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Building Consensus Without Writing by Committee


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Once you’ve labored through long weeks of work on your case statement, your campaign brand, or your annual report, and you finally arrive at a full draft that you and your core collaborators feel great about…congratulations! You’re at mile 13.

The second half of the marathon is committee review—our sector’s Olympic sport. Because we value consensus and inclusion, we put most significant organizational communications through an extensive process of committee review with staff and volunteers.

So it is that a typical campaign brand goes through 4 to 7 distinct rounds of presentation; a case for support gets reviewed by 10 to 20 different people; and heaven help you if you’re doing brand work.

After taking hundreds of projects through thousands of committee reviews over the last decade, here is what we’ve learned. Call it the Three Great Tendencies of Committee Review:

  • It makes ideas better. Other people see things you don’t and raise questions you didn’t think of to help clarify your thinking and refine the core ideas you’re trying to communicate. The most effective and strategically sound communications are invariably the work of multiple minds.
  • It makes important relationships stronger. The invitation to help shape your communications connects advancement and program staff, builds a culture of philanthropy in your organization, and engages and energizes your volunteer leaders. These outcomes are often as valuable as the final product itself. Anyone you want to feel ownership of your message should have the chance to shape it.
  • It makes writing worse. Not all the time, but often enough that we have a name for it—“writing by committee”—which we all agree we don’t want to do, but also can’t seem to escape. Somehow a room full of smart people making little edits here and there—many of them helpful, most of them reasonable in isolation, repeated enough times—can turn a cohesive draft into a dog’s breakfast.

Is this our ineluctable fate? Two cheers for committee review and seven clauses in every sentence that makes it to print?

Or is there a way to approach the review process so you get the good without the bad?

Usually there is. Here’s what we’ve learned.

Understanding the Challenges

It’s helpful to go in understanding the challenges that arise in a typical review process:

Your actual audience is rarely present.

Your staff and board aren’t the actual people you’re hoping to engage and move—but they’re the people reviewing the drafts. A diverse range of community voices is often missing.

Staff reviewers know too much.

They can’t see your organization the way a layperson audience will because they’re inside it and full of intricate knowledge about it—and they often try to add value by adding content and complexity.

Volunteer feedback must be honored but can be challenging to manage.

Volunteers are invaluable as a friendly proxy for your external donor audience, and their input frequently helps you push your work to the greatest impact. When they give their time to review your work in progress, you owe it to them to interpret it thoughtfully and honor it in application—but the relationship considerations and power dynamics sometimes make it difficult to manage their input in proportion with others’.

Reviewers don’t read things the way your audience will.

Reviewers carefully examine and actively critique your work, looking for things to correct. Your audience, meanwhile, will mostly be skimming and scanning to see if there’s anything there that they want to slow down to actually read.

Hostile readings in particular can throw a group off course.

Some reviewers feel that the best job they can do for you is to read against the grain of the text and look for the worst possible unintended meanings. When someone raises a point like this in a group review—If we’re saying we want to build a great future for our school, isn’t that terribly insulting to the quality of the school today?—it can quickly turn the mood of the whole group and make everyone anxious. Not many people are willing to put themselves on the line to say no, no one is going to read it that way.

What treacherous waters we brave writers swim in! Fortunately, we have plenty of ways to plan for healthy, constructive reviews.

Tips for Great Review Processes

You have more influence over how your committee reviews go than you might realize. Try the following tips and guidelines that our Communications team lives by:

Feedback must be heard, validated, and honored—not necessarily applied literally.

Blessed are the reviewers who give you pitch-perfect replacement copy in their line edits, but more common are those who give you useful insight that still needs some interpretation or polish to really work. Often you can find a way to honor and apply the feedback that looks a little different than the original note but flows better, keeps the voice more consistent, or otherwise serves the document more effectively. And sometimes, doing your interpretive duty means politely declining an edit and communicating why.

Listen for the feedback you’re not hearing.

When people respond to a draft with a bunch of nitpicky edits and detail questions, it might actually mean that the overall vision wasn’t exciting enough to focus their attention on the big picture. When people don’t give any feedback at all about one of the projects in your campaign case, it might be because they don’t understand what it means.

Ask questions that put your reviewers in co-creation mode, not evaluation mode.

Don’t share a draft and then ask “does this hit the mark?” Bring them over to your side of the table by asking them what messages resonate most, which option has the most possibility, which parts they would say in their own voice if talking to a peer, etc.

Ask for input on the ideas and messaging, not the writing.

This often means changing what you share and how. It’s why we share drafts of a case for support in a live, out-loud presentation format—which keeps the focus on ideas, messaging, and language that works in conversation—rather than a Word document shared by email, which invites line editing and often makes it harder for people to express their overall response.

Present a defined range of options.

When we give people one big thing to respond to, the question feels like “do I like this or not.” When we share three options, it feels like “which one do I like best and why,” which leads to more constructive and substantive dialogue. This obviously works best with things like campaign names, but it can work for key messages, vision statements, and other elements as well.

Protect the integrity of the work.

Even as you receive everyone’s input with openness and gratitude, there will be moments when it falls to you to protect the integrity of the work, which cannot advocate for itself.

You will be asked to combine the two leading campaign name candidates into a compromise name that’s too long: explain that no one will use it in conversation. Someone will add a whole paragraph of detailed expansion on a minor point that kills the flow of your opening page: move it to a sidebar. Program staff reviewers are going to unthinkingly sneak jargon back into your beautifully human language: rewrite it before you accept the change.

Ultimately, every review stage in a consensus-building process is a juncture at which the work can become stronger or weaker. You cannot reach the highest level of quality and impact without input from others—but that same input handled poorly can weaken and undermine the work.

Enthusiastic consensus and a great final product are two equally important outcomes in most nonprofit communications projects, especially in fundraising. With an intentional approach to your review process, you can set yourself up to achieve both.

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Andy Brommel
Andy Brommel
About Andy Brommel Andy Brommel leads Campbell & Company’s communications consulting and creative services, manages our Communications team, and serves on the firm’s management team. He also leads our thought...
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