Too many cooks spoil the chili

Or why too many cooks who don’t know what’s already in the pot can make a mess.

Years ago, my family was gathered at my parent’s home to celebrate Christmas. By then, we were a big crowd – I have three siblings, and each of us has two children.

So my mom planned to make eating easy: simple, hearty stuff we could help ourselves to as we wished.

That included a big pot of chili.

Now, my mom’s chili was known to all as a little… cautious. Definitely not highly spiced. Mom could make some seriously good cookies. But I think her heart wasn’t into cooking… it was an act of love.

Of course, no one wanted to hurt her feelings.

So without saying a word, I added a little seasoning to the pot. And without letting anyone else know, my husband, sister, and brother all did the same. Each of us just wandered into the kitchen, took something from the spice rack, and tried to fix the chili.

You can guess what the result was, can’t you? From a bit bland, the chili became inedible.

Our well-meaning contributions hadn’t been coordinated. Nor had any of us really tasted what was in the pot as we worked. And without knowing what had gone in, how could we improve it?

We took “almost right” and made “what a mess”.

My mom’s chili is what happens when people who don’t know what they’re doing mess with your writing.

It could be board members. Or staff members. (Or even consultants.)

But it usually involves people who don’t know as much as you do about writing to your donors.

They mean well. They want to help. But they haven’t considered everything.

They can’t taste what’s in the pot.

If you’re the expert – if you’re the one charged with writing to your donors – then you need to be in charge of the chili.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t seek out some help.

Had Mom asked one of us to take charge, all would have been well. (My husband makes some good chili, for instance.)

If you’re new to donor communications, bringing in outside help is smart. Your job then is to trust them and learn.

But if you’re the fundraising copywriter, you should know your stuff and be trusted to do your work.

So let’s take some lessons from mom’s chili and too many cooks

Before you start cooking: collaborate on the front end

If we’d thought to coordinate better with Mom, I could have brought the chili – already seasoned.

Think about why you will write, what you will write and who will sign the letter before you even begin. Outside copywriter? My clients who gather great content end up with the best work. Line up interviews, gather background… and clear any internal paths before the writing starts.

What story will you tell?

Get all the permissions you need now, instead of later. (“We couldn’t possibly use her name!” “Well, yes we can. She loved the idea.”)

If you’ve found the perfect story, but the subject of the story is uncomfortable, find a different story. It’s hard to dance around the edges without wrecking the details that make a story work.

A conversation at the start will uncover ways to collaborate that will make the subject feel good. Trust is important in every aspect of fundraising. This is no exception!

Who will tell the story in your appeal?

If your board chair has an impressive degree and will not allow his signature to go on a letter that uses contractions, look for a different person. Do it before you even begin.

In many cases, he’s not the best person anyway.

Look beyond someone’s position:

  • What about someone personally affected by your work?
  • A staff member who works directly with clients?
  • Even a truck, like my friends at Agents of Good used?

Be creative. Find someone whose voice and signature enhance your appeal.

Who will approve the appeal?

Do you need approval from your Development Director or Executive Director? Talk through your concept now, before you start writing. Get them on board from the start, and you’re more likely to get that approval later.

You need that trust.

The people you have to run your appeal by aren’t trying to make life difficult. They feel responsible. But if they’re not experts, their well-meaning help can derail your work.

When you bring them in early and keep them updated, it helps them feel comfortable. When you use those early conversations to show them you know what you’re doing, that helps even more.

Consider every objection an opportunity at this stage. Explain why the letter will likely be more than one page. And why the language will be conversational, not formal. And, yes, it will be emotional, but that’s not manipulative.

Back up your arguments – try sending them to SOFII for Jerry Huntsinger’s tutorials. Or read Lisa Sargent, Pamela Grow, Julie Cooper, Sheena Greer, Ann Green, Jeff Brooks, Steven Screen or Tom Ahern.

Too many cooks: say no to committees

You can work upfront with the person who will sign and approve your next appeal.

But do not invite opinions from everyone.

Everyone has their own agenda – and unlike yours, theirs is likely not focused on your donors. Or not focused at all. (Don’t use your P.S. for all the “oh yeah, tell them this!” requests.)

A committee – staff or board – is a surefire way to wreck an appeal.

They are not all donor communications specialists. And they don’t understand the appeal is about donors, not about how they want to present the organization. They’re probably convinced that good arguments win the day.

You know that’s not the case.

A tasty finish: Approval

Since you’ve already helped those who have to approve understand what works, you’re more likely to get that yes.

But here’s the truth – you will rarely get through without some changes. We all make mistakes. Or facts have changed.

So you’ll have to make some changes. Just be careful. Factual errors? Absolutely! The rest? Negotiate and teach. Try to keep the changes to things that won’t ruin the final creation.

Then serve your appeal up to your donors

You’ll learn about your audience when you see your responses.

If it’s just right – to their taste – you’ll see gifts coming in. If you’ve missed, they may pass this time. Learn, try again, do better.

That’s what we all do.

Photo by Diana Polekhina on Unsplash