The state of the world has made us want to connect with more of you, more often. For the rest of 2020, the Campbell & Company Communications team is sharing a new article every week that explores a topic in case development and fundraising communications, drawn from our work.
Whether it’s thinking about how to approach fundraising communications against the backdrop of current events or tackling an evergreen challenge we see time and time again in nonprofits across the sector, these articles focus on practical tips to empower fundraising leaders in their day-to-day work. Subscribe to the series here.
Language is admittedly subjective.
And perhaps you’re ready to defend the maxim that any writing decision is best when it's informed by the particular audience, medium, or context at hand. (I get it—my college English professor's pleas to "Consider your audience!" are ringing in my ears to this day.)
But in the nonprofit sector, some verbs really are better than others.
And if you’re scratching your head, hear me out!
For everyone out there who owns an "I ❤️ Active Voice" t-shirt like me, it’s easy to agree that focusing on verbs generally makes your writing stronger. Consider the difference between two sentences you might find in an environmental organization’s annual report:
- “Together, we offered protection to wild lands.”
- “Together, we protected wild lands.”
Each sentence says roughly the same thing, with degrees of specificity or precision. But in any given sentence, readers intuitively seek out the action—the “what’s happening here.”
And above, especially for environmentally conscious readers who feel a sense of urgency around the threats of climate change, “protecting” is a more valuable action than the more abstract notion of “offering.” It's fair to say the verb in Sentence A is obfuscating the most important action of the sentence. How unnecessary! How tragic!
Plenty of folks make strong arguments about the need to keep things concise or simple (even us folks at Campbell & Company). To me, these arguments are directly related to the all-too-common problem of writing around—rather than directly using—actions that matter to readers.
So yes, language is subjective. But verbs are the tools we use to convey what’s actually happening in our sector, and using them thoughtfully can be the difference between a strong message that motivates a donor and a brochure that finds its way to the trash can (or hopefully, in the case above, at least the recycling bin).
Unpacking the Four Verbs
All verbs are not created equal, especially when we’re using them to fundraise.
This list gathers a few of the verbs that we’ve seen hold the power to clarify, excite, or motivate donors in the service of impact. Here we go!
In the nonprofit sector, “imagine” is regrettably overused. (There’s a good chance you’ve heard of a museum or a school embarking on “The Imagine Campaign” before.)
But it’s popular for good reason.
When we imagine, we’re thinking about what might be rather than what is. The ideal rather than the actual. It’s an exciting headspace to occupy, especially when you’re trying to nail that vision statement, but it’s also the activity that we were implored to do as children. “Use your imagination!” This is hollered when we need to solve an obvious problem, but it’s also a very legitimate way we go about problem-solving.
When working with nonprofits, I appreciate “imagine” verbiage because it’s dynamic. Not only good for describing the impact of a facility or a program:
“In our new makerspaces, students will imagine new solutions and have the tools to start building them.”
But also quite effective as an invocation to think big:
“Imagine a museum that’s built for tomorrow’s world.”
Other verbs in the imperative form such as “discover,” “listen,” or “join” (see below), operate similarly—speaking directly to the donor or volunteer, and giving the instruction to do something important. Three cheers for powerful command verbs!
Synonyms/Runners Up: Discover, Explore
My colleagues and I often talk about the importance of “writing in images,” or using words that can help the reader visualize what’s going on. Of all the images out there, the process of building something is, to me, one of the most evocative.
Organizations can write about building momentum, building networks, building resilience, even building … a building, and in all cases, the reader is called to consider individual parts that make up a whole.
In one of my favorite resources, the Frameworks Institute discusses the importance of framing well-being in the human services sector as something that’s built and regularly cared for. They write that by “comparing an abstract idea [like personal wellness] to something concrete and familiar [such as a physical construction], metaphors make something that is hard to understand easier to understand.” *Anthony snaps eagerly.*
When working with nonprofits, I like to introduce “build” when there is some sort of end goal in mind that will require collaboration to achieve (and maintenance to sustain). It’s an image that’s both broadly recognizable and relevant to much of the programming organizations undertake.
Synonyms/Runners Up: Grow, Create
A few years ago, I was working with one of our beloved theater clients, who, right before my eyes, tore the verb “empower” to shreds. An organization cannot empower people because a person’s “power” is inherent; implying that power is bestowed or granted to people is misleading at best, and irresponsible at worst in that it reinforces the “othering” of individuals who receive services.
It was a forceful critique and I took it to heart; the verb didn’t show up in my writing for a while. At least until I started thinking about it in a different context.
As I’ve continued to work across sectors, the verb “empower” has emerged to me as a critical concept to describe not what organizations do for people, but what philanthropic support—whether it’s time or money—can do for an organization.
Without the people and resources to organize around it, a mission is nothing more than a good idea. The support of donors and volunteers not only signals a mission’s legitimacy, but in many cases, it also helps literally keep the lights on and allows the organization to focus on what’s important.
I’m surprised by how many organizations can benefit from verbs like empower to describe the impact of gifts:
“By giving to this campaign, your support will empower us to create an intimate black box theater that will catalyze artistic innovation in our community.”
“In 2019, your support empowered our fight to help women step up as political leaders all over the country.”
Of course, there are plenty of synonyms that function similarly—the key idea is to find the verb constructions that can clearly express the relationship between individual effort and the outcome of coordinated action.
Synonyms/Runners Up: Enable, Ensure
Remember six paragraphs ago when I was gushing over command verbs? Well here’s the pick for my favorite—the verb that shows up most consistently in the work I do for organizations.
A bit common? Yes. On the simple side of things? Well keep in mind, we think this is a good thing. The main reason I keep coming back to this verb for fundraising communications is the unique experience it creates. When a health sciences educator is delivering their case for support and must make an appeal to take action, they might say:
“Join us as we change the face of American healthcare—and the fate of our communities.”
It’s easy for nonprofit communications to get bogged down by extended descriptive language. By calling on the reader to join your movement, initiative, or campaign, you are creating a real, decision-making moment in which a donor or volunteer is being asked to opt-in to your vision.
In contrast to other, more literal appeals (think, “donate now” or “please consider making a gift”), “join” verbiage also asserts the collective nature of giving. Instead of something we do in isolation, the gift of time or money fits into a bigger system—of staff, volunteers, donors, and all individuals who engage with the organization—that works together to bring the organizational mission to life.
In other contexts, the idea of joining something (like a club or a board) might feel exclusive, so asking folks to join something warrants some care. But when used to evoke movements that are broad in scope and inclusive in nature, asking someone to join can be the very appeal that puts a plan in motion.
Runner Up: Let’s [insert verb] together
Are the world’s four best fundraising verbs the solution to all your communications challenges? (*Anthony shakes his head.*) Are you already dreaming about the monumental success of your, “Imagine Build Empower” campaign? (Please stop!)
Unfortunately, even the most carefully selected words do not guarantee a successful annual fund, major giving program, or capital campaign. What ultimately matters is how they activate meaning through conversations with partners and donors.
But that doesn’t mean we should stop thinking about the words that work well. In the nonprofit space, the best verbs paint pictures, clarify opportunities, and point to the bigger picture. By finding the right ones for your brochures, appeals, reports, and presentations, you’ll be met with a more informed, more motivated network of supporters.
Just imagine the possibilities!