The US-based Tom Ahern is widely regarded as one of the world’s authorities on donor communications. In the lead up to the Australasian Fundraising Forum where he will be a presenter, Ahern pulls no punches in his views on the practice of donor communications. Jeremy Bradshaw sat at the feet of the guru for this interview. F&P: What particular changes or trends have you noticed in the last few years in the way nonprofits are approaching their donor communications?

TA: I see two rising tides. On one hand, obviously, we have new media: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube jump to mind, even Google ads. And these can be important new media for speaking with donors, from time to time.

On the other hand, I see a dawning awareness among fundraisers that they do not understand some basic and lucrative concepts like ‘donor-centricity’ or the critical distinction between ‘corporate’ communications and ‘donor’ communications.

F&P: What do you think is driving these changes?

TA: The ongoing GEC – the Global Economic Crisis – has been something of a wake-up call. Giving to charity has declined generally – and sometimes precipitously. Donors have nailed their wallets and cheque books shut. And not just the average person; the rich have, too. I know one award-winning hospital in the US where income from major gifts plunged 40% in 2010, even as policymakers were flogging the idea of an economic recovery.

F&P: Have you noticed any particular changes or trends in the way donors are responding to or consuming communications from nonprofits?

TA: Here’s the only change that matters: donors give more when they are loved. This simple, psychological, hard-wired fact eludes many fundraisers when they create their communications.

I have seen respected nonprofits increase their giving 1,000% (not a misprint) when they switched from doing ‘corporate’ communications to doing true ‘donor’ communications, bursting with donor love.

One of the most important unreported stories in the fundraising industry, I feel, is that fundraisers might raise five times as much as they currently do, even more, if they were superbly good at donor communications. What they are is superbly bad.

F&P: How has donor communications changed since you first got into this field many years ago?

TA: It’s matured a lot. And I feel its golden years are ahead, not behind; thanks to a cadre of well-trained practitioners working internationally, mentored by the likes of Ken Burnett and Mal Warwick.

The practitioners I’m talking about are people like Sean Triner in Australia and Mark Phillips in the UK, who get incredible results for their clients. Alas, only the better resourced charities can afford talent like this. Still, I frequently meet at conferences these days, young fundraisers who are determined to be exquisite at the art and science of donor communications.

F&P: Can you name a couple of organisations that you think do a great job with their donor communications? What makes them standouts?

TA: I strongly believe in stealing, at least in the marketing profession. And fundraisers are just marketers by another name. Here’s what I recommend. Find a nonprofit organisation similar to yours, an organisation that is growing. Examine everything they do. The key – send them a small gift, so you can see how their “donor welcome” and “donor cultivation” programs function. Hang out on their website; visit at least once a week. Subscribe to their free e-newsletter. Spend six months with them, as a donor. Write up your report. Steal whatever applies.

F&P: Different nonprofits attract donors from different demographic groups. Are there any donor characteristics that are perhaps universal to all donors (or common to many donors)? If so, what are they and how can nonprofits leverage these characteristics?

TA: Universal? Absolutely: they all have brains. This is not a facetious comment. Donor communications are no more complicated than two cans on a taut string. It’s just my brain trying to influence your brain.

F&P: How do you see the field of donor communications changing over the next few years? Will nonprofits need to change the way they communicate with donors to ensure their communications remain relevant and engaging?

TA: Some of the smartest people working in marketing today are in donor communications. They are the people who write direct mail appeals for major charities: Jeff Brooks (US), Alan Sharpe (Canada), Sean Triner (Australia). Every word they place on a page exists for a persuasive reason.

The problem is: so few fundraisers reach this level or even know this level exists; maybe one in 20, tops? Right now, the untrained and the inexperienced swamp the fundraising industry; in part because the salaries aren’t very good outside institutions like higher education, hospitals, and foundations.

F&P: How do you see technology changing the way nonprofits communicate with donors? For example, mobile/smart phones have massive market penetration, and iPads and tablet devices are gaining in popularity.

TA: Charities own some of the most compelling stories on earth. Charities change lives. They save lives. If you can firmly link a donor to those life-changing, life-saving accomplishments, you will have those donors for years, maybe forever.

Gadgets do not matter at all, however. Only the storytelling matters. Ask yourself: How do the gadgets improve the storytelling? Bottom line: it’s about putting the right story in front of the right person at the right time via the right medium.

F&P: What are some of the common mistakes or poor practices you see nonprofits doing on a regular basis in their donor communications?

TA: Most so-called ‘donor’ communications talk about how great the organisation is. That’s a profound yet common mistake. Effective (profitable) ‘donor’ communications talk about how great the donor is.

F&P: As you work across a number of different countries, have you observed any marked similarities or differences in the way supporters from different countries respond to donor communications?

TA: What I have noticed, country to country, is a marked difference in the way senior management looks at donor communications. Most senior management have zero communications training. They have zero exposure to the relevant research on persuasion.
They are often old and ready for nothing but the golf course.

The old guard in institutions like hospitals and universities almost never gets ‘donor communications.’ Their mistaken supposition is that institutions should promote themselves to donors: “We are great for the following 10 reasons.” That supposition makes perfect sense – but is utterly wrong. This is what happens when you ask people with Ph.D.s to give you their opinions on stuff they know nothing about.

F&P: Is there an ideal number of appeals that nonprofits should mail out each year?

TA: To past donors, appeal six times a year. But remember: appeals are just one element in a virtuous circle. You appeal. You thank. You report on how you made the world a better place, thanks to donor gifts. Then repeat: Appeal. Thank. Report.

F&P: What was the most successful mail appeal you worked on and why did it do so well?

TA: My direct mail appeals commonly bring in twice as much money or more as the previous attempt. These results are hugely satisfying. But it’s no accident: I’ve based my consulting practice on science and emotional risk-taking for at least a decade. Let me repeat: donors give more when they are loved. If you can write a powerful, unashamedly donor-loving appeal, you WILL make good money.

Tom Ahern is a leading light and author on the art and science of donor communications. He has helped many charities raise millions of dollars through his tried and tested techniques.

Tom will be a presenter at the Australasian Fundraising Forum in Sydney on September 1 & 2. For more information on the Forum go to:


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