Inside Philanthropy

A blog on philanthropy and nonprofit news and issues. A publication of Philanthropy Journal.

August 14, 2013

Do you really talk like that?



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Ann Green

Imagine that you are donor, and you receive a newsletter from a nonprofit organization that you support. As you read it, you come across phrases like "generate social capital" and "culture-focused projects." Does that make you want to read more or put it aside and go on to your next piece of mail?

One of the keys to good writing is to be conversational. Many nonprofit communications (newsletters, fundraising letters, etc.) are not conversational and tend to be impersonal and abstract.

Don't worry. It's easy to fix this. Here are a few ways to make your writing more conversational.

Write in the second person
 
Refer to your reader as you and your organization as we. Since you want to be donor-focused, use you more than we.

Write as if you are talking to a friend. You may want to create donor personas to help you with that, as Taylor Corrado suggests in How to Develop Donor Personas for Your Nonprofit.

Ditch the jargon
 
Most industries have some type of insider language. I think people like to use it because it makes them feel like they are in the know.

The problem is when this language starts creeping into your fundraising letters and newsletter articles. Terms like capacity building and direct service don't mean anything to most of your donors. Personally, I'd like to see nonprofit folks stop using jargon so much among themselves.

I found the examples cited above in a nonprofit newsletter I recently received. I'm not sure what this organization is trying to convey when they say "generate social capital." Are they talking about economic benefits or community building?

Donors want specific examples of how you are making a difference by helping homeless families find affordable housing or showing how your tutoring program boosts kids' reading skills.

The culture-focused project referred to students creating a flag from their "country of origin."  Why not tell a story about Sarah and Maria's experience working on this project and include some quotes from the girls?

If you are not sure you are using jargon, this might help: Jargon Finder

Don't use the passive voice
 
I'm not a fan of the passive voice. It weakens your writing, and if you use it in a conversation, you sound pretentious.

Instead of saying "200,000 meals were served at the Riverside Community Food Bank," say, "Thanks to you (remember your donor) we served 200,000 
meals .... ."

Use strong, active verbs, and limit passive verbs (is, was) as much as possible.

Back to school
 
Many major newspapers write at a sixth to eighth grade level, and so should you. This is not dumbing down; you are making your stories easy to read and understand. When you use big words, you are confusing and alienating your readers.

The Flesch Kinkaid tool in the review section of Word can be helpful. It gives you readability statistics, the number of passive sentences and grade level.

Make this a priority
 
Your writing needs to be conversational so you can create clear and engaging messages.

You might want to read your letter/article out loud, or have someone outside your organization look at it. I don't always like to recommend multiple editors, and perhaps this is one of the reasons for flat writing, but what may be clear to you might not make sense to others.

Keep all this is mind as you start to craft your fall annual appeal letters and thank you letters.

Your donors are busy and receive messages from a variety of sources besides yours. Make your letter, email message, or social media post something they will take the time to read.

Ann Green is a Massachusetts-based communications consultant who works with nonprofit organizations on all types of communications needs.

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