Do you know who Tom Ahern is? If you don’t you should. He is a communications guru in the US. Tom is a frequent presenter at AFP congress and, over the past ten years, has taught me a lot about donor communications.
Tom also sends out a fabulous newsletter. Getting them is like a slap in the face – I mean that in the nicest possible way. The newsletters are excellent reminders of how to put the donor at the front of all communications and the importance of using simple language. They are very refreshing. You can subscribe here. (Although when I saw Tom at IFC this month I did candidly ask him if he still has any clients. He assured me he does.)
The newsletter I received this week featured an article called: Why, oh why, don’t they trust you? “Because I don’t pee like Jesus.” It will be added to the online archives soon I'm sure.
The article starts by briefly talking about gender issues, but quickly moves into the deeper issue of trust in the head fundraisers ability to do her job. Tom outlines what in his opinion is best practice from a personnel point of view. He writes:
‘The head of fundraising (the director of development, or advancement, or whatever you choose to call the position) should have sole and final approval on every donor communication, whether it's an appeal, a newsletter, the donor portion of the website, the annual report to donors, emailed solicitations, fundraising event invitations ... etc.’
And goes onto say:
‘No headmaster, no president, no CEO, no dean, no executive director, no board chair, no committee member is born with an innate understanding of what will be effective in fundraising communications. I had to read 150 books and survive 15 years of real-world experience as a writer before I could confidently say, "Yup. I'm pretty sure this will work."
Tom is right in saying that it is our job as chief development officers to deliver the budget. And that the right kind of communications can raise more money. However, I think he misses a really important point.
A strong, sustainable operation requires a culture of philanthropy throughout the organization, integration between communications and fundraising, understanding from the receptionist to the chair of the board about what it means to be donor centred. Yes as the chief fundraiser we are mostly measured by the quantitative results. i.e. how much money is coming in. Our job is also measured in the qualitative outcomes I’ve mentioned above. We are responsible for leading these changes in our organizations.
My experience has been that it is important to work collaboratively and build consensus around donor communications so that everyone feels ownership of them. Otherwise the silos get taller, we risk people trying to avoid working with us or worse, working around us and across the sector the fundraisers will continue to be thought of as the 'difficult ones'.
One of the biggest challenges for those of us in the trenches is to be stuck in between what the consultants say is ‘best practice’ and what the organizational culture is ready to do.
So while I eagerly look forward to getting slapped around by Tom on a monthly basis and I’m absolutely sure he is right, I’m also in this for the long haul. I’m not going to get too worked up if my newsletters or website don’t meet his standards. I’m going to keep working toward building a strong team.
This is a shout out to all the fundraisers who are stuck in the middle between well intentioned and very vocal consultants and your organization. Keep leading effective change, stay allies with everyone, celebrate and share your successes along the way. Most importantly, don’t feel too deflated about the occasional little compromise you need to make in order to get the job done.
Thank you for spending time here,.