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Wednesday, October 18, 2017

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The art of producing powerful case statements
Tom Ahern

November, 2010

First, I want to transfer a skill that's much needed in our already far-too-stressful world.

Let me teach you how to criticize creative work.

I don't know if good criticism comes naturally. It didn't for me. Maybe it does to good parents. Overtime, I've learned to make my criticisms more palatable.

I hear criticism all the time. It's part of the day-to-day, when you write cases for capital campaigns. A lot of people weigh in.

I've noticed some distinct critiquing styles:

The thoughtful. They don't "get" something, so they ask why, assuming there might well be a reason. Lovable.

The up-front caustic. Everything about their voice and manner suggests a grave error has been committed in their royal presence, though sometimes the error is as "grave" as a misspelled word. Doesn't matter. "I found it. This stinks. Now, listen." Nasty bark. Unlikeable.

The hysteric. They believe something's wrong. But for some reason, they suspect their view won't be heard. So they explode like a whistling steam kettle, the first opening they get. Worth some pity; they're obviously in pain.

There's only one way to properly, decently criticize creative work. And, really, it's all about your organization's enlightened self-interest.

Why? Because the biggest danger is that poorly-delivered criticism will rip the guts from the creative team's motivation.

You do not want to break that team's spirit; no good will come of it. They will turn around and henceforth produce safe, dull, second-rate work, because they figure it's the only kind that will pass muster.

To avoid that evil (evil, because it makes you less money), ALWAYS present your criticisms more or less in this non-confrontational, soothing way:

"When I saw this work for the first time, I just thought, This is so good. Thank you for all your ideas. I just have a couple of comments and questions."


Creating effective donor communications requires taking risks. Trust me: this is 150% true. Harsh, unloving, thoughtless, anxious, blind criticisms put the creative team on the defensive, and they stop taking risks.

You can still criticize. Just do it the right way.

And now on to the approval process...

Let me introduce you to the approval process for capital campaign cases, as the nonprofit world tends to practice it.

I think I've written by now at least 50 cases; I did four in the last two months. With a sample that large, certain habits of organizational incompetence have emerged, habits that bring low what might have been powerful cases for donor support.

Let me welcome you to Planet Colleague, a mythical place where every opinion must count.

The truth, based on vast hindsight?

Most opinions do more harm than good. Mostly, they are uninformed opinions; no better than stabs in the dark, based on "what I like."

This is one reason the world treats nonprofits like silly people.

Because nonprofits do stupid things, like let tenured professors weigh in on - and even block the issuance of - sales materials written by skilled professionals.

Thank God (I'm speaking here in particular to a certain nest of monks), capital campaigns mostly work, no matter how useless the sales materials end up.

Of course, bad materials just transfer all the work onto the solicitors' shoulders. Now the people asking for money have to be absolutely brilliant ... because the published materials definitely were not.

There's an inside world.

There's an outside world.

The inside world cares about "office politics."

The outside world assumes you're idiots until proven innocent. Nonprofits are considered second- or third-rate enterprises, every poll I've ever seen reveals.

And when you offer donors deeply compromised, third-rate materials (the bulk of what I see from nonprofits), you just reaffirm that brand.

Your brand is what people think of you. All nonprofits are tarred with the same brush of presumed incompetence.

And as far as donor communications go, the denigrators of nonprofit aptitude are probably right: the typical approval process is rubbish. (Thank you, Kiwis and Aussies: I love that word rubbish.)

Takeaway >>>>

Only opinions on experience, testing, research, book-, blog-, and workshop-learning really do any good in criticism. But that's not the real world. Even though most uninformed opinions are either mundane, silly, or morale-sucking poisons, there is the occasional gem from a non-professional who's gifted with good instincts. And, anyway, you have to deal with it. Politics cannot be ignored in organizations. There is too much riding on finding consensus and harmony amongst board and staff, it hurts me to say.

 



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