craft, Writing improvement

Prove Yourself Without Saying A Word

The following quote is a fantastic guide for anyone in sales, persuasion, or attempting to change another’s mind. It comes from one of the most successful books of all time, about one of the most important topics we all encounter daily.

“If you are going to prove anything, don’t let anybody know it. Do it so subtly, so adroitly, that no one will feel that you are doing it.”

Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People

And I have nothing more to say. I’m just going to let that one sit. Far be it from me to expand on an idea that’s much older than I am, one that has helped a countless number of people to be more successful on their journey through life. Just do what Mr. Carnegie says, and you’ll be well rewarded.

So, then, why do I choose to write about it? As soon as I read it I wanted examples of this principle in action. When I browsed through the library of my mind, I found two that illustrate this quite well. And they’re entertaining too. Allow me to share so that you might learn and be inspired to apply this idea in your own life.

 

Example 1

First, let’s consider a segment of text. This is from L. Ron Hubbard’s story The Devil’s Rescue:

The main cabin was ornate with carved blackwood furniture, glowing silks and oriental carpets. Along the bulkheads to either side were rows of chests, camphor and ivory and teak, from which drooled the luster of pearls or gaped a little over a load of dull gold coins. The ports were twenty feet athwartship and full seven feet tall, all of cunningly set glass to make compasses and tritons and sea horses; through this, trailing far behind them, glowed their frothing wake, leading off into the gray dark and the shrieking wind.

The Devil’s Rescue, reprinted in Writers of the Future, vol 33

In this example, you can feel the knowledge that Hubbard has about life aboard a ship. He’s been there, he’s studied, he has the intimacy necessary to make you believe that you are aboard the The Flying Dutchman. But why is this important?

Because the author must establish the credibility of the narrator, in order for him to be believable enough that the reader enjoys reading and participates fully in the experience. If, for example, an amateur [such as yours truly] who had done the barest amount of research [or, more likely, none at all, attempting to fudge it with whatever is already in his head] about the internal decorations and workings of a pirate ship, were to write that same paragraph, it might come across like this:

The main cabin held elegant furniture, darkly-colored and well-formed. Rugs covered the floor, dulling the sound as the men walked. He dragged his hand across the sculpted walls, feeling under his fingers the rough differences between the carved wood of storage boxes, sculpted brass of drawer handles, or formed glass of the lamps lighting their way. Behind them, he could glance out the portholes, just at the height of his eyes, to the trailing wake, glowing in the dim moonlight.

Now, which of those sounds more believable? Which author has convinced you of his authority? Which one has proven that he knows enough about a sailor’s life to make it worth your while to read further? Hands down, it’s Hubbard. He has taken the Carnegie principle to the extreme: he has shown his competence, rather than blatantly beating you over the head with facts about how many books he’s read or how many interviews he’s conducted. And therefore you, as a reader, are more likely to believe him, accept him, and actually finish the story.

Nowhere in the story does Hubbard tell of his expertise. Nowhere does he come out and say, “this man knows such and such because of years aboard a ship”. He doesn’t have to. He’s shown that, subtly and adroitly, by his extremely competent narrative.

 

Example 2

The following is a humorous scene from Tommy Boy, in which main character Tommy Callahan finally succeeds in making his first sale. How? By demonstrating that his company is an authority, not because of the physical qualities of the parts they make, but by proving, quietly, that Callahan Auto actually meets his client’s unspoken needs:

And what are his needs? Not more brake pads. Not more inventory on a shelf. Not more stock to track and invoices to pay and deliveries to coordinate. The client already has plenty of those. That warehouse is full of stuff. No, what his customer needs is peace of mind. And Tommy tried that. In a sense, he said, “Well, sure, you’ll have peace of mind if you buy from us. I guarantee it!” Does that make the sale? Doubtful. It’s too direct and turns your customer off. The client completely rejected this approach in the first minute of the scene.

Notice what happens when Tommy switches tactics from the hard sell. Instead of pressing the point, he pivots to a more subtle method, and his client softens. His fear of “being sold” dissipates, and he opens up to the possibility of buying from Callahan Auto. When he does, he can see that his needs can actually be met, and he is no longer afraid of losing. Instead, he’s winning! He’s getting the emotional connection, the security and peace of mind he’s searching for. Tommy was able to make this point by, ironically, not making explicit statements to that effect. On the contrary, he spoke in a friendly manner, and allowed his expertise to come through in less obvious ways.

 

Conclusion

The next time you’re struggling to prove yourself as an expert, take a step back. Instead of becoming more belligerent and overbearing with facts of your qualification, consider a softer approach. Demonstrate your competence by producing quality work, rather than just talking about how you will produce quality work.

fundraising industry

Impressions of the DMFA Awards

Last week I attended the DMFA Awards (formerly DMFA Package of the Year) in New York City. This is the profession’s signature event of the year and showcases the best of the best in direct marketing for fundraising. It was my first time attending, and I came away with some new conclusions and reinforcements of others. The results are in, I won’t comment on that because I’m not a voting member of the DMFA, but you can read about the winners here.

Today, though, I’m offering 4 takeaways (and 1 bonus!) about the event.

 

1. Acquisition Really Is That Difficult

The conventional wisdom is that using direct mail to acquire new donors is plagued by high costs, low success, and low returns on investment. The numbers reinforce that conclusion. There were 7 packages entered in this category. Of those, the least expensive clocked in at a cost of $1.09 to raise $1. More than half are $1.66 or more, with multiple packages over $2.00. That means, if you spent $16,600 on a package, you would get a return of only $10,000, losing money.

The reason for such high costs is the extremely low return and low average gift. With response rates in the 0.5% to 1.5% range, and average gifts less than $40, it just doesn’t result in any profit for the organization after including package development, postage, list rental, and creative costs. Conventional wisdom holds for these “best of the best”. Should other nonprofits expect any better?

Naturally, I ask, If direct mail acquisition is so expensive, why do it at all? The answer is in #2 below.

 

2. Renewal Really Is Where You Make It Up

With response rates at 6%, and average gifts at $142, it’s no surprise that Renewal mailings are where nonprofits really see the value of direct mail. Efficiency improves dramatically, because: you’re mailing to proven names, you’re mailing to a much smaller group, and the people who you’re mailing to already have some connection to the organization you can build on. And it shows.

Costs to raise $1 are as low as $0.04, with many below $0.30. The average is only $0.23, which means to replace the $10,000 you got in Acquisition giving, you only need to spend $2,300 this year. That’s now a $7,700 profit, which overcomes the loss from the year before.

Plus, these mailings represent just one campaign. Throughout the year an organization may produce 4 or 5 or up to 10 packages. If each one garners a 5%-6% response, that’s potentially 30%-50% of your mailing list giving again. It’s easy to see that Renewal is an essential part of fundraising, and should never be taken for granted. Doing so would mean ignoring a big opportunity and leaving a lot of money on the table, so to speak.

 

3. These People Are Not Naive

In any industry there are best practices for a reason: because they continue to work. The Mid-Level Renewal packages have higher cost to create and mail compared to standard Renewal and Acquisition packages. Average cost per piece for Acquisition is about $0.55, while Renewal is $0.93 and Mid-Level Renewal goes up to $1.90. This is because these donors have a tendency to give more, so it makes sense to spend more asking them to give. More color printing, more special reports, more benefits such as tickets to events, etc. The result is often higher response rates and higher average gifts ($307) in this category, leading to more money for the organization. That’s a good thing.

However, because of the need to “spend more to get more”, it does not translate into more efficient fundraising. The cost to raise $1 on Mid-Level Renewals is still about $0.20, which means you’re not really getting more bang for your buck here.

It simply means that you’ve got to continue doing this, and doing it well, because mid-level donors are that much closer to your highest tier, where you can start talking about large gifts and bequests. Should you try to cut costs and squeeze the pipeline, downstream giving would certainly suffer from the resultant smaller, less engaged donor pool.

 

4. It’s Hard To Compare Apples And Term Papers

E-mail is becoming more popular, because of the significantly lower production and distribution costs. For a while many predicted this, and the cultural shift to electronic communications, would lead to the death of direct mail . However, the existence of the DMFA (and all its members) nullifies that conclusion. The reason? E-mail fundraising just isn’t that much better than direct mail. Costs to raise $1 for this category range widely, but average around $0.18. So while you can potentially have a wider, easier, faster reach with e-mail, it’s not going to be kicking direct mail to the curb any time soon.

As well, e-mail response rates are a tenth (or worse) of physical direct mail, so it’s hard to make comparisons as to which is better for the organization. It’s almost like comparing two completely different types of things, like a piece of fruit and an academic exercise. Ultimately you need both, and used in their own right ways.

The final category of awards is Multichannel. That is, perhaps there’s an e-mail campaign integrated with direct mail. Or you’ve got some Facebook ads along with a series of e-mail blasts. How do you measure all of these “impressions”? Is an e-mail worth the same as a Google ad? What about reTweets, do they get included? And where is the measure of the return on investment from your donor seeing 6 different ads, then navigating to the website independently, and donating there? It’s daunting to create a holistic view of how this channel works, and because of the lack of standardization, it is hard to know what numbers (impressions, clicks, etc.) represent better results here.

Because there is so much disparity in what defines this category I’ll fall back on the cost to raise $1. And, here, like everything above, the average works out to about $0.21. All told, this may be the wave of the future. But, like e-mail’s inability to dislodge traditional mail’s place as a staple of fundraising, integrated digital impressions will become another tool, but not the only one.

 

Conclusion

This was my first time attending the event. I found the participants welcoming, willing to talk and listen to my story when I told it, and extremely competent in their respective areas of expertise. There is no magic trick that will make one campaign stand out against all the rest competing for attention, and most fundraising is about the same efficiency. I learned a lot, made some important connections, and look forward attending again next year. This meeting reinforced some of the assumptions I’d been making and invalidated others. For that alone it was worthwhile.

 

Bonus Impression – The After-Party Is More Than Just Socializing

Just like the for-profit business events I’ve attended in the past, I was able to hang around long enough to get invited over to the after-party. There I got to continue some conversations and make some new impressions. And, just like in the for-profit world, once you get people a little more relaxed and out of the “show” of the main event, they’ll start giving you their real opinions. Like which companies are just screwing up the southeast region, and who could be doing a whole lot better by changing to that other supplier with the lower overhead cost.

These aren’t the things you’ll hear about in any of the general sessions or over lunch at a traditional business conference or meeting. But they’re where a good portion of the real work gets done. I’m very grateful for the chance to play “fly on the wall” to a couple of these conversations, and I hope to be able to leverage these insights for the benefit of all in the future.

arts, local, nonprofit profile

Local Nonprofit Profile: Pianos for People

This young man is Royce Martin. Please allow him to create an inspirational soundtrack to the next 4 minutes of your reading life.

Royce began playing piano only a few years before that performance. He wrote that piece. He has won competitions already after only a short time playing. He may very well be a prodigy.

And he got started thanks to a donated instrument from Pianos for People. This fairly new nonprofit supplies pianos to needy individuals in St. Louis. They began in 2012 and have recently passed the mark of delivering 200 pianos. Thus they’ve already made a dent in the needs of the community, but there is much more yet to do.

 

Overview

Pianos for People collects and restores (as necessary) pianos in reasonably good working order. From there, they donate these pianos to needy individuals or families in the area. Pianos for People works on the principle that playing music changes lives – it gives hope, it soothes the soul, it allows for creative outlet, it teaches discipline and focus.

You can read the history of the organization here. I won’t go into that with this profile. I will touch on some positives and negatives, and give some challenges and opportunities.

 

What I Like About Pianos for People

This organization serves a need people likely didn’t know they had. Most people can identify that they’re hungry, cold, or sick. Or that they don’t have adequate transportation, education, or social skills. There are hundreds of organizations around the country to help them meet those needs.

Not many know that they are missing music in their life. But, when that opportunity comes to connect with the harmonies of this world, if there are barriers in the way, many will let those chances slip through their fingers.

Pianos for People works to change that. They give pianos away because it allows people to meet that burning desire inside of them. A desire they may not have been able to identify, but was still holding them back through non-expression nonetheless.

They give away pianos. They give away lessons. But more than that, they give connection to the community. They bring together people who need pianos with pianos that need people. That’s a great line. But it’s theirs, I can’t take credit for it.

 

Challenges Ahead

Currently Pianos for People is still growing. They’ve delivered the 200th piano this year, but there is more need. As evidenced by this statement on their website:  “We sincerely apologize, but applications for a piano are presently closed as we have reached our capacity for 2018. We will begin accepting applications in September 2018 for 2019 delivery.”

So there are clearly people who want a piano, but capacity within the organization is lacking to make those dreams come true. This is likely due to a combination of factors: not enough pianos donated, not enough restoration time available, not enough administrative capacity, etc. Each of these can be handled in time, and with money, which suggests that there is a lot of growing yet to come.

Another challenge is the relative newness and obscurity of the organization. With traditional charities like the United Way or American Cancer Society, there’s a big, recognizable name associated. This makes fundraising, volunteer recruitment, and community interaction much easier. Pianos for People will need to expand their reach (in a responsible way) in order to make a bigger name for themselves and reach more people

This is evident by looking at a few nonprofit review websites. Charity Navigator and Guidestar, which provide ratings of the administrative efficiency and fundraising efficiency of nonprofits, have virtually empty profiles. And Great Nonprofits, where users or clients of an organization can make a review, has nothing. Again, these are likely due to the fact that Pianos for People is a fairly small, fairly new organization. In order to create greater credibility, leading to greater impact, leading to greater change in the community, they’ll have to be intentional about creating a positive public profile. The good thing is that as they start basically from scratch they can craft that image how they wish.

 

Opportunities

Obviously there is an ongoing need within the St. Louis community for the instruments and lessons provided. In addition, I think that greater expansion throughout the region would be a big boon to the validity of the organization. And it would greatly increase the potential donor pool, not just for cash and grants but for pianos as well.

Second, I would not be surprised to see Pianos for People expand to more instruments, not just the piano. A piano is large, intricate, delicate, and, frankly, a lot to maintain. I suspect that in a few years there will also be a market for accepting, restoring, and giving away other instruments, such as trumpets, violins, flutes, drums, etc. These may be more accessible to people who don’t have the floor space for piano. Or for those who do want to experience the transformation that comes through playing music but don’t have an inclination to play piano. Or even an opportunity for those who are just out of a piano delivery area yet may be able to accept an alternative instrument.

 

Conclusion

I think Pianos for People has a good thing going. They’re small, but they have incredible opportunity to meet unspoken, unmet needs in this community and around the country. Better still, around the world. I think they’re on the edge of something great. Stay tuned, it’s about to get very interesting on Cherokee Street.