3 Folders You Need in Your Fundraiser's 'Fail File'
"Embrace failure!" we're often told by motivational speakers and experts on the art of success. "Creativity is about allowing yourself to make mistakes." "Failures are signposts on the road to achievement," etc., etc., etc.
And it is true. We can learn more from what we do wrong than from what we do right … but only if we put in the time and effort to do so.
Consider: Out in Ann Arbor, Mich., there's an operation called NewProductWorks or, more commonly, the Museum of Failed Products. It's a huge warehouse that stands as a living memorial to things that must have seemed like good ideas at the time.
There you'll find a startling array of consumer mustn't-haves like Richard Simmons's Salad Spray, McDonald's' wildly unsuccessful McSpaghetti, Clairol's Touch of Yogurt Shampoo, Downyflake Toaster Eggs and thousands of other grim reminders that about 95 percent of all new products fail miserably.
In just about any endeavor, especially in the creative world, failure is inevitable. Unfortunately, part of human nature is we want to dwell on our successes and put our failures behind us as quickly as possible.
So what typically happens is we take note of a package or campaign that didn't do well, say to ourselves, "Well, we won't make that mistake again," and forge ahead with the next project. But we rarely spend enough time trying to fully understand what went wrong and what can be done to fix it.
Most copywriters maintain a "swipe file," a collection of direct-mail packages, emails, print ads, even magazine articles and books we use to generate new ideas. I recommend we also maintain a "fail file" so we can not only remember past mistakes, but understand them.
To make sure you learn from history, so you're not doomed to repeat it, make sure your fail file contains:
- Results: Failure is relative. It's only failure compared to your expectations. If a package didn't bring in the response rate or average gift you were hoping for, make sure those expectations were reasonable. Were the projections realistic? What other campaigns was this one compared to? What are the industry benchmarks? It's not enough to shrug and say, "I guess vouchers (or whatever) just don't work for us."
- Reasons: Unless you're doing very narrow and tightly controlled tests, (which are becoming increasingly cost-prohibitive), evaluating why a campaign fell short is bound to be somewhat subjective. But consider questions like: What other packages mailed on either side of this one? Have similar packages worked in the past? If so, has your donor base evolved? Was the response/gift size too small, or was it that the package failed to overcome its cost? There are dozens of question like this you can develop that will help you know what to avoid, as well as what to keep, going forward.
- Rectifications: So you've got a problem package. How will you rectify the situation? For each reason you pinpoint for the problem, create a corresponding checklist of possible solutions. Maybe there's a way to make the same creative idea less expensive. Maybe you need more inserts and involvement devices. Maybe you need fewer. Maybe your message is too complicated. Maybe it's too simple (though this is rarely the case in fundraising). Your rectification folder will give you the chance to make educated guesses about what not to do the next time out.
In the creative business, failure is a fact of life. Just make sure that, when you're picking yourself up and dusting yourself off, that your package's postmortem is comprehensive enough to serve you well in the future.
Willis Turner believes great writing has the power to change minds, save lives, and make people want to dance and sing. Willis is the creative director at Huntsinger & Jeffer. He worked as a lead writer and creative director in the traditional advertising world for more than 15 years before making the switch to fundraising 20 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, and collateral communications materials that get attention, tell powerful stories and persuade people to take action or make a donation.