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Reconciling Ahern: A critical look at what grant writers can (and can't) learn from direct mail

At the 2017 GPA Conference, keynote speaker Tom Ahern argued that grant writers could learn a lot from direct-mail fundraising and research into human compassion. Using a simple bar chart, he showed that a description of a single, identifiable person in need will raise twice as much money as a description of a generalized, statistical population with the same need. That made sense, but the third bar on that chart was puzzling: It showed that combining the two descriptions - both the individual and the statistical together - was less successful, with results similar to the statistical description all by itself.

In other words, statistics seem to spoil an emotional appeal.

My proposed session picks up where that slide left off, starting with these two questions:

1. Can that chart really be applied to grant writing? The research studies are good simulations of direct-mail fundraising, but maybe grant reviews work differently. This session will revisit the research studies and explore whether and how they apply to grant reviews.

2. How can we apply the research to grant writing? After all, the statement of need, evidence-based interventions, and logic models are not optional. This session will provide examples of how to integrate emotional appeals with essential statistics, and how larger groups can become personified.

Session participants will:
1. Become familiar with the "identifiable victim effect" or "compassion fade" as described in psychology research.
2. Learn how direct-mail and e-mail fundraisers have used this research.
3. Discuss the differences between the audiences in direct mail fundraising and grant writing.
4. Explore how those differences place limits on the applicability of compassion fade research to grant writing.
5. Take away concrete examples of how to incorporate emotional appeals into grant applications.

GPC Competencies Addressed:
How to craft, construct, and submit an effective grant application 
Methods and strategies that cultivate and maintain relationships between fund-seeking and recipient organizations and funders 
Practices and services that raise the level of professionalism of grant developers 

Shane Pekny is a full-time grant writer for Boys Town. Previously, he worked for Habitat for Humanity, Goodwill Industries, and the University of Nebraska Omaha. He has managed volunteers, trained high school dropouts in construction, and taught English composition. He currently serves as a member of the Bennington, Nebraska, City Council. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism and a master's degree in English. His creative nonfiction has appeared in Nebraska Life, Vox, and at