TRIBUTE | Long Live Emerson & Church

publication date: Jan 24, 2024
author/source: Tom Ahern

If you're a lifelong learner and a fundraiser in North America, you probably own one or more how-to books published by Emerson & Church (E&C). My favorites are dog-eared, highlighted, gaudy with Post-it notes. With heavy use, over time, the spines break.

The evidence in my hand at this moment? Roger Craver's Retention Fundraising. What a mess I've made of it since its publication in 2014. (Roger updated and refreshed it in 2023)

And what a unique, money-making book it is, "based on a three-year study of donor retention and commitment among 250-plus nonprofits in the U.S. and the U.K." You can absorb it with pleasure in an hour or two ... and never encounter a word of jargon. What DO McDonald's milkshakes have to do with keeping your donors longer? Roger explains the science.

Founded in 2003, Emerson & Church was a two-person labor of love. Jerry Cianciolo and Kathy Brennan met at the Boston office of the American Cancer Society. They started a how-to newsletter for fundraisers around 1986, enticing world-class experts like the U.K's Ken Burnett to write articles. Eventually Kathy and Jerry got married; raised a daughter, Laura.

Then in 2003, they made the "huge" leap into book publishing ... and right away delivered two best-sellers to the nonprofit world: Asking by Jerry Panas and Fundraising Realities Every Board Member Must Face by David Lansdowne (Jerry Cianciolo's pen name).

Hospitals would call for 100 copies. Five hundred copies would fly out the door ... from little old (very old; settled 1630) Medfield, Massachusetts.

Over their nearly two-decade run, Kathy and Jerry sold something like US$7 million in "quick to read, no nonsense, expert-written" how-to books.

That's a lot of influence and advice injected into a rapidly emerging and advancing fundraising profession. Over the same period roughly, in the U.S. alone, the number of tax-sanctioned nonprofits more than doubled, to more than 1.5 million causes ... for a population of 330 million ... which amounts to about one charity for every 220 people. I'm guessing Canada's ratios were similar over that period ... as were the U.K.'s, Australia's, New Zealand's, Ireland's. Bottom line: too many charities in the English-speaking world ... matched with too few donors.

Expertise mattered a lot.

The need for proven, plain-spoken fundraising advice was desperate. A black hole. Emerson & Church tried to plug that black hole.

But by 2023 Kathy and Jerry had done all they could. They were ready to retire, after decades of groundbreaking work. They struck a deal with Hilborn, to transfer the rights to E&C books. E&C authors were delighted. It was never much about the money. It was about staying in print, sticking around to teach a next generation ... something.

Long live Emerson & Church ... via Hilborn. Jerry Cianciolo died on December 28th, 2023, of complications resulting from aggressive prostate cancer.


Jerry who? you might ask....

You're not alone. Many Emerson & Church authors found Jerry elusive, a mystery.

They wanted to chat with him. He didn't do a lot of phone calls with authors.

They wanted to meet him in person; maybe take Kathy and him to dinner and celebrate! No dinner or in-person visit ever happened as far as I can tell. Kay Sprinkel Grace, one of E&C's best-selling authors: "I tried. I was in Boston from the West Coast. Couldn't make it happen."

Influential E&C author, Jeff Brooks, one of the best direct-mail fundraisers on earth, wondered: "Question to all: Did anyone here ever meet Jerry in person? Or speak with him on the phone? (I never did either, despite really trying to do both for many years.)"

E&C author, Harvey McKinnon, a top-selling Canadian-based master of specialties like monthly giving, admitted: "Like everyone else, I did not have the privilege of meeting Jerry in person...."

You get the picture.

Now, on the other hand, if you lived in Medfield, Massachusetts and walked a dog, you might daily encounter Jerry and his Norfolk terrier, Dewey. They walked together many miles. In that framework, Jerry was gregarious. Until his knees gave out, he liked to run. I once said that I was depressed. He countered: "When I'm depressed, I run 15 miles." It remains for me a goal line of sorts.


The New York Times called Tom Ahern one of the country's most sought-after creators of fundraising messages. He's also a hugely popular trainer, introducing fundraisers around the world to the secrets of persuasion and donor-centricity. “What Your Donors Want...and Why!” is his latest and most impassioned book.

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