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Wednesday, January 17, 2018

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Zombie cases
Tom Ahern

May, 2009

Bitter truth? Maybe a quarter of the cases I'm hired to write never reach the finish line. Interesting tale, that.

They walk. Yet they're not alive.

They are ... cases that fail to win approval.

True story. Phone rings.

On the line: the head of publications at a well-known urban university. She has a problem. She has in her hand a case for support, she tells me. One of their departments wants to raise $10 million, a fairly modest sum as school campaigns go these days.

The case has circulated among deans and provosts and senior staff and faculty heads for a year. Many well-groomed hands have touched it with their magic red pens. It's now on version #6. And it has stretched itself, with comments and all, to 33 single-spaced pages. It currently exceeds 11,000 words. (By the way, hold that thought.)

"Can you give it a look," she asks, "and maybe salvage it?"

The answer turned out to be yes and no.

Yes, I gave it a look. Yes, I made sense of the project; inserting (1) a decent rationale, ensuring (2) it was donor-centric, and (3) larding it with emotional hooks.

Yes yes yes, I wrote some framing language that made it easier to navigate this vast document.

Yes, I trimmed out the repetitive verbiage. I smashed the education-ese to smithereens with my special neutron-powered anti-jargon hammer.

And, yes, I answered the prospective donor's three most common questions.

But could I salvage it? No.

Because, STARK TRUTH BE TOLD, the powers that be didn't approve my version, either. Oh, my. Pearls before swine? More like, pearls before the "we'll know it when we see it" crowd.

I used to worry when someone didn't like my writing. That was before the international awards. Before the journalism plaudits. Before the remarkable results. Now I just wonder at human nature, usually with a glass of wine, contemplating the vineyards that surround my house in France.

Every case writer has a sad story like this. The approval process for cases -- for all donor communications, for that matter -- is often built for failure, not success: too many amateurs with too much power.

One more relevant war story. A large public university embarking on a billion dollar campaign hired me to fly in for a few days and talk to various departments about case writing. Since deans would have final authority over cases, we planned special sessions for them. "One thing, though," my client warned me, "never, ever mention the word 'sales.'" She feared that the academic brass would turn up their noses and flee.

Let's be clear. A case is a sales document. It is SELLING the promise of your mission or vision to people who might be moved or interested enough to BUY; i.e., become donors. That's a fact of life. That fact must be grasped.

I've said it before, and I will say it again: the only person who reasonably deserves approval authority over fundraising communications is the person whose paycheck depends on the results -- the director of development.

Takeaway: Are you still holding that thought? The average length of a case I write is about 2,200 words, which is the length of a midsized article in a magazine. Trust me on this: no one wants to read any more than that. Few will even read that much.

An effective case explains itself -- and hooks the reader -- in the first 50 words. The rest of the case exists simply to prove that the promise made in the first 50 words isn't baloney.


Tom Ahern is recognized as one of North America’s top authorities on nonprofit communications. He began presenting his top-rated Love Thy Reader workshops at fundraising conferences in 1999.

Since then he has introduced thousands of fundraisers in the U.S., Canada and Europe to the principles of reader psychology, writing, and graphic design that make donor communications highly engaging and successful.

He founded his consulting practice in 1990 ( His firm specializes in capital campaign case statements, nonprofit communications audits, direct mail, and donor newsletters. His efforts have won three prestigious IABC Gold Quill awards, given each year to the best communications work worldwide.

Ahern is also an award-winning magazine journalist, for articles on health and social justice issues. He has his MA and BA in English from Brown University, and a Certificate in Advertising Art from the RI School of Design. His offices are in Rhode Island and France.



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