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Would you buy a mattress from this charity?
Tom Ahern

November, 2008

Nonprofits love to write about what they do. Isn't that missing the point?

In advertising, the saying goes: "Features tell. Benefits sell."

Consider the mattress. (Patience. We'll get to fundraising in a minute.)

Its features might include (1) flexible springs that mold to your shape as you turn, (2) a fabric covering that's treated against stains, and (3) an extra layer that manufacturers call "pillow-top" padding.

But you're not really buying features who you shop for a mattress. You're buying the benefits conveyed by those features.

You're buying springs that promise you the most restful sleep you've ever had ... and an end to backaches. You're buying fabric that's a breeze to clean and keep looking fresh. And the pillow-top padding? You're buying for your very own bedroom the kind of luxurious comfort once reserved for palaces.

In fundraising, a comparable saying goes something like this: "Activities tell. Accomplishments sell."

Activity? "We staff Family Centers inside public elementary schools."

Accomplishment? "At our Family Centers, parents learn how to give their children the best possible start in education. When kids succeed early in public school, they're much more likely to continue succeeding, right through high school graduation."

Activities are what you do. Accomplishments are why you matter -- i.e., the results you get through your activities.

Activity? "We have a 24-hour hot line."

Accomplishment? "Domestic violence doesn't happen on a 9-to-5 schedule. When the bars close at 2 a.m. and the abusers head home, our trained team's ready to rescue."

Donors aren't buying your activities. They're buying your accomplishments: kids succeeding in school, battered women saved from their tormentors.

Donors want -- crave -- a share of those accomplishments.

I've analyzed thousands of fundraising communications, from hundreds of charities of all types and sizes. And I see a common failing: nonprofits talk way too much about their activities, and way too little about their accomplishments.

Sorry: wrong audience. Only insiders care deeply about what you do: the details, the nuts and bolts, the daily grind, or the underlying theory. Outsiders (i.e., prospects and donors) care mostly about your results.

Activities tell. Accomplishments sell.

Tom Ahern is recognized as one of North America’s top authorities on nonprofit and donor communications. His "Love Thy Reader" workshops win rave reviews at fundraising conferences across the U.S. and Canada.Tom's workshops have trained thousands of nonprofit staff and board in the revenue-building secrets of psychology, marketing, writing, and graphic design.

In 2005 he joined other world-class experts as a faculty member for the IFC's weeklong conference in the Netherlands, attended by fundraisers from 80 countries.He is the author of The Mercifully Brief, Real World Guide to Raising More Money with Newsletters Than You Ever Thought Possible, released in October 2005 by Emerson & Church. A second book titled How to Write Fundraising Materials That Raise More Money. John Wiley & Sons, the premier publisher of books for the nonprofit industry, in January 2006 contracted with Tom (and his wife, consultant Simone Joyaux) to produce a new book with the working title, Nonprofit Fundraising Communications: A Practical and Profitable Approach. Tom is also an award-winning magazine journalist, for articles on health, women's rights and other social justice issues. Visit www.aherncomm.com. 



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