Are You Playing It Safe?


My favorite clients are risk-takers. They are bold, inventive, and unafraid of failure. It's exhilarating to work with people like that, even if it does mean that I see my own ideas fail more often than I'd like. But the flip side of that is that when our ideas succeed, they succeed big.

A few years ago, one of my clients tried a new creative team for one mailing, testing their package head-to-head against mine. It didn't feel great that my client was looking around, and I spent a few moments feeling upset. But then I realized that, ultimately, the test would be good for the organization -- and for me. It would show us both what their audience was interested in seeing and how they would respond.

It did end up being a good test, too. I focused on the lessons I'd learned in my years of working in the industry and with that particular client and turned in the best work I could. I knew that regardless of the outcome, it was good for both the organization and for me to conduct the test. (Of course, I did win. Maybe I'd feel different if my package had failed!)

More than all the great internal lessons I learned, though, was the way that one risk turned into more risks, more bold moves, some of which met the same fate as that other creative team's, but more of which went on to break organizational records and build a robust direct mail program that continues to thrive.

Another client is always willing to try something new. They enthusiastically embrace innovation, and they are completely indifferent to failures. They pick up and move on. It's inspirational and so much fun to work on their program.

But so many organizations I encounter refuse to take risks. And I understand -- there's a lot of money on the line. Many organizations depend a great deal on their direct mail income, and one bad mailing could quite literally pull them to the brink of disaster.

But when you play it safe, donors can tell. They can sense you're not the organization that's going to finally make a break-through on your issue. They understand intuitively that you won't be sweeping them along in a bold campaign to make history.

And, really, isn't that part of what philanthropy is about? We give, at least in part, to try to leave the world better than we found it. And those of us who have to consider where every penny goes -- which is the vast majority of your direct mail donor file -- want to give where we feel most confident we can make a difference.

That doesn't mean the flashiest -- though some flash certainly doesn't hurt -- or the biggest name. It means the organization that feels the most authentically bold, daring and out in front. The one that is willing to take big risks in order to garner big wins.

Is that your organization?