Learning from those “you know better” moments

Another story from CFC member and fundraising copywriter, Alan Kravitz, who learned a good lesson about something to watch out for when you do pro bono work.

I don’t know about you, but I learn more from my mistakes than I do from my successes. I think it’s because my mother’s “I know you know better” tape is on constant replay in my brain. 

I had one of those “you know better” moments last week. I had spoken with one of my clients about writing what I thought was a fundraising letter (more on that in a minute). So I start writing the letter. And damn, things were going so well. I knew what my client wanted and I was delivering both creatively and effectively. Then I ran into said client and – with a mile-wide smile and bated breath – told him I couldn’t wait to send him the fundraising letter.

To which he quickly replied that it’s a membership drive letter – not a fundraising letter. Oops. Ever so diplomatically, I told him I was absolutely sure this was supposed to be a fundraising letter. And ever so diplomatically, he told me he never said that. 

Right away, I realized I should have known better. My mistake was not the misunderstanding. We’re all human, and we all have those occasionally. It was the fact that, before I began the letter, I did not put anything in writing. All I had were my memories of our conversation, and since my client’s memories were obviously different, my own recollections weren’t really worth much. If I wanted to stay on his good side (and I did), it was back to square one for me, with time and treasure down the toilet.

Boy, did I hear my mother in my head when I realized that. Now if there was one tiny saving grace, it’s that this letter was a volunteer project for an organization that my client and I both care a lot about. If money was changing hands, my client might have been a lot more upset. But a project is a project, and for me, time is money – even when there’s no money. 

So I licked my mental wounds, said some loud mea culpas to myself and went back to my computer. But did I start on Draft 2 right away? No, no, no. I sent my client a detailed written agreement, just as I would for a paying project. And I told him I would start on the next draft only after he approved the agreement – which he did right away. And by the way, that agreement still included estimated hours on my part, even though this is pro bono. I want my client to understand my commitment to the project.

This story has a happy ending – a lesson learned; a client relationship saved. What lessons have you learned from your “you know better” moments?