Like it or not, if you raise money for charity you’re going to be judged. People throw your beautiful letters away. You didn’t raise enough. Your manager’s taken a red pen to your copy. Your best mate’s uncle doesn’t understand why you’re even paid. I mean, it’s a charity, right?
At the moment, we’re being judged especially harshly. Eleven of our biggest and best have just been fined. The fines aren’t ruinous, but that public slap on the wrist hurts.
Judgement isn’t always a bad thing. “Judgement” can also mean the ability to make wise choices.
In that brighter spirit, a client asked me last month to look at four funding proposals that he’d written. Each proposal asked for a very large personal gift. Three had already been sent out. One was still in draft form.
The writer’s a pro. He knows what he’s doing. So he was a bit surprised that of the three he’d sent out, one was funded in full, one was only partially funded, and one was turned down flat.
The pressure was on. This writer really wanted to hear “yes”. What could we learn from the three earlier proposals, and could we apply those lessons to the fourth?
(This is a great way to use a consultant, by the way. We don’t have magic wands or all the answers, but we should at least be good sounding boards and experienced fundraisers who know something about what makes people tick.)
We started with the “winning” proposal. The writer had begun with a snappy executive summary and a lovely beneficiary quote: “If you want to get the most out of life, you have to grasp every chance you could possibly have, and [this programme] is definitely one of them!”
He used the warmer, inclusive “we” throughout (rather than “Charity X will…”), and short, readable sentences. He was clear about the need for the programmes without over-stating anything (which can sound like whining), and he was specific about how they would grow. All this made him sound super confident.
The evaluation section was also great. Most evaluations are too vague. In this case the writer shared plenty of detail, and was honest about what couldn’t yet be measured – and how they planned to do even better measurements the following year. Then he ended with a sparkling case study. Job done.
The “second best”
In the second proposal, the writer began with a long, general sentence and quickly fell back on “doublings”: “advance and accelerate”, “attract and nurture”. He kept returning to what the charity needed rather than what the beneficiaries needed. There were some punctuation errors as well as tentative conditionals (“would” instead of “will”).
These symptoms all showed that he was nervous – and with good reason. He was writing to a formidable and well-known donor. He didn’t know the donor that well. He was asking him to fund a programme that would demand a great deal from the charity, too. The match between the charity and the donor’s interest was strong enough that he got something, but not as much as he’d hoped.
The “also ran”
On to the third proposal (the one that raised zero). It was perfectly correct and flat as a pancake, with passive language throughout and no reference to the particular donor. The evaluation section was mostly about “outputs”, or what the charity would do, rather than “outcomes” – how the charity would change lives.
The writer might have got away with it except for one thing. The donor is a dynamic entrepreneur who loves to make exciting new things happen. The gulf between the proposal’s style and the donor’s was just too wide. She said no.
Know Thy Donor, Part 1
The big takeaway for us was: know thy donor. The closer the writer felt to his reader, the better he performed. It showed in the writing, which became more confident, and it showed in the results.
He admitted that he hadn’t really thought enough about his donors’ needs and personalities, even though he and his colleagues knew them all. With that in mind we looked at the fourth proposal – the one still in draft form.
This proposal had plenty of good material and was beautifully laid out, but the bullet points had become random bucket lists, and there was a lot about other investors and donors.
We considered the facts. The donor is already committed to the charity. He’s a no-nonsense businessman who would want to see that he was making a practical difference. He wouldn’t want too much detail and he wouldn’t want to have to “work” at reading anything. That meant crystal clear sequencing, strong headers, organised bullet points, and short sentences. It also meant showing exactly why this donor was going to have an enduring impact on a problem he already understood very well.
Together the writer and I changed the order of things a bit and edited sentences down to the bare bones wherever possible. We emphasized the impact this particular donor would have.
Result? A happy donor who was glad to give everything he was asked for, and a happy writer who’d done his best and learned something too.
Know Thy Donor, Part 2
I’ll stay quiet on the ICO rulings. That’s not because I don’t have a dog in this fight, as folks say in the American south. It’s more because I have a whole pack of fighting hounds. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned from dogs, it’s never reach into a dog fight. Your hand will get bit.
However, as someone who loves writing, I can’t help but notice that words like abuse, secret, chase, upset, and distress have dominated recent news stories about charities. These powerful words tell a dark story.
You’d think that people who actually work for charities would never use such language, but here are some words I’ve heard fundraisers and charity trustees say out loud, in the US as well as the UK. Stalk and chase. Deep pockets and filthy rich. Hit up and shake down.
I won’t think one whit less of you if you’ve said such things. When I was first raising major gifts, I met some staggeringly wealthy people. There I was in my high street polyester, feet hurting and far from home and my young daughter, and there they were with their nannies and super yachts or whatever. They could have paid my mortgage off without blinking.
Who can blame us, especially when we’re starting out, for feeling a tiny bit of resentment? And if that resentment leaks into our vocabulary – we’re only human, aren’t we?
Nonetheless, let’s all stop, right now. It’s not good for our donors when we use these words, it’s not good for you, and it’s certainly not good for the charity sector. Today especially, your words count, and so do mine. Even the ones we say in private. We’re playing into our critics’ hands when we use negative words, and we’re eroding our own professional integrity, which is our most precious asset.
Let’s remember that people who donate to charities do so voluntarily, out of the good of their hearts. That’s why they call it the voluntary sector, and it’s a point the ICO has certainly grasped. Whether people give a leadership gift that names a whole Institute or £5 a month through a direct debit, they want to do the right thing. Our job is to help these people, not put them down (or off).
We’re not stalking or chasing anybody. We’re listening and learning, respecting and honouring. Our donors aren’t filthy rich and they don’t have deep pockets. They’re able to make a difference and kind enough to do so. We don’t hit them up or shake them down. We invite, we ask, and we thank. These softer words aren’t euphemisms. They’re true.
And we never, ever beg.
See you next month.