Creative Donor Communications Can Be Decoded and Taught


Dr. Jen Shang, “the world’s first philanthropic psychologist,” as the New York Times ungrammatically dubbed her back in 2012, is absolutely right.

Creativity can be decoded and taught.

Why are some people so bloody good at coming up with fresh ideas?

I’m guilty. I misjudge success all the time. You look jealously at a star performer (like John Lepp cooking 3-star food for his family as The Drunk Chef) and assume it’s luck or talent or something easy that you don’t have and they were born with. Bastards. Blaming your parents works for awhile, I recall.

Creativity is learned behavior

I went through “creativity training.”

I spent years attending night classes taught by accomplished ad folks, learning how to have 20 ideas instead of just one (and always predictable).

Creativity training teaches you to be something other than boring or trite. Why? Because we’re in business. Bored audiences do not pay attention and do not buy.

You also learn, as a side effect, a cocksure confidence (once you’ve failed a few hundred times).

Developing a sturdy professional ego is good for your career health. You should take pride in your work, if you want to enjoy it. And if you want to get paid ever more for it.

It doesn’t require years of night classes, either.

A single workshop can be enough

That happened inside Gillette Children’s Hospital back in 2007.

The then-development team (there are new folks now) attended a workshop that explained the Domain Formula, a heavily-tested model developed by an agency in the Pacific Northwest. Gillette’s team (e.g., Andrew Olsen, CFRE and others) created a radically different newsletter for the hospital foundation’s 18,000 or so donors.

And magic happened.

Between one issue and the next, gifts from the Gillette donor mailing list exploded a staggering 1,000% (NOT a typo) … from $5K in donations/issue to $50K in donations/issue.

Applying the lessons of one workshop brilliantly and fearlessly (there was internal resistance) led to enormous financial gains. Gillette’s 2007 team took a calculated risk. It paid off.

On the plum subject of “my idiot boss”

Here’s another intense example of this “it only takes one workshop” phenomenon, this time with a moral:

Angel Aloma, executive director of faith-based Food for the Poor, says that implementing heavyweight “donor-centricity” in their communications hardened his charity against the catastrophic declines experienced by other major aid groups during the Great Recession.

They suffered. Food for the Poor didn’t: it grew to become today’s $1 billion/year powerhouse, with an expanding mission.

And where, pray, did Angel suddenly encounter the idea of donor-centricity?

At a single workshop at IFC, so he keeps telling me.

Angel’s success makes another point I wish every charity knew and embraced.

You see, Angel’s the boss. The boss said, We’re going to try this. The boss took the risk … and, yes, his organization executed very, very well. Everybody deserves credit.

But far, far, FAR more often, the boss won’t take a risk … even a teensy one.

I hear the lament at least once per audience, “My boss won’t let me do what you just said.”

It can be the silliest little thing, too. “I can’t add a P.S. to my direct mail appeal.” (Idiot.) “I can’t use the word ‘you.’ He says, ‘Higher education doesn’t talk that way.'” (Nitwit.) “They say I can’t indent my paragraphs because it’s too informal.” (Indelible strawberry stain on the white shirt of basic human decency.) All true examples, BTW.

Risk is counter-intuitive. And too many nonprofit leadership types, bosses and boards (not you, Neil S.), prefer the familiar. (Unlike, say, wildly wealthy entrepreneurs.)

The preferred rules of engagement in Nonprofit Leadership Land?

Do the same old thing until it stops working … and continue doing it for 10 years after that, just to be sure.

Me, too, BTW

Just one workshop: it’s happened to me times beyond count.

This past June 17, on YouTube, John Haydon’s Hump Day (i.e., Wednesday, midweek) 11 AM FREE weekly training mini-webinar gave me the great pleasure of listening to Kivi Leroux Miller ptyalize seed pearls of money-making good advice.

In a couple of minutes, Kivi straightened me out completely on best practices for emailed appeals and newsletters. (Thank you, Kivi.)

In February, upside down on the other side of the planet, I watched drop-jawed as Sean Triner guided a riveted Australian masterclass through state-of-the-art digital integration, dissecting a successful fundraising campaign – from text to email to social media to website to phone. (Thank you, Sean.)

At an IFC conference in The Netherlands a few years ago, I saw Mark Phillips, managing director Bluefrog London, herd an auditorium of newbie (and a teensy bit smug?) fundraisers into a time machine … and rub their noses bloody against the early fundraising appeals that built today’s mega-charities like Oxfam. (Thank you, Mark.)

For that matter, honestly, I’d rather watch Richard Radcliffe gallop profanely through a workshop than see any new-release movie. He tore the veils from bequest marketing for me. Enchantingly. Richard once announced that his goal that day was to use the word “penis” 30 times during an AFP workshop. No one left. And good thing, too. (Thank you, Richard.)

And the list goes on.

Read your way to victory

Bottom line: you can’t stop growing … if you want to make more and more money … for your charity and for yourself.

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