Shameless Practices of the Worst Charities

Rod Taylor on Wednesday, June 19, 2013 at 12:00:00 am Comments (1)

Have you seen this recent report produced in collaboration with the Tampa Bay Times and the Center for Investigative Reporting? The report, titled America’s Worst Charities, exposes the fraud and abuse of trust perpetrated by some of the biggest scum bags in our industry. It is an exhaustive (and nauseating) look at the practices employed by 50 sleazy organizations that call themselves charities. I encourage you to read the report…but not on an empty stomach.


Our industry – the direct-response fundraising industry – relies on this simple exchange between trusting partners, “If you give me some of your hard earned dollars I will do good with it.” Most of the good people who fuel the efforts of social welfare organizations with their donations are trusting people. “You say you’ll use my money to help find a cure? Sounds good. Here’s my check for $35.”


But when fair-minded people read a report like this and discover that some in our industry are playing them for suckers—it erodes trust. In all of us. And if allowed to go on with no retribution for the crooks? A pox on all our houses.


It’s not that there haven’t always been a few con men lurking in the shadows of our industry. It’s that the short con has morphed into a long con and become systematized to the point that it has become a formula for fraud…


Start with a name that sounds a lot like the name of a popular, reputable charity. Find some hapless schlub willing to sell his soul for a six-figure salary and make him the figurehead and fall-guy-in-waiting. Mix in high-pressure and high-volume calls and letters. Make up a bunch of half-truths and exaggerations about the good you will do. Then sit back and laugh at the suckers while you recline on the porch of the lake-front house you built with money you raised to cure childhood cancer or help wounded veterans. You know the regulators aren’t likely to do anything more than slap you with a miniscule fine that you write off as the cost of doing business. And even if enough states ban your organization from operating? You just start over with a new name and a new figurehead.


Meanwhile the rest of us working hard to grow programs ethically and sustainably struggle with stagnant response rates and declining retention. I’ve been working in this industry for 20+ years now and I was fortunate enough to learn at the feet of industry pioneers and titans like Jerry Huntsinger and Mal Warwick and Ray Grace and Claude Grizzard. These guys weren’t boy scouts. They were tough-minded businessmen who didn’t suffer fools. But they were honest and ethical and would have scoffed at the small-minded shortcuts taken by the jerks named in this report.


Most people in this industry are good, hard-working, honest, intelligent folks who really want to use their skills and talents to do some good in the world. But when unscrupulous charlatans are allowed to make our job harder by destroying the trust of donors everywhere? It’s infuriating.


And it’s time we spoke up. So the next time you run into one of these jokers at an industry conference, tell them what you really think. If some of these agencies are trying to play both sides of the street by simultaneously working with reputable charities and disreputable con-job operations? Don’t give them your business. If you are active in industry trade associations, push for stronger enforcement of guidelines. Let your voice be heard. Stand up to these knuckleheads before they pull the rug out from under all of us.

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The Super Bowl's Finest Moment

Sean O'Neil on Thursday, February 7, 2013 at 12:00:00 am Comments (1)

Dodge Ram’s tribute to the American farmer, with the late Paul Harvey’s distinct voice over, was brilliant in its simplicity and emotional impact. I’m sure it was the talk around many water coolers on Monday morning.

But, it’s no surprise that it struck such a chord…

As a fundraiser and writer, I’ve come to understand and embrace the power of emotion to engage donors. And that’s why I’m often surprised to hear an executive director (or the non-profit’s board) decide that the last direct mail campaign was “too emotional” in reference to the appeals' copy, the images, or both.

Instead, these well-intentioned leaders ask for more statistics, more organizational messaging, more “about us.”

Their intentions are good, but they are dead wrong. Testing has proven time and again that stirring key emotions such as anger, sadness, fear, etc. – not appealing to logic with facts and figures – is what drives a donor to action, volunteering, signing a petition or writing a check.

While the most effective non-profit direct mail works to engage both the “head” (providing facts/statistics) and the “heart” (story/emotion), various studies show that if you err on either side, better results are achieved with more “heart” and less “head.”

Are your own fundraising efforts too formulaic, too rational? If so, maybe it’s time to convince your boss or board to at least test injecting emotion into communications with your supporters.

Stir donors’ interest in your work with a true and authentic story. Focus it on the “story of one” – the single mom struggling to make ends meet or the Golden Lab that was beaten, tied to a chain and left to die by a heartless, hateful owner. Never forget this: the most jaw-dropping statistic is no match for a good personal story to capture attention and spur action. 

So, if your next direct mail appeal or e-mail campaign makes you cry, smile, scream, or get goose bumps, congratulations! Like those marketing gurus at Dodge already know, people respond to emotion. Trust me, your results will prove it...

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Your Great Story Isn't Enough

Larry Montali on Wednesday, October 31, 2012 at 8:00:00 am Comments (0)

         Use the word "You" early and often. Be warm and conversational – don’t write a term paper – in your letters, emails, and other communications to donors. Tell stories. 

         That’s the gospel we preach here at New River Communications – at least a few books of it.

         All excellent advice, too, (though judging from many letters and emails we see being sent out by non-profits large and small, it’s advice not always taken.)

         But sometimes we and other like-minded agencies make it sound too simple…

         You could come away thinking, "Awesome! Just write a letter that breaks every rule of grammar I’ve learned since fourth grade, insert "You" in every other sentence, and tell a couple of stories about our work, and ‘BAM, PRESTO,’ the money will come pouring in!"

         Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple.         

         Close, but not quite. The part about breaking your English teacher’s grammar rules (and heart) and sprinkling more "Yous" throughout the copy is right on, but getting the storytelling part right requires more thought.   

         A recent post by Jeff Molander got me thinking about that. He writes:

The biggest beef I have with most of today's content marketing experts is this: In the end, they claim it’s all about a good story when it’s not. You can tell the most honest, interesting, moving story possible and never get the customer to pick up the phone, send an email, make an appointment with you, click to fill out a lead form... take an action. And that's just a waste of a good story!

         Jeff’s talking about the use of stories for sales in the commercial world, but I believe much of what he says also applies to us good people working in non-profits. Jeff doesn’t hate a good story, he just thinks it’s not enough – and I think he’s right.

         When you tell a story about your work, are you connecting it back to your donors with the most powerful offer/request for support possible? Are you moving their hearts and then making it easy for them to join in and help?  

         If your story/offer doesn’t compel a donor to take action and make it easy for them to do so, if it doesn’t draw them closer to your work and make them proud to be associated with you, if it doesn’t motivate them to think, "I love this organization. I want to do more to help – and I will!" you have to ask yourself,

         "Can I do better?"

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One essential you need to get right

Margaux Parento on Thursday, September 6, 2012 at 12:00:00 am Comments (0)

        Non-profit executive directors and development directors often ask me: "How can we use direct mail without being overwhelmed by complex strategies, production issues, postal regulations and other things I just don’t have the staff or time for?”

        These leaders at small to medium size organizations get it. They recognize that…  

(a) A significant portion of the U.S. population are charitable and willing to support causes they believe in.

(b) Even though social media is all the rage, the vast majority of donors use direct mail to make their donations. (Many love to research organizations like yours online, but they do their actual giving the old way – at least 90% of it anyway!)

        So from summer on, I answer their question like this: “Make sure you send out a year-end appeal to all your donors.” Even if it’s a low-key request for help, getting something into the hands of your supporters in the thick of the charitable giving season is essential –

        In fact, most non-profits receive nearly half of all annual donations in the fourth quarter. But it won’t happen magically. Out of sight, out of mind. In the frenzy of the giving season, you’ve got to be on your donors’ radar screen – reminding them of the good works you’re doing and, most important, that you depend on them to make those good things happen.

        If you don’t tell them, how will they know?

        When done properly, a mailing with a compelling offer and direct ask sent to the right audience, can produce truly stellar results. One organization we helped with only 4,000 donors generated income of more than $100,000 from a single year-end mailing!

        Labor Day has come and gone – NOW is the time to get started! Remember, your donors aren’t just your donors. They “belong” to other organizations as well – organizations who will be reaching out to them this fall. . .

        Will you get there first?

        If you want to save the work and worry of producing a year-end appeal, we are ready and happy to help! Just click here to see a sample of our year-end package format – we’ve made it simple and affordable for small and medium-sized organizations to get an effective year-end appeal into the mail.  Minimum 3,000 pieces

        New River’s team of agency pros will create and mail your year-end appeal for just .88 cents per piece, including postage! To participate, please contact Margaux Parento by phone 954-535-0644 or email I must hear from you by Wednesday, September 12th to participate!

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Quit Social Media? Not so fast…

Shaun Petersen on Wednesday, August 22, 2012 at 12:00:00 am Comments (0)

I just ran across an interesting post on The Agitator by Tom Belford on quitting social media.  Tom cites Erik Sass’s 9 Reasons to Quit Social Media Now … a thoughtful take on why social media isn’t always a net positive.  In closing, Tom calls for rebuttals, so here’s mine:

I absolutely appreciate the lead in to Tom’s post; at this point, social media is not a major medium for fundraising.  If you look at response rates and dollars generated by social media, it’s only a drop in the bucket compared to email fundraising – which itself is only a fraction of the donations received via direct mail.

I would argue, however, that it misses the larger point of how social media is best used by nonprofits. 

First and foremost, social sites like Facebook and Twitter are best used by most organizations as a branding and engagement tool.  For most organizations, there is no quicker, cheaper way to communicate with donors than posting on your favorite social media site.  This truth is only becoming more prevalent as the stereotypical donor group (read: older donors) move online.

Social media sites are also one of the best ways to motivate the elusive 40 and under donors.  Dunham+Company’s recent study of online donations makes the point quite succinctly:

Social media motivating more donors under age 40

Social media shows no real improvement in motivating an online gift among donors 40 years old or older (10 percent in this survey versus 8 percent in 2010).  However, social media giving continues to grow among donors under age 40, as a full 30 percent now say they have given online because of social media compared to 24 percent in 2010.

My co-worker at New River Communications Christa Chappel just shared the perfect example of social media as a direct response channel:

Florida Yorkie Rescue continues to engage and involve people (donors or prospects) on Facebook and the owner Kit has said that if it weren’t for her doing that on Facebook she wouldn’t raise as much money.  She doesn’t have funds nor time probably to participate in direct mail or do a major fundraising event but she posts about a situation (dog needing surgery), the goal amount to solve the problem, and all of a sudden within 48-72 hours she hits her goal.  I am a donor and have given to almost every one of her cases…

Bottom line, it’s a multi-, multi-, multi-channel world out there, and the prospect of quitting social media – even if we wanted to – isn’t really an option.  The only question now is: what do we do with it? The answer isn’t the same for every nonprofit, but I believe nearly all can find ways to enrich their relationship with donors who use some form of social media – and isn’t that just about everyone these days?

Now, off to tweet this to the masses…

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