I almost walked out. My first impression was, “This is the worst general session at any DMA conference I’ve ever attended.” And I’ve attended a few.
The guy seemed nice enough, but he was talking about dead cowboys buried on a hill in rural Texas. Guys who shot each other for no good reason. Texas terrain with the longest bluff in the nation and someone I never heard of by the name of Cal Farley. He played football but finally excelled at wrestling.
I was dumbfounded. Where was all this going? And did I possibly care?
It took a while, but Dan Adams, president/CEO of Cal Farley’s Boys Ranch
, finally put everything in context. He gave the history of the 70-year-old ranch he presides over near Amarillo. And a biography of the founder — a businessman and entrepreneur with a big heart for kids on the street.
Cal Farley knew how to make things happen. And he also knew how to network with people of influence to expand his reach beyond what one person, no matter how gifted, could possibly accomplish. People like Bob Hope and Roy Rogers — bigger-than-life stars who are “gone but not forgotten,”just like the cowboys in the hillside cemetery.
The story of the ranch’s history was fascinating. But even more impressive was the presenter, current president of the privately run and funded nonprofit children’s home. He spoke with a Texas twang. What could be more appropriate? And he wore cowboy boots branded with the “BR” (Boys Ranch) ID that every young man receives upon graduation from the ranch’s high school. But most amazingly, his heart was immersed in both the history and the mission of the ranch. Dan carries the same passion that the founder carried to his grave. (Cal died in the backseat pew of the ranch chapel during a service he planned.) I have no doubt Dan will also devote the remainder of his career to the ranch. It’s just who he is.
Talk about branding! I don’t even like Texas (it’s too hot, dry and flat), but I’m sold on the soul of Cal Farley’s Boys Ranch. And to a creative director whose career started in writing, Dan seems like the perfect client. After all, he started his presentation with the perfect scenario for a fundraising writer: “The president’s job is to tell the story; the writer’s job is to make it readable.” And Dan tells a powerful story.
Sure, fundraising copy techniques are important in communication and effectiveness. We know how to get a response. But the tricks of the trade work so much better when they are encapsulating the heart and voice of a real, unique and memorable person. — the words and phrases, even a little twang, but most importantly, the heart.
Skillfully, Dan did all that with the history of the ranch, but he didn’t leave me in the past. He moved into present reality by recalling how the ranch staff recently responded to the latest tragedy involving children in Texas. When the state evacuated kids from the Mormon cult compound suspected of sexual abuse of minors and polygamy in 2009, the ranch made room for more than 70 of the boys. Dan’s storytelling was captivating as he pictured the hungry, frightened boys at their moment of crisis — and of the ranch opening its arms, beginning with a country meal of fried chicken and biscuits.
Of course, the ranch didn’t have budget to keep 70 additional children. But that’s its mission, so they did it anyway, getting the overwhelming donor response they needed for this extra effort.
What a story! Any writer would itch for the opportunity to share that kind of passion. The brand hasn’t changed in 70 years. Rescuing needy boys. Giving them a bed, good food, and teaching them to work and play. Building productive men out of boys who otherwise could easily turn out badly. Those roots endure.
Cal Farley is long gone. He died in 1967. Yet the simple black-and-white photo Dan closed with nailed it for me. It pictured an older woman opening envelopes. Turns out, it was Cal’s daughter Genie. She’s been processing the checks sent in by donors for decades. Talk about tying your history to your present. This rustic photo screamed authenticity, credibility, commitment, tradition and continuing compassion. And what an unspoken promise! Cal’s daughter is going to open the gift envelope I send to the ranch. For me, and I suspect for most donors, that’s seen as an added bonus for supporting the Ranch.
Deep roots are what make the story of Cal Farley’s Boys Ranch so engaging and memorable. Picture it: a little boy sitting on the back of a pony on the Texas prairie, happy, content and oozing of “just plain good.” What part of that don’t you want to support?
Ultimate success in fundraising comes from a great story told in a compelling way with a simple, clear, quantifiable offer. Make the recipient say, “I can do that!” and “I want to do that!”
Thanks, Dan, for reminding me of the importance of deep roots and a brand that wears boots. Robert. Zawoysky is executive creative director at Masterworks (masterworks.com). Reach him at RZawoysky@masterworks.com