2 rules changed my career contentment

Notably re-quotable


Destruction and chaos might generate temporary fervor among voters, but it’s building something sustainable that defines a politician. >> ¶“We didn’t get everything we wanted,” Obama said at the White House event announcing an expansion of the Affordable Care Act. “That wasn’t a reason not to do it.” That seemed to be a message not only for members of his party still reeling from their failure to pass the gigantic Build Back Better agenda, but also voters. >> ¶Big, complex problems are not solved perfectly, immediately and permanently. Expectations cannot be too high, or moments of incremental progress will become occasions for grief. [Lifted with a sigh of relief from The Washington Post, April 6, 2022; opinion….]

File under: Surviving the grind

Your “bliss rules” may differ, of course….

Just 2 new rules paved my way to career bliss

I didn’t always have a dreamy client list.

Hey, it wasn’t stinky, either! Don’t get me wrong…

I just had the usual, fumbling “early stage” career … for a couple of baffling decades.

If you’ve survived same, you know what early days are like. You’re unknown. You have bills. You’re one of dozens screaming, “Please, hire me!” There’s a lot of shoving for that first, lowest, “if only someone will give me a chance” rung on the ladder.

But I got WAY lucky a couple of times. And managed to grow into early-stage jobs, thanks to a string of good-to-great bosses (and an unsuspected taste for lifelong learning).

I’ll keep it short: After 5 years leading a successful marketing group for a high-flying international technology firm, I was fired around 1990 (long story; steamy novel, actually) … exiting with a sweet “don’t sue us” severance package which included career counseling … wise counseling (as it turned out) that gave me a new way of looking at the future.

And so I began building my little copy-writing, marketing and (within a decade) training business. Nonprofits were NOT on my radar as clients until 2000. I knew the sector a bit. But it just didn’t seem like a great place to make serious money.

More than 30 years after being fired, yes, I’m financially secure. (Take that, doubters!) But my “security and plunder” phase didn’t happen fast. For 15 years, I was in hard, hard, HARD hustling mode.


Meaning I said YES! to everything. And worshiped any client who paid the invoice promptly.

Still, luck of the Irish: in three decades, just one client stiffed me … and that particular stiffing, which happened soon after I hung out my shingle … itself was worth a fortune: live and learn, you know?

A veteran tip? If you’re a sole practitioner, you might want to stay away from big institutions with rigid purchasing departments. More than once, I’ve waited 6 months for a check from a university. That was their system; they were proud of it. I had bills.


That was then.

Now I do have a dreamy client list.

These are “perfect match” clients. Some are huge, with deep pockets and honestly-earned international reputations. Those clients get charged a fair-market rate … because they can afford it. (If you’re fundraising $700+ million annually in the US … then you can afford us.)

Then there’s pro bono work “for the small yet ambitious.” Since the pandemic darkened the earth, I’ve been doing a lot of that. NEVER be afraid to ask.

Either way, big or small: I love all my current clients. I love talking with them. I love hearing about their triumphs. I love sharpening my sword against their communications challenges.

I also love scheming with them about making our fragile, interconnected, vulnerable and suffering Planet Earth a slightly better, more hopeful place. And I love the team we all make together, the client insiders and us outsiders (me and associates).

For sure: we don’t always agree. But things get sorted and the truly humane don’t pull rank. Any solution to a problem is “teamed.”

By now you might be thinking: “This is Tom’s SHORT version???”

So, OK…..


The 2 rules that changed my career

Rule #1: The Verbatim Rule

Rule #2: Get the Boss to Pinky-Swear

#1 ~ The Verbatim Rule

The Verbatim Rule goes something like this: If you want me to write your next [unusually successful?] direct mail appeal, you first have to agree that you won’t change a word I write. Zero fiddling. And PS? This is NOT for my benefit … this rule protects your results.

I’m trained. You’re not. I may never be the smartest person in the room (the ED or board chair can fight over that trophy) … but I AM probably, by a country mile, the best-trained person in the room re: donor comms; with a spine stiffened by experience and data.

The Verbatim Rule emerged accidentally around 2008.

Because a Memorial-Day appeal I’d written for a hospice had performed beyond expectations, Jim got in touch.

Jim was the (uniquely wonderful, as it turned out) head of annual giving for a southern California hospital system that included the hospice. “Could you write us new appeals that might maybe beat our usual mail-house results?” The mail house was competent and doing OK. But Jim wanted to try a new voice, to see if there was more giving to be had.

As career-builders should, I said YES! instantly … and worried about imposter syndrome later.

It worked out. The results we got over the years for this nonprofit hospital system yielded tens of thousands of new, first-time donors.  Heck, even The New York Times took notice.


And then a few years into this engagement I noticed something weird…

Jim wasn’t changing a word I wrote. If he wanted to change “red” to “green” in my latest appeal, he’d politely ask me if that was OK.

And I thought: “Hmmm…this is different. What does Jim know that I don’t know?”

After all, appeals for other clients (a Michigan United Way jumps to mind … and still requires an anti-anxiety pill) went through review after review, department head after department head, until what had been a straightforward and simple direct-mail letter (“We urgently need you, neighbor, for this good reason…”) became a white paper that resisted response unless you had a graduate degree, days to devote … and a wizard’s conical hat.

So I asked Jim, “Why don’t you meddle?”

He answered, “Why would I hire someone for their track record and skills … and then second-guess their work?” Frankly, he sounded perplexed. The Verbatim Rule was born.

Was he wise or foolish? Note that this same hospital system has raised up to $60 million annually in a recent year from individuals in the community … and that’s not counting capital campaigns.


#2 ~ Get the Boss to Pinky-Swear

Truly, I WILL keep this short. It has to do with the badly broken approval process operating at many NGOs.

So, here’s what happened: The CEO of a national charity gets in touch. She wants a donor newsletter overhaul. I try to recruit a top team.

Lo and behold: anyone who’d worked with this charity in the past swore they would never work with them again.

Sure the charity was great: the work in the field was award-winning, effective and beyond reproach. But the INSIDE approval process was nuts. Incoherent. Counter-productive. Too many cooks in the kitchen trying to protect “the brand.”

So back to this ambitious CEO. She’s horrified to hear the bad news about their approval process. “Look,” I propose, “just give me your pinky swear that we can do whatever we think is best, without question … and we’ll get started.” An email with her eager pinky swear arrived within minutes

The resulting quarterly donor newsletter (the child of many hearts and minds, rowing toward the same goal) now brings in almost half-a-million in gifts … each time it mails. Because of a pinky swear….

It’s important to note (consultants, talking to you!) that a good, frank contract can have the same impact as a pinky-swear.

Dear consultants, BTW: Here’s a useful book recommendation from a fast-rising consulting star, Ashley Belanger >>> The Nonprofit Consulting Playbook: Winning Strategies from 25 Leaders in the Field (In the Trenches). Still in stock on Amazon; ranked 4-star. My chief mentor, Simone Joyaux, wrote two of the chapters.


Working with great clients is a career miracle

If you’re a consultant trying to grow wings (i.e., trying to deliver to NGO missions better fundraising results), you will NOT thrive with just ANY client.

Average clients, stumped clients, cautious clients, all-too-careful clients, ignorant clients, unwilling-to-invest clients, board-and-boss-messed-up clients, clients without a plan … if they DO succeed in the end, it will be SO slowly, almost by mistake. And unpleasant arm-twisting will be required.

As a competent, evolving consultant, you NEED the BEST clients: ones who challenge you; surprise you; who lift you to a shocking new level; who take you orbital, even against your will!

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Immediately available! Just GO here.

Tammy Zonker’s new podcasts (wow)

HERE. If you don’t already know Tammy Z., then let me have the pleasure of introducing you to a top mentor … and one of the most successful, articulate, deeply thoughtful fundraisers in North America. She could be your next mentor, too … right now … for free! ¶¶¶ In Dec. 2021, she launched her new podcast series with a 21-minute deep dive into “5 important lessons I learned in 9 years as a Chief Philanthropy Officer.” Tammy was no ordinary fundraiser, you should know. She was an innovative, transformational rainmaker at The Children’s Center in Detroit, an amazing place founded in 1929. “The Children’s Center stands for family, for healing and for hope. We practice integrated, evidence-based care … care that’s been tried and tested, proven to be effective to help children overcome their challenges and grow into strong, healthy, productive adults.” Other recent Tammy-casts look at cases, thank yous, and setting good goals for a better fundraising 2022. PS: I think you’ll love her. I do….

Before you write a next appeal, read this…

HERE. Mary Cahalane is a FREE on-line classroom (you just have to subscribe to her blog) … with a brilliant, chalk-dusted teacher at the front of the room, encouraging you to new fundraising heights. If I faced a “desert island” challenge, where I could pick just one blog? Right now, Mary’s would be maybe my top choice. (Although the Coopers’ blog runs hard on Mary’s heels … and then, of course, there are Jeff Brooks’ oh-so-solid money-making suggestions … PLUS the science-heavy Agitator.) YES! Mary is THAT good, on so many levels: depth, savvy, ease, intelligence, kindness.

Revisit this checklist every day? (I do.)

HERE. My career in copywriting started with Denny Hatch … although I didn’t know it. Full confession? I’m an ignorant, unwittingly ungrateful SOB. Everyone was quoting Denny … but only sometimes with attribution. I learned from them … and cited them, not Denny. In 2022, I finally realized it was actually Denny behind all their “wisdom.” His ever-updated checklist is the foundation for ALL my fundraising success. He even shares with us the fiery origin-story of checklists!

FYI: A new DV charity I just heard of/gave to

HERE. The mission? “Across the United States, countless individuals experience sexual violence resulting in hospitalization. And after so many hours of being subjected to an intrusive sexual assault examination, victims are often discharged from the hospital wearing uniform scrubs or hospital gowns due to their clothing being collected for evidence. Although a much needed step in the investigative process, this treatment is very cold and invasive to a person who’s just experienced sexual violence. The mission of Haven Box is to provide that human element of comfort that is very much needed after a victim has gone through this process.” SO in.