The Case for Trust
Take a fundraising letter. Any fundraising letter. No, better yet, take a letter that delivered the goods. One that already proved itself with strong results. Pass it around to people in your department, those who understand direct-mail fundraising as well as those who don't.
While you're at it, show the letter to some people outside your department. Share it with friends and family. Share it with groups and individuals. Ask for their opinions. Tell them you want their honest feedback. Ask them how they would respond if they got this in the mail.
What do you think will happen? Actually, you already know, don't you? You'll get opinions. All kinds of opinions. High praise, faint praise, no praise and damnation. And suggestions. Hoo-boy will you get suggestions.
● "I don't feel …"
● "This would definitely make me want to …"
● "This would definitely not make me want to …"
● "It would be a lot stronger if you changed this little part here …"
Or worse …
● "I don't feel this reflects our brand. It needs to show more of the good we've done instead of the need."
And on and on and on. In fact, the one response you'll get rarely, if at all, is, "I think it's great. I wouldn't change a thing." And you probably won't get asked about actual past results. That's perfectly OK. That's human nature.
If you ask people for their opinions, they feel like they're letting you down if they don't give you some. When it comes to something as intangible and malleable as a direct-mail message, almost everyone can think of something to say.
This can be a good thing. Feedback is valuable. Feedback can expand your thinking. But it can also be a bad thing. Uninformed feedback can — and frequently does — do a lot more harm than good. And committee or consensus feedback will always be overly cautious and even corporate.
Here's the thing: Each person who offers an opinion is commenting from his or her own perspective. People evaluate through the lens of their professional experiences, from the context of their lives and what they think will move them personally to make a gift. Yet, they are not your donor or prospect.
More important, the psychological and emotional dynamic of simply being asked for an opinion creates its own state of mind. You're asking that person to do you a favor and positioning him or her as your consultant and your expert. That's how each person will see his or her role, and that's how he or she will respond to you.
Meanwhile, chances are good that your agency has created and tested thousands of direct-mail packages and been held accountable for the results. Consider the team that created the package:
- An account executive who knows your program and its goals and has studied your past results, carefully analyzed your lists and worked closely with the creative team to make sure that just the right people get this particular message …
- a writer who has proved him- or herself by creating hundreds or thousands of successful appeals and spent hours considering just how to craft the opening, the hook, the ask and all the emotional touchpoints …
- an artist who has spent a career mastering the subliminal visual nuances that influence the reader.
All of them are specifically in the business of raising the most money while building a strong and lasting relationship with the donor. They've been down this road many, many times.
As a result, it's very likely that, in developing the package, they have already considered most of the comments you'll get. They thought them through based on their years of experience seeing what works and what doesn't.
But wait: Are we saying that getting others' opinions is a waste of time? Definitely not! Fresh eyes and objective feedback can have value.
So, how are we to resolve this dilemma? Some writers and artists pre-empt the problem by heading it off at the pass. There are copywriters who include a "verbatim" clause in their contracts, requiring the client to accept the copy exactly as written. The only changes allowed are for typos or incorrect facts.
It's understandable. Writers and artists who've seen their carefully crafted emotional triggers whittled down from a solid right jab to a tentative, gentle nudge can certainly see the attraction in such a clause.
On the other hand, a creative department that's honest with itself will admit it doesn't know everything. The writer, artist and client can all benefit from ongoing dialogue through the creative process.
That's why the feedback is important. But it's also why the feedback needs to be viewed in context and, most importantly, why it should not be the basis for any creative decisions.
As Ernest Hemingway said, "The best way to find out if you can trust people is to trust them."
So hire the best creative people you can find. But once you've made the investment, trust them to do what you're paying them for.
If they're not the right fit, you can be sure it will become evident soon enough.
But if you invest in a horse and never give it the chance to run full out, on its own terms, you'll never know how fast or how far it can go for you.
Willis believes in expressive writing, exceptional fundraising, and exuberant living.
Willis Turner is the senior copywriter at Huntsinger & Jeffer. He was an experienced writer and creative director in the traditional advertising world for more than 20 years before making the switch to fundraising nearly 15 years ago. In his work with nonprofit organizations and associations, he has written thousands of appeals, renewals and acquisition communications for every medium. He creates direct-response campaigns, as well as collateral materials and communications, that get attention, tell emotional stories, and persuade people to take action or make a donation.