Steve L 'goes into one'
It was a James Naughtie/Jeremy Hunt moment. Similar to when happy-go-lucky Gordon Brown met Gillian Duffy. An occasion when somebody says something so disconcerting, so unexpected, that their listeners find themselves unconsciously waggling their fingers in their ears to check they’re not hearing things.
A couple of colleagues from my then agency and I were meeting clients. The relationship wasn’t quite right. The appeals were taking an inordinate amount of time to get out of the door and we were all getting a bit tetchy as a result. Everybody agreed we needed to find out why and put things right.
Whilst avoiding eye-contact with our distinguished Account Director, I very humbly asked whether it might have something to do with the volume of feedback we were receiving on creative work. With as much deference as I could muster, I inoffensively suggested that 20+ pages of feedback on a 2-page appeal letter might be a tiny bit OTT.
And guess what? The lovely client agreed. They understood it was an enormous bum ache, and didn’t do anything at all to help the appeal. But – and here’s the ‘I can’t believe they just said that’ moment – what could they do about it when copy had to be internally approved and signed-off by 35 people?
I normally hate ‘screamers’, but…
It took a while for that to sink in.
“Thirty-five?” I asked.
My client nodded.
“What thirty, three zero, plus five?”
Another sheepish nod. I didn’t know what to say.
35 opinions. 35 people (however well meaning) wanting their criticisms, their personal preferences, their (often competing) agendas incorporated. 35 people making sure none of their personal nits went left unpicked.
I’m all for collaboration, but let’s get a grip. You can’t write a fundraising letter by committee. It just doesn’t work. The more people you involve in sign-off, the more you dilute your message, the more your communication becomes about box-ticking than addressing the concerns of the real human beings you’re supposed to be talking to.
Tom Ahern has written persuasively of the importance of keeping irrelevant opinions out of your fundraising copy. And the great David Ogilvy also had a thing or two to say about how highly he valued criticism from non-qualified outsiders (see no. 12).
But still it goes on…and still we, as a sector, end up putting out communications that aren’t anywhere near as good as they could be simply to appease the foibles, or massage the egos, of people within our own organisations.
And the effect on fundraisers’ morale is calamitous.
My unfortunate colleagues at the charity in question had to collate the comments of 35 people, assuring each their critiques were valid and would be taken on board, and then somehow compile these into a feedback document that made some sort of sense. This process took two people two weeks.
Absolute madness and a huge waste of time and money.
The fundraising department’s prime function was no longer to produce appeals that would engage and inspire supporters – the sum total of their ambition had been reduced to producing appeals that would get signed off. No wonder the individuals concerned were a bit tetchy on the phone every now and then. In their situation I’d have needed one of these…
So in the spirit of meaningful collaboration, sanity, and getting actual creative work in front of the people its intended for, I’d suggest this list of (slightly less than 35) people who you might usefully ask to take a look at your appeals.
Your fundraising director/head of fundraising
Your signatory – If it’s going out with their name on, it’s best they’re OK with it.
You – If it’s your job to produce appeals, you’ll obviously need to be happy with them. But this only works if what makes you happy is powerful, relevant communications that will appeal to your donors, rather than earning brownie points with ‘Nigel’ from the Comms team or ‘Siobhan’ from Brand.
Please be assured that this blog is (probably) not just the ranting of an over-precious, egotistical writer. I’ve written hundreds of appeals and flatter myself to think that in the course of writing them I’ve managed to develop some sense of what works and what doesn’t. And an over-populated, over-complicated approvals process always kills your appeal’s effectiveness. Every single time.
P.S. You might be asking yourself who the notorious 35 are? Or how on earth they got themselves onto the sign-off list? Disappointingly, and rather worryingly, nobody really knew. In fact, my fundraising colleagues at the charity hadn’t even met some of the people on the list. They were just disembodied email addresses, attached to departments like ‘Operations’ and ‘Media Relations’. And (unsurprisingly) nobody in the fundraising team had worked there long enough to know how things had got so out of hand.
Obviously (please God let it be so), this is an extreme example, but it does serve as a warning of where you could end up if you don’t (respectfully of course) suggest that your non-fundraising colleagues ‘mind their own.’
If they try to insist on putting their twopenneth in, you could do a lot worse than heeding the advice of Zammo, Roland, Gripper et al.