Last month, we lost one of the giants of fundraising, and my fundraising mentor: Bob Screen.
If you haven’t heard of him, it’s because retired a while ago and has little online presence. But if you’re over a certain age, you’ve heard of him. And you probably know him as a leading figure who helped make direct-response fundraising effective and knowledge-driven like it had not been before. He was especially a pioneer in direct mail and long-form broadcast fundraising.
I met him in the late 80s when I become a copywriter at his fundraising agency, Screen Communications. I had slim experience writing fundraising, but he hired me anyway.
This is the part of my professional journey that I rarely share the details about. I make it sound quick, easy, almost magical. Like: “I struggled in fundraising, then I found a mentor, and everything came together for me.”
That’s true, but it doesn’t reveal quite how it went. It was difficult. Sometimes painful. And it took a long time.
Here’s how my mentor worked with me:
I’d write a project for one of our clients and route it to him. He’d call me into his office, where he’d be waiting with my project (On paper; no email yet!) and a very sharp pencil.
He’d go through the project almost word by word, crossing things out, circling things, scribbling notes … and most importantly, explaining what he was doing and why.
I probably learned more about effective fundraising in one sitting like this than is possible at a whole quality fundraising conference.
But it was far from easy. I didn’t always get it first time around. I routinely repeated mistakes that I learned not to make. Bob never let those mistakes ride. Second time, third time … he’d raise the temperature of his corrections and the importance of the principle behind it.
Here’s the thing: any piece of information, no matter how useful, does not become your own until you’ve used it several times.
It’s necessary to screw up a few times in order to learn.
That doesn’t make it any less embarrassing.
There were times when I would have chewed off my leg to escape. I think you’d have felt the same way.
But it was effective. And over time I internalized hundreds of techniques and truths about fundraising, and became better and better at applying those odd and often counterintuitive truths to new situations.
More important, Bob Screen transmitted a mindset that made it possible to keep on learning. Things like:
You are not the donor. Writing in a way you find persuasive is not a dependable strategy. Get outside of your own head.
Offer! Always have a specific, compelling, simple call to action for your donors.
Write with energy. If you want to get through with your message, no project is ever “routine.”
Mindset is everything, because conditions change. If all you know are techniques, you’ll fall farther behind every year.
These things are gifts that have supported my career in the decades since.
The power of having a mentor — one who will stick with you in that awkward “adolescent” stage, where you’ve learned things, but don’t yet apply them consistently.
It’s not easy. Sometimes not fun. But it’s the greatest professional gift you can receive.
So I join many others who faced the sharp-pencil Bob Screen critiques in saying Thank you and Good bye to a giant.
Robert Screen 1940 – 2021 Everlasting Memory
Thank you, Jeff, for doing a brilliant job capturing so many of the themes my Dad taught – themes that are familiar (I hope!) to longtime readers: that every word matters, that you are going to screw up in order to learn, that you are not the donor, and to have a clear offer.
That approach – that “mindset” as Jeff calls it – is what I was blessed to receive and what this blog is attempting to pass on.
There’s a final thing to mention. The “sharp-pencil critiques.” My Dad reviewed my copy the same way; word by word, explaining the principles behind the edits, and never letting a mistake ride. He was a hard guy to work for.
And this is the pencil sharpener he used to sharpen all those pencils. I took this picture when it was on his desk, next to one of his favorite pencils (Dixon Ticonderoga 1388 2 5/10, of course).
As I write this post, the pencil sharpener is on my desk. It’s a great reminder to pay attention to every word.
Not because the “writing” must be great.
But because the right ideas, in the right order, arranged so that they break through into the donor’s life, can change the world one gift at a time. And then thousands of gifts at a time.