The New 10 Commandments…For Nonprofits Only

In key with the title of this column, Burnt Offerings, here’s a profitable nonprofit mandate for appeals that should be effective, or at the very least competitive, in the year 2012 and its immediate future.

We’ll call it 10 New Commandments for Nonprofit Communication, not only because these commandments codify the difference between 20th and 21st century appeals but also because they point out philosophical and psychological differences between what was both commonplace and accepted in antediluvian times — think 1999, for example — and have become obsolete and/or noncompetitive in 2011 looking to 2012.

The new commandments really aren’t all that new. They’re simple and obvious enough that you already might be observing some or even all of them. Bully for you. That’s why your organization is still operational.

OK, into the listings, a group of fiats that should be the professional religion driving our creative output.

The First Commandment: Thou shalt make response simple.

We’re deep in the Internet Era, in which attention spans have shrunk to minuscule size. Don’t ask for more information than you need until you have the prospect at least comfortably secured in your own web. And, avoid the nasty and too-common word “Submit.” Right now, before facing “Submit” head-on, start thinking about a substitute.

The Second Commandment: Thou shalt stay in character.

A peculiar development is what some veteran fundraisers call “The Facebook Effect.” The projected mood bobs, weaves, and shifts as the appeal thinks it progresses but actually generates confusion for what should be the most probable donors.

The Third Commandment: Thou shalt not steal, except from noncompetitive sources.

Yes, yes, all nonprofit appeals are competitive with all other nonprofit appeals. But if you’re a hospital in Albuquerque and see a usable bright idea in an appeal by a college in Pittsburgh (you should be decoying every nonprofit mailing and email you can find), grab it and run with it.

The Fourth Commandment: Thou shalt not fall for fads.

This is back to Facebook and Twitter. If with dollars spent, against dollars returned, these media work for you, stay with them. But if you’re there because you subscribe to the dangerous dictum “That which represents a change automatically represents a profitable change,” be more than observant. Be critically comparative.

The Fifth Commandment: Thou shalt never again start a fundraising letter with the ancient cliché, “Dear Friend.”

If this Commandment puzzles you, you’re in trouble.

The Sixth Commandment: Thou shalt not address a prospective donor by both first and last name.

Using both names not only creates a gap where you should be creating rapport, but it also suggests lack of familiarity with the individual where you should be suggesting, “We know each other.”

The Seventh Commandment: Online or not, thou shalt not give up.

This one is absolutely in sync with web appeals, for two reasons … first, we have far less control over how and when a prospective donor sees and may react to our appeal; and second, the cost-per-contact is fractional compared against conventional mail. But regardless of medium, if you know this person matches your donor-base, hit him/her again and again.

The Eighth Commandment: Thou shalt lean on board members but use thy communicative talent to remind them that thou art the professional.

Board members serve a purpose other than being principal donors and recruitment of other principal donors. My apologies – I can’t think of what that purpose is.

The Ninth Commandment: Thou shalt communicate dynamically with those who should be supporting thy cause, using messages that employ forceful clarity.

If you can’t seem to communicate dynamically with the right targets, change your apparent direction, your lists, or your job.

The Tenth Commandment: Thou shalt violate any of the other nine Commandments … if thou art confident that thou are doing so deliberately and with the intention of increasing response.

But hey, if you’re violating the first nine commandments to show what a creative genius you are, go back and take a hard look at the ninth commandment before it’s too late. Or, maybe you prefer driving a taxi.


Herschell Gordon Lewis is a professional writer who lives in Pompano Beach, Fla., consulting with and writing direct response copy for clients worldwide. He is the author of “Hot Appeals or Burnt Offerings,” an analysis of fund raising techniques. His most recent book is his 32nd — “Internet Marketing Tips, Tricks, and Tactics.” His website is herschellgordonlewis.com.