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Downes Murray International News

Playing to lose

What happens when know-nothings are allowed to outvote the fundraiser?  A sure-fire recipe for failure. Direct mail guru and agent provocateur, Tom Ahern, reports.
I blinked. Yet the dreaded words didn’t change. ‘The internal team,’ the email stated, ‘has some concerns about the direct mail you wrote. We need to talk.’

The internal team? Here we go again, said the frustrated little general in my brain.

Fact: I know the résumés of this particular ‘internal team’. I know that no one on this ‘internal team’ has any training in direct mail. Not one iota. Which makes their opinions, ipso facto, professionally worthless.

Untrained staff and board cannot accurately judge professionally-crafted direct mail. It’s impossible. Mailed appeals are a counter-intuitive enterprise, based on neuroscience, decades of testing, empiricism, and acquired skill sets of surprising depth and complexity.

The opinions of the untutored simply do NOT count in direct mail. Quite the opposite: acting on untutored opinions can only decrease or eliminate income. You either know what you’re doing. Or you don’t. And direct mail virgins guess wrong 110% of the time.

That doesn’t mean an untrained internal review team is powerless. On the contrary: their silly, ignorant opinions can easily – often do – destroy any chance that a direct mail appeal will succeed. I see it all the time.

I’m talking to you, Mr. Boss. I’m talking to you, Ms. Board Chair. And I’m talking to you, carping colleague.

Verbatim rule

Personally, I insist on the Verbatim Rule. New clients looking for a direct mail writer must promise me that they will send out what I create without changing one word.

It’s the only sane policy.

And that’s also why I strongly advise that development directors have sole and tyrannical control over all donor communications.

No colleague veto. No boss veto. No board-chair veto. Again, it’s the only sane policy.

Let me repeat: ONLY the chief fundraiser gets to approve donor communications.

In a sane world... and then there’s real life.

Remember the ‘internal team’? They had three ‘concerns’ with my direct mail appeal.

First, the boss was concerned that the letter didn’t sound like him. So he was reluctant to sign it. ‘Could it be,’ he ventured, ‘written to sound more like me?’

If you think that this is a reasonable request, then you need to revisit a good how-to book like Mal Warwick’s How to Write Successful Fundraising Letters or Jeff Brooks’ groundbreaking new book on direct mail writing, published by Emerson & Church.

Direct mail doesn’t ‘sound like’ people.

For one thing, the machinery of persuasion is always grinding away in the background of a direct mail appeal. A competent writer is focused on inserting all sorts of emotional triggers that can lead to ‘yes’.

Also, there are loads of technical demands that must be met, for the appeal to raise the most it can: multiple asks on every page, for instance; and huge infusions of donor love.

People don’t talk this way

So, no, Mr. Boss, it cannot ‘sound like you’. This is not ventriloquism. A direct mail appeal is not your hand puppet.

Second, the person in charge of this client’s education reform effort – which was the subject of this particular appeal – was concerned about the tone.

He didn’t like the heavy use of the word ‘you’ in the appeal. He wanted the charity’s PR consultants to rewrite the letter . . . in a proper, elevated corporate tone: ‘We did this great thing. We did that great thing.’ Impersonal.

See, this is what I mean. This knucklehead’s presumption about tone has been wrong since the beginning of fundraising – yet, he doesn’t even suspect that truth.

Not only are people like this ignorant, because they don’t know the subject at hand (how to properly talk to prospects and donors). People like this are also stupid, because they don’t know that they don’t know.

They are toxins. If they were suddenly gifted with self-awareness, they’d fire themselves for incompetence. Instead, they congratulate themselves for sagacity.

Finally, the new employee in production spoke up. He was concerned that the letter was too long. To lend weight to his opinion, he claimed to have direct mail experience.

Where, I have no idea.

This ninny offered to take all my one-sentence paragraphs and bullet lists and everything else that made the letter easy to skim . . . and pack it all down into tight, dense paragraphs, so the letter would fit on one page rather than two.

‘And we’ll save money on printing!’

I’ll be blunt: what an idiot. And he’s the new employee, so get used to it.

This is a big charity. It presents itself to its donors as a major change agent, a home for innovation and smarts.

And yet the ‘internal team has concerns’.

With acknowledgement to Tom Ahern.

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