Thursday, February 19, 2009

Are Your E-Letters Connecting?

Letters"Letters" Image by *madalena-pestana* mostly away via Flickr

I'm sorry I've been gone so long; I didn't mean to be. But as John Lennon's song put it, "Life is what happens when you're busy making other plans."

While I was away from this blog, I got an e-letter from one of the local nonprofits. More than one small nonprofit has been in the news here because the economic disaster trickle-down effect hit them pretty hard - hard enough that more than one of them couldn't make their payroll or were looking at complete shut-downs.

In more than one case, publicity in the local media plus a very big push from word-of-mouth resulted in floods of donations that pushed the programs back into the black, at least through the current fiscal year.

The nonprofit I received the e-letter from was no doubt also hoping that publicity about their plight would have similar results. I've got calls in to some of the people there, so I'll let you know whether or not it achieved its aim, but my guess is that it didn't. And here's why:

First of all, it was formatted like a news release. It even had the usual news release information at the top, like this sample from Abraham Pais & Associates:

Not the kind of personal outreach I would expect from a small nonprofit asking for money. But the the next few paragraphs only made the situation worse. Instead of showing me how its mission and programs were being impacted, the Executive Director of the nonprofit led me through a rehash of what had happened to the other nonprofits and then bored me with a long paragraph about a 2006 study that showed how the broader spectrum of nonprofits in its niche positively impacted a community's bottom line.

"Hello? Hello? Anybody still reading?" is what they should have asked. Nothing of what I had read in five long paragraphs had told me what this particular nonprofit had contributed to my community's wellbeing and why then, I should care about the next information presented to me, which was that their finances were in the crapper, too.

In fact, the E.D. made me so not want to care by talking about the board and the draconian measures that had been taken. The language was professorial (understandable, since the E.D. had been a college-level teacher at one time), dry, and dispassionate.

Finally, at the end of the letter, the E.D. starts to make a case - but only indirectly for the agency. The community is asked to support the agency's niche - arts and culture - but only in a broad sense. It isn't until the end of a list of ways to do this, that the agency itself is mentioned as a possible recipient of financial support. Only in the next to the last sentence do I get a sense of why I should entertain the notion of giving this agency money:
One of the strengths of [redacted] has been its ability to leverage local contributions with funding from the State and area foundations and to inspire investment by individuals.

And even here, I'm not told what they would do with my money if I gave it to them.

This "Open Letter to the Community" was sent out to the local media and anyone who ever made a donation. And, as I mentioned before, it went out in exactly the same format to both media and donors. I'm told that there was a snail mail version that went out to people who didn't have an email address on file, but I haven't seen it.

It did inspire a front-page news story, which thrilled the E.D., but the letter didn't feature in any of it. The only part of this "press release" that the newspaper did use was the term "draconian." I guess they liked it. But did it translate into dollars? That's what my next post will tell you.

February 23rd Update:

I sent an email to the Development Director asking if there had been an uptick in the number/size of donations since the E.D.'s "Open Letter" went out. The answer came back: "Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha."
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