What, I wonder, would old George have made of this?
I think I know. All his working life George Smith was a committed, outspoken, at times vitriolic enemy of lazy, sloppy thinking of the kind that leads to shoddy writing, in all its forms. So I feel the ghost of George beaming at me as with no planning or forethought but picking each word with affection and care I take time from my busy day to write this blog.
Today I received a letter from a major charity, a vigorous fundraiser. Its opening line stopped me.
‘Dear Mr Burnett,’ the writer said. ‘I’d like to say a big thank you for giving your full support to the XXXXX charity’s campaigns to (generally, make the world a better place). Your tireless dedication means we were able to (make that world an even warmer, friendlier, safer place for some little ones). I wish you could see for yourself the difference this is making.’
I thought she should then go on to say, ‘I’d like to say all that Burnett you weasel but, as you well know, I can’t because Cuthbertson in Data Processing has told me that, miserable, tight-fisted skinflint that you are, you haven’t given as much as a red cent to us these last two years at least. Think of the thousands of sad, disappointed little faces that have suffered since because of you, you mean selfish old git.’
That at least would have been true, and justified. Plus ample use of the you word, to boot. I might have been reactivated.
But the letter said nothing of the kind. Instead, having sucked up to me with transparent nonsense and sprayed around entirely gratuitous thanks and congratulations, the writer went on, clumsily, to ask me for even more money.
Sadly she had lost me already, even before I got to the bit that said, ‘…it’s up to people like you and I to do what we can’. That should be ‘such as you and me’, you numbskull. You don’t say, ‘…people like I.’ Do you? As had ever been inevitable, the piece, the hopes of its author now in tatters, was consigned casually to the bin, which despite its doubtless considerable cost is all it deserved. But not before I’d copied its opening paragraph.
OK, I’ve changed the text slightly (the bits in parenthesis) to protect the guilty. But ‘tireless dedication’? Come on. ‘The difference I’m making.’ Really? I’ve given them precisely nothing. Truth is I don’t even apply tireless dedication to the monthly chore of sending out invoices. And that act does make a difference, believe me.
It’s not that I don’t appreciate thanks and congratulation. Au contraire I’m convinced that as a profession we don’t do that nearly often or enthusiastically enough. But these days if you are personalising appeal letters there is no excuse for not writing to people accurately, at least with regard to the recency, frequency and value of their giving. It isn’t just good sense and politeness to get this right. It’s our duty to the donor.
My point here is simple. We have to get better at what we say when we write to donors. A lot better. If this were a rare and singular exception I’d have let it go. It isn’t. We all know it isn’t.
So, fundraisers, must try harder. Perhaps if we did we might start to reverse the appalling attrition statistics that plague our industry and all its endeavours.
The thing is, words are precision tools each with distinct, specific meanings. They should be assembled together with care and consideration, not gummed in strips as if interchangeable or sprayed around with seeming abandon regardless of their combined effect.
Get it right and the power of words is the power to transform. Get it wrong and you unleash the power to piss off, big time.
Having calmed down a bit now (a whisky helps) I’ll still post this rant. Because even if it offends, it should be said. And I think it would please George.
© Ken Burnett 2012