Perfect is the Enemy of Good

The 18th century French writer and philosopher Voltaire wrote, “Perfect is the enemy of good.” Whether he originated the sentiment or was referencing an earlier Italian proverb, Voltaire’s powerful observation is one that remains relevant for today’s fundraising professionals.

While it’s certainly understandable that fundraisers strive for perfection in cultivation, solicitation, and acknowledgement, the reality is that that quest is problematic for several reasons, including:

1.  Perfection is unattainable. There is good. There is excellent. However, perfect does not exist. W. Edwards Deming, the father of Total Quality Management, believed in a process of never-ending improvement. Seeking improvement is very different from seeking unattainable perfection.

2.  If you wait until you have developed the mythical perfect cultivation piece, appeal, or acknowledgement, the reality is you will never deploy your message. Sir Robert Watson-Watt, who developed early warning radar in Britain to counter the rapid growth of the German Luftwaffe during World War II, stated, “Give them the third best to go on with; the second best comes too late; the best never comes.” Releasing a good or excellent message is far better than never releasing a near-perfect communication.

3.  Seemingly near-perfect communications do not necessarily work any more effectively than less ideal messaging. Let me explain.

The way to cut grass perfectly is not exactly the best way to a nice lawn.

The way to cut grass perfectly is not exactly the best way to a nice lawn.

I have a client, an international social service agency. A few months ago, one of the organization’s fundraisers traveled to Central America to meet with an affiliate agency and see, first-hand, how services were being delivered. Immediately upon returning to headquarters, the fundraiser sent emails to her key major and planned gift donors and prospects. Attached to the emails were a few snapshots she took during her trip.

In response to the cultivation emails, the fundraiser received a number of thank-you messages from recipients. How often do your donors and prospects thank you for cultivating them?

I believe that the emails and snapshots were effective for a number reasons including:

  • The email message was timely. Emails were sent within days of the fundraiser’s return from the field.
  • The email was completely unexpected and a pleasant surprise that undoubtedly made recipients feel special.
  • The email was informal rather than part of a more formal and fancier email newsletter. This made the communication more personal.
  • The snapshots were not slick, professional photographs. Again, this conveyed a more personal, genuine feeling. In addition, it sent the message that the organization doesn’t waste money on professional photographers when simple snapshots will do.
  • Overall, the email and snapshots essentially told donors and prospects, “I went to Central America to make sure your donation is being well spent. I thought of you. I want to provide you with information and images that will be meaningful to you.” That kind of service and thoughtfulness resonates with supporters.

My client could have invested in a more slick communication. She could have diverted precious resources to hire a professional photographer. She could have put together a professional looking e-newsletter or even a printed program report. The result would have been a beautiful communication that would likely have been less effective. It would have looked like so many other generic communications people receive and easily ignore. It would have cost more money. It would have been less timely. It would have been less personal. It would likely have been less effective.

Instead of striving for perfection, the fundraiser sought effectiveness. Her effort paid off.

When communicating with prospects and donors:

  • Be genuine.
  • Be timely.
  • Provide information and images that will be meaningful.
  • Be personal.
  • Don’t worry about being fancy. Worry about being effective.

I could have delayed publishing this post until I assembled more information and edited the piece for brevity, better clarity, and improved readability. But, I won’t, after all: “Perfect is the enemy of good.” Instead, I strongly encourage you to read Mary Cahalane’s post “Are You Too Pretty to Work?”  at Hands on Fundraising. In her post, Mary shares additional insights on the subject as well as some terrific links to articles by folks such as Jeff Brooks and Tom Ahern who have shared their thoughts about “ugly fundraising.

That’s what Michael Rosen says… What do you say?

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11 Responses to “Perfect is the Enemy of Good”

  1. Thanks, Michael. Someone I know used to say “sometimes done is better than perfect.” And sometimes, that’s just right.

  2. So true! And as a recovering perfectionist, I should know. Postponing an action until the underlying components are perfect means there’s no action — and many times the action is actually more important than the content. (Think of writing a thank-you note to grandma — she is probably far more concerned that you got her gift and appreciate it than what your note might actually say. Don’t be sloppy, of course, but action tends to beget more action, and action leads to results. Excellent post!

    • Mark, thank you for your comment. I appreciated hearing from a fellow recovering perfectionist. In Future Fundraising Now, Jeff Brooks wrote, “Ugly works. Tacky works. Corny, embarrassing, and messy all work. In print or in digital.” Yes, avoid foolish errors, but take action. As you’ve stated, “… action leads to results.”

  3. How true, one of your best posts yet. I’m providing a link for my wife. 🙂

  4. Good insights on how to to be personal and show love to donors, partners, etc

  5. It’s common sense when you think about it – thanks for making me think about it! Now I won’t feel bad when I just copy and paste a few photos into a Word document instead of asking our graphic designer to make it beautiful.

    • Jolene, thank you for commenting. Yes, it is common sense. Much of what I write about is common sense. When it becomes common practice, I’ll stop writing about it. I’m glad my post resonated with you. Just remember, graphic designers need to eat, too. 🙂

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