About 25 years ago, I was present at the creation of a great new fundraising vehicle. It was a new offer in a new medium, and it worked so well, it pushed a small and obscure organization to a new level of revenue and visibility.
Then I went elsewhere and stopped getting inside information.
Years later, I came back into contact with the organization. That amazing old fundraising vehicle barely worked. Only inertia was keeping it alive.
Eventually, they cancelled it, which, sadly, was the right decision. The once-powerful vehicle had become a terrible failure.
What happened? That's exactly what I wanted to know. So I took a close post-mortem look at the project, examining the versions over the years to see if I could discover what had gone wrong: was it the passage of time and changing conditions? Had it run its course as things often do?
I was shocked how different the early versions were from the later ones.
The message had grown more complex. Less emotional. Less relevant. The early versions were relentlessly emotional and obsessively focused on the donors' call to action. The later ones spent a lot of energy explaining why the organization's method of dealing with the problem was so effective. The parts that were about donors had been shunted aside and minimized. It wasted valuable minutes conforming irrelevantly to brand guidelines.
Because I had all the versions, I could watch this terrible train-wreck happen, sort of like a sped-up film of a flower blooming. (But more like a flower un-blooming.)
It happened one minor, harmless revision at a time.
If I'd been there, I wouldn't have liked any one of those revisions, but I wouldn't have been too worried either. Those little changes don't make that much difference. It's not worth fighting against.
The ducks attacked. Every time a new revision was made, they waddled up and took a few pecks. Year after year, they pecked and pecked with their flat duckbills.
If you've been pecked by a duck, you know it's not the worst thing that can happen.
But if enough ducks peck you enough times, they can kill you.
And that's what happened to this once-great fundraising vehicle.
Next time you're asked to make a small, unimportant revision that will make a program director or board member happy, think about those ducks and their relentless, deadly pecking.
It can and will happen to you!
(This post first appeared on July 17, 2013.)
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