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Tuesday, January 23, 2018

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The Verbatim Rule
Tom Ahern

September, 2011

Jeff Brooks dropped me a line...


"Is it true you have a clause in your contract that clients can't change copy? I had dinner with Kivi and she told me that. I find it a bit hard to believe, but it sure would be a blow for fundraising sanity!"


I replied... 


Jeff, I don't have contracts. Mostly, I have verbal agreements. But, yes, what Kivi said is true enough.


A couple of years ago, I decided to try a new approach with any new client inquiring about direct mail.


"I have one stipulation," I'd tell them. "If we work together, you have to send out what I write verbatim. After all, it's my neck on the line, as far as reputation and results go. And you're coming to me because you do not have this expertise in-house."


The first organization exposed to the Verbatim Rule was a state university in Texas that had been in and out of direct mail without great results.


I told them my terms. They said, Sure.


But ... clever pessimist that I am ... I expended 10 minutes knocking out the opening few paragraphs of an alumni appeal, which I then emailed to the university, with a note saying, "I will want your president to sign something like this. This is the tone."


The pitch was hard core. It also got right to the point: in universities, greatness and the rate of annual alumni giving are directly related. The letter pulled no punches.


Within 48 hours I heard back from the person who'd made the inquiry, "How much do we owe you for your time so far?"


"Not a penny," I replied. Frankly, it was a relief that the university had backed out. We'd just saved ourselves the nastiness of a lousy client-vendor relationship.


Actually, though, the Verbatim Rule has proven surprisingly popular with new clients.


It just makes sense. They know they'll get my strongest work. And I don't have to fret about whether staff and board will "like" that work or not. Bottom line: everyone's much happier.


To what do we owe this blow for sanity?


A major client taught me the Verbatim Rule by accident.


For a bunch of years, I've written the direct mail for a big urban hospital system.


And I noticed something early on: the manager of the program never changed a word of what I wrote. In fact, if she DID want to change a word in my appeal, she'd call me first to see if I thought that was okay.


I realized that the hospital was treating my appeals as delicate mechanisms that might easily break if meddled with.


Which is exactly the right attitude to take: successful direct mail is incredibly fragile.


It was a blazing light bulb moment: "My word, this is the way it's supposed to be! When you work with professionals who know their trade, you don't second guess their work. I mean, I don't second-guess my master electrician, do I? No. So why would an untrained nonprofit second-guess a direct mail writer with a good track record?"


And, yet, do they ever.... 


The nonprofit industry is flush with second-guessers (boards and EDs who overstep their knowledge base). The most common complaint I get from fundraisers attending my workshops is this: "I believe you. But my boss won't let me do it your way."


I've told this story before: I had a private school fundraiser in Australia come up after a seminar and pour her heart out. Her problem? Her headmaster would not let her use a PS in direct mail because he deeply felt it was "undignified."


It was the end of a long day. It was Australia, where you can be a bit blunter. My response (verbatim) was, "On this point, he's a moron. And uninformed about eye-motion studies. You should find a new job where they appreciate your knowledge."


I was delighted to hear from her several months later: she HAD found a new job, with a national charity that basically said, "You're the expert. We're not going to get in your way. Do everything you can to make us money."


Happy endings. Visit


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