a trade. A craft. A body of knowledge. You acquire it. You apprentice. You demonstrate you’re competent. You stay up to date. And you get paid.

I see myself as a sort of plumber, electrician, or master carpenter. I know how to build somewhat complex things so they work properly.

Only I’m not wiring your house. I’m writing appeals, newsletters, and cases. I’m wielding emotional triggers with a certain je ne sais quoi. I’m “loverizing” your donors (to deploy Jen Shang’s sharp term). All this helps you increase your charitable revenue. An electrician gets paid so the lights go on when you flip the switch. I get paid so more money comes in when you send the appeal.

My simple point?

Donor communications is a trade. And at the 10th annual ADRP International Conference I’m looking at an audience filled with tradespeople just like me. Yet, what do I hear, loud and clear, question after question?

They’re being second-guessed. They’re being told no. They’re being told, “We don’t do it that way.” They’re being told in essence, too often: “Just do what I tell you to do.” Even though there are “best practices” – and what they’re being told to do ain’t them.

Norma RaeNorma Rae was right

Bosses Day is October 16. Are you gearing up?

I think we need a counter-demonstration. I think we need in the nonprofit world a “flush the ignorance from the system” day.

On that day, I propose that every boss must take a test about best practices in donor communications. I’d be happy to write it, as a public service. I will consult with a bunch of experts and top professionals. This will be a great test of real skills.

And if you flunk, everybody knows you flunked. And if you pass, everybody knows you passed (in a perfect world, anyway).

Who’s with me?

I feel like Norma Rae. I want to start a revolution on the shop floor. Hold up a sign like she did: “UNION.”

When they told her to leave, she refused. “I’m staying put! Right where I am! It’s gonna take you, and the police department, and the fire department, and the National Guard to get me outta here! I’m waitin’ for the sheriff to come and take me home! And I ain’t gonna budge till he gets here!”

Revolution now? I wish.


At least once a year, I publish an article like this. The purpose of the article is to bring some mild comfort to the “second-guessed-to-death” fundraisers of our world. These are the purposeful people who attend how-to workshops and read how-to books, determined to improve their game, only to meet resistance from above.

I salute your struggle.

This post originally appeared in the Ahern Donor Communications Newsletter

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