Steve L. looks at donor communications through the bottom of a pint glass.
No modern election campaign, whether here or in the US, is complete without commentators asking perhaps the crucial question of our age – is the candidate the sort of bloke/guy (and it’s always a man) we’d want to have a drink with?
And the candidates go along with it. Like lemmings.
They want to come across as one of us, happy to put the world to rights over a couple of pints, approachable and down to earth. And they always fail miserably. Who can forget William Hague (the Mekon) and his toe-curlingly desperate claim to regularly down 14 pints a day? That was in 2001 and his poor wife, Ffion, still looks embarrassed.
It’s easy to understand why politicians fall over themselves to prove their pub credentials. A lot of us (well, me anyway) can form opinions of people on the basis of whether we can imagine having a drink with them, or for the teetotal or more socially developed, whether we’d like to be stuck in a lift with them. I’m sure I’m not alone in imagining that time spent in the company of say, Stephen Fry, would be entertaining, informative and perhaps even enlightening. Whereas, I’d rather amputate my own arm with a blunt penknife than prop up a bar with some people.
Charities could do worse than asking themselves a similar question – given the chance, would the people you communicate with share a drink with you? The tone, content and style of your letters convey the personality of your organisation – but does that personality promise warmth and good company, or might donors fear you’re a little bit distant, perhaps even a teeny weeny little bit self-obsessed? It’s all too easy to slip into bad habits that can make your communications tend towards the latter rather than former, and if you don’t do anything about it you could end up drinking alone.
So in the interests of ensuring your supporters will be more than happy to pop down to the boozer with you, I’ve done years of extensive research and discovered a few of the pub personality types you should avoid becoming if you want to produce relevant, engaging communications that get results.
The Big IAM
There’s few worse ways to spend an evening than listening to somebody endlessly drone on about themselves. If it’s all about their job, their car, their partner/kids, we’re not having a conversation, I’m being talked at. The equivalent in charity communications is copy about ‘our aims, our people, our mission’. Organisation-focused copy will have your readers remembering an urgent appointment and heading for the exit.
I think we’ve had about six series of The Apprentice, and there’s still not been a single candidate I’d want to share a packet of pork scratchings with. They all seem to possess a warped sense of their own importance and an almost pathological tendency to bang on about their ‘achievements’. Unfortunately, far too many charity communications fall into the same trap.
Do your donors really want to know that some obscure industry body has recognised your commitment to diversity, or that you’re approaching the 25th anniversary of something they’ve never heard of? Good for you, but if you’ve already achieved so much, where do your supporters fit in?
I like an interesting fact as much as the next man (unless the next man is Peter Cook of course). It’s great to learn new things, but in charity communications as in the pub, genuine personal engagement beats facts and figures every time.
It might be interesting to find out that X thousand people have a particular medical condition, or that a particular way of working might help you reach XX more people next year, but informing your donors of something is very different from engaging them. When I go for a drink with somebody, I don’t go to be educated, I go because I want to be part of something, like a conservation. If you’re setting out to educate your donors, you’re likely to be the pub bore. Sorry.
The bullsh*t artist
We’ve all met people who had a trial with Arsenal and would have made it if it weren’t for their dodgy ankle. Or used to jam with Radiohead, or could have been in the Spice Girls but missed the bus for the final audition. We roll our eyes, nod politely and move on. Which is the same reaction your donors will have if you ask them to buy into outlandish claims or targets they know instinctively are not achievable. I recently saw a mailing from a development charity claiming ‘your gift today can help end poverty, forever’. Really?
A better bet for engaging donors is to tell them about one child, one person, or one community they can help and proving their gift can do just that.
The bar stool know-it-all
During the daytime, most pubs have at least one. The bloke umbilically attached to the bar stool, usually with one eye on their paper (the Mail), who has an opinion about every subject under the sun and isn’t afraid to share it. These opinions are usually offered alongside a selection of stock adjectives. So the council’s parking charges are ‘disgusting’, the government is ‘outrageous’ and what those other people over there are doing is ‘shocking’.
While adjectives certainly have a place in charity communications, you have to be careful not to overdo it. If a situation is indeed ‘outrageous’, why not describe it and let the reader make up their own mind, or ask them if they agree it’s outrageous? If your charity thinks every situation you talk about is ‘appalling’, you risk it being all about your opinion, which leaves no space for the donor. And you’ll be left pontificating on your bar stool, while everybody else is in the beer garden.
The let’s go to the club person
There used to be a member of my social circle who never seemed to enjoy being where he was. Even if we were having a lovely evening, he’d constantly suggest that maybe the group should go on to this other pub, where this more exciting thing was happening, or on to a club because so-and-so will be there and they were always such a laugh.
I never understood why he did that, and neither do I understand why so many fundraising letters try to take people somewhere else or ask them to do ten different things at the same time. If somebody regularly responds to your appeals, why would you always try to get them to sign a petition as well, or join your campaigners network, or recruit a friend? While you should offer supporters the opportunity to deepen their engagement with your cause, asking them to do too much can make your demands feel onerous. You could force them to ask themselves the same questions I used to ask my restless friend, ‘what’s the matter with what we’re doing now, isn’t this good enough for you, don’t you like me’?
The Round Dodger
This one’s a bit tenuous, but if the next time you go for a drink with colleagues, and one member of the party needs to go to the loo every time the drinks reach the ¾ empty mark, beware. It might be time to remind them of the first rule of pub etiquette: everybody gets a round in. However, you probably won’t, because it would make you both uncomfortable, and it could just be that they’re skint that week, and that’s absolutely fine, but perhaps they could have let you know first?
Talking about money with friends is difficult. Asking for money even harder. It’s a bit rude, isn’t it? So even the best-intentioned fundraising can make the mistake of hiding the ask away on the back page, mentioning it only in passing, or preceding it with a lengthy apology. But obscuring the ask in these ways will usually end up with you conveying the opposite impression to the one you intended – and can feel to donors like you’re being sneaky, or engaging them under false pretences. As in the pub, if you want to build a trusting relationship, it’s best to be honest and clear about money from the start, so everybody knows where they stand.
If you avoid all the personality traits I’ve mentioned, I’m confident you’ll have donors queuing up to go to the pub with you…and not for the reasons mentioned in this ABSOLUTELY GENUINE report from the current US Election.
If any of the above makes any sense, mine’s a lager.