The dreaded red pen

Several years ago I was blissfully sailing through my first job in nonprofit development after leaving the cushy offices of a private family foundation.

It was ideal in that I had autonomy as long as I got results…and I GOT RESULTS!

In less than two short years I had increased foundation grant funding by more than 90%, developed a regular column in our weekly community newspaper, single-handedly learned Dreamweaver and gotten our website up and running, spearheaded the founding of a nonprofit roundtable with the local Chamber of Commerce, launched a local health initiative, held several successful community events, and established relationships with the Rotary and area businesses.

Even better?  Our organization’s once disastrous membership campaign had grown by huge leaps and bounds.

All bases covered.

The icing on the cake was I loved my coworkers, I loved our volunteers and I loved my work. It was all perfect.

So, what happened?  Why did I leave the ideal job?

For almost two years I had experienced virtual autonomy with an executive director who was thrilled to defer the fundraising aspect of the organization to someone who knew what they were doing.  The board of directors asked questions and were thoughtful and attentive during meetings – but they didn’t interfere.  What’s more they dutifully put in appearances at events and helped when asked.

And then it happened.

A new executive director arrived on the scene.

One who didn’t take kindly to the P.S.’s in my annual appeal letters or the handwritten notes scribbled into the margins.  Someone who didn’t understand the concept of persuasive copy.  One who insisted on eliminating contractions, along any type of writing that she termed “salesy.”   A lady who was all in my face about the extra costs of segmenting and personalizing our mailings and wanted to know why one “dear friend” letter couldn’t suffice for all.

This despite the, frankly, awesome results.

I can handle constructive criticism.  What I can’t handle is someone who was clueless telling me how to do my job.

Since I’d already picked up a few consulting clients, I packed my bags.

Unfortunately, this ED’s “thinking” is not unique. I have seen it in too many organizations entrenched in the old school, “monkey-see, monkey-do” that seems even more common in nonprofits. Monkey-see, monkey do is a way of maintaining status quo, blending with other organizations in the industry and not making any waves.

Think about it – why try something bold and different and risk ridicule? All you have to do is stay in line with what everybody else is doing and you’ll be safe.

What’s that you say?  “What about results?”

Well, not everyone is driven by results (even though they may claim they are…actions speak louder than words!).

I can hear you now:  “Not want results?  But of course I want results!”

But do you really?

Or are you more concerned about the possibility of your organization’s image being “tarnished” by something a board member might consider undignified?

Are you more content to stay within the confines of what passes as nonprofit marketing for the masses?  Are you content with “monkey-see, monkey-do?”

7 Responses to “The dreaded red pen”

  1. Esther James says:

    Interesting story about the status quo/playing-it-safe barriers that you ran into with the new executive director of this organization. You’ve identified a problem that pervades many nonprofits. It sounds like you were having a lot of fun with this job and like you were making a huge difference for the organization. Their loss; your consulting clients’ gain!

  2. Jules Brown says:

    Great article Pamela. As a fundraising copywriter I’ve felt the sting of that same red pen many times.

    Those of us on the agency/supplier side of the equation survive on the results we get for our clients – so naturally, the clients we love the most are the ones who are bold enough to go with what works, not what feels comfortable.

    The problem comes when management think about how internal audiences will feel about their copy – when the only audience that counts is the donor.

  3. Mary Cahalane says:

    Let’s just say I’m having one of those days when this really resonates. And I’ve also found myself in the past in a very similar situation.

    That ED was nuts to let you go by not letting you go!

  4. Pamela, thanks so much for sharing such a personal story. Often times we are too guarded to speak freely about the negative professional experiences we have had.

    It sounds like she felt the need to impress her personal stamp on the organization. (Sometimes people feel as though they aren’t earning their keep unless they shake up status quo – right or wrong.)

    Personally, I jumped ship into the benefit auction business and launched Red Apple Auctions when life at my corporate job became unbearable. At the time, I just wanted out. Change … any change … seemed grand. And today, I couldn’t be happier!

    I suspect that you might share that attitude. So aren’t you glad – on some level – that she launched you into your wildly successful consulting career?

  5. Pamela Grow says:

    Love your positive outlook and you’re so right Sherry! I think that I was born to be an entrepreneur and she helped to show me that.

  6. Ryan Hyman says:

    Excellent article. Unfortunately, it may not be an executive director who is the problem. There are situations I have found where board members – typically senior members – interfere with our work and disrupt a well oiled fundraising machine.