Amy Eisenstein recently sat down with Tom Ahern, one of the world’s most renowned experts in donor communications, to get his thoughts on best practices for fundraising case statements.

Full Transcript:

my: Hi. I’m Amy Eisenstein. Today I have the pleasure of having a friend, a colleague, and a mentor, Tom Ahern, here, an expert in our field on case statements. Welcome, Tom.

Tom: Thank you, Ms. Frankenstein.

Amy: Thank you for joining me. That’s an inside joke we’ll share with our watchers later or not. So today, we want to talk about case statements. What can you tell me about case statements, good, bad, ugly?

Tom: Well, mostly they’re done for capital campaigns. And so if you read any book about capital campaigning, you get to a chapter and it said, or at the end of a chapter usually, it says, “And now you must have a case statement to bring to your prospects.”

Amy: Yes.

Tom: And then you turn the page and it just moves on like you suddenly somehow mushrooms grew and you have a case statement and it’s great.

Amy: And you know what it is, yes, yes.

Tom: And so in my earliest years I get a call one day from a guy names Jerry Panas and if you’re in the fundraising world I’m sure you know Jerry. He’s about 190 years old and still working.

Amy: A legend in the field, yes.

Tom: A legend twice, three times over. I don’t know what his secret is.

Amy: Yeah.

Tom: I think it’s Greece. He goes to Greece a lot. And Jerry said, “I hear you can write. Can you fly to St. Louis this weekend? I need a case statement written for a client.” And so I was sent one of Jerry’s cases and deconstructed it, figured out what they’re doing, and went to St. Louis and wrote that case. But since that time I’ve written dozens of cases. I wrote a book about cases really to fill in that missing chapter that was never there for me. And I also get trained by Marts & Lundy, by Ronna Rundi there in how their house case is written. And what I’ve found over time is that cases, they are an internal struggle but they’re very uninspirational for the most part.

What comes out of a committee process is usually a . . . all the edges are scrubbed off and it’s sanitized and all the jargon is pumped in. And basically you can’t understand half of them. And I just got, this is the interesting thing. So I got a call from an elite university, one of the top I’ll say six in the world. I don’t want to make them too obvious. And they said, “We want to work with you on our next case statement.” And I asked them, “Well, what your approval process?” And they said, “Well, there’s this committee.” At which point I said, “Let me give you the name of another case writer you can talk to, because I don’t work with committees and there’s nothing in this case a lot of PhDs are going to be able to tell me about communicating and persuading a donor that I’m going to be interested in or that will help you.

And in fact, their own major gift officers had said, “You know, we raised a billion dollars last time but we didn’t actually used the fancy pants case statement that you had created for us because, well, in fact, it wasn’t very useful.” And it was difficult to read, it was bland, it was safe, it was all the things committees do by instinct. So I think there is a place in the world that’s very revolutionary for a case statement that actually tells a story and is fascinating but you have to make the donor the hero rather than the organization.

Amy: Yes. How do you recommend that we do that?

Tom: Well, you fire your committee and yes, well of course that won’t happen. But, you know, awareness is helpful. I was working with an international medical research organization and knowing that the approval process would be scientists and knowing that they’re not used to the world of sales and persuasion which is the world I come from. And so I thought, “Well, this is going to be difficult but I think we can get around it if I can prove to them that what we’re seeing on the page is actually there for a good reason, not just because I’m a flippant jerk.”

And so the case itself when it was finally written was only about 1,500 words but there was a 5,000-word briefing document that went only to the scientist committee that was going to be my approval group. And they religiously read it. It was filled with data and they came out the other side going, “Okay, now we understand.” And, more, they actually pushed me further than I had gone in my original case. Let’s really ramp up that evil thing which you’ve been talking about, this story of good versus evil which was the underlying myth of the case.

Amy: Right. What are some roles of thumb that you would give people if they’re trying to write a good case or their first case? What comes first, second and third, or what should have been on those chapters that don’t exist in those books?

Tom: Yeah. Most cases start from an organizational viewpoint. So they start with, “We’re going to show you how good we are. And then you will be persuaded rationally and you will, you know, make an informed decision about where you’re going to place your philanthropic bets, right?”

Amy: Right.

Tom: None of that is actually true. None of that is the way it works in the donor’s mind. So the name of my book is Seeing Through A Donor’s Eyes, and the reason it was called is because the first thing you have to do with the inside audience is get them to stop seeing their place the way they are used to on a daily basis. So if you’re Harvard, you don’t have to convince anybody that you’re a good place. And yet even Harvard will spend the first 30 pages talking about how great Harvard is. It’s like, “I know you’re great. I use your steak sauce.”

Amy: Right.

Tom: So what you’re trying to do is make the donor the hero of your case, of the story. This is a myth thing. You’re trying to extend their purpose in life and you’re doing it. They’re going to give you large amounts of money. This is about them, it’s not about you.

Amy: Give an example of how you make the donor a hero in a case statement. What does that mean?

Tom: You put the word “you” on the cover.

Amy: Yes, yes. One of the things that I learned early on from you was to go through anything I was writing for an organization and circle all the times we said “you” or “I.” Talk about that.

Tom: Okay. And it has to be in the big type.

Amy: Okay.

Tom: Because nobody reads the small type. The committee, actually I will cede control of the small type of the committee. They can use any language they want, they can dull enough with buzzwords, they can do their jargon thing. As long as I have the big type, I can control that story because everybody does the skim. About 5%, 2% actually go past paragraph two. So if I have the big type I can get the donor into the story. This is what you are going to do.

Amy: Yes. This is what you are doing or you’ve done or you are going.

Tom: This is how you’re changing the world.

Amy: Excellent. So use the word “you” in the big type and you’re off to a good started.

Tom: Yes. And you’re also off to a dead end with about 95% of the committees you will encounter.

Amy: They won’t like it.

Tom: They won’t do it. “We don’t talk this way.” More and more, institutions have this fancy idea of themselves, that they don’t want to talk down which is their translation of what we are actually doing which is making it fast and easy to understand. And they’d feel uncomfortable when they’re talking in a normal voice.

Amy: Yeah. So how do we get them past their discomfort or how do we go around the committee altogether? Let’s say you’re a lowly development director at some shop and you don’t have Tom Ahern to help you get past the committee.

Tom: I will site your own research, Dr. Einstein. And that is that the average tenure of a development director is 16 months. One of the key contributing factors, I believe, is being second guessed by your boss and not being allowed to actually do the work.

Amy: Yeah.

Tom: The fundraiser should have total control, absolute dictatorial Donald Trump control of every donor communication. And there should no longer be committees because they add no value. They subtract value.

Amy: Yeah. That’s what you hired them for. You better trust them.

Tom: Absolutely.

Amy: And trust them until it’s not working and then you can find somebody else. But while they’re there trust them, right?

Tom: They have to do their work. And a lot of the work is communications and it is storytelling and it is making the donor part of this story that you are formulating.

Amy: Wonderful. Any last words of wisdom you want to share?

Tom: Oh, I don’t know, Amy. Just love your donors to death. I’ve tried to explain this concept of love arising which is another word for donor centricity. And what I think you need to see yourself as is a golden retriever with a big tail wagging and you’re coming, running at me at me and all you want to do is put your paws up on my shoulder and fling spit all over your donor and lap them to death and kiss them and hug them.

Amy: Yeah. That’s want we want to do to our donors. Just love them up, right?

Tom: Love them up, absolutely.

Amy: Tom, thank you so much for being here. It’s always a pleasure.

Tom: My pleasure. Thank you, Amy.

Amy: Thank you. I hope you found this video empowering. As a member of the fundraising community, I hope that you will empower others by sharing this video with your friends and followers. If you’d like more videos and tips on fundraising, please visit my website, Thanks for all you do to make the world a better place.

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Kristen Hay

Kristen Hay

Marketing Manager at Bloomerang
Kristen Hay is the Marketing Manager at Bloomerang. From 2018 - 2020, she served as the Director of Communications for the Public Relations Society of America's local Hoosier chapter. Prior to that she served on several different committees and in committee chair roles.