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The Case Lives in Conversation


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.

Alongside the six elements of your case for support, there’s one other foundational idea that shapes every case development project we take on:

The case lives in conversation.

Or, to be a tiny bit more metal about it, the case lives or dies in conversation.

In a world where…

  • Authentic personal connection is the most powerful avenue to persuasion
  • Successful campaigns and mature fundraising programs are driven by major gifts, which are driven by highly intentional conversations
  • “Culture of philanthropy” is a social consensus that depends on many voices and transmits most powerfully by word of mouth

…it would seem that the most important job your case can do is to help your people speak comfortably, confidently, and effectively about giving. To do this, you have to build a case that works in conversation.

Fundraising is conversations

Let’s start by picturing a few scenarios that most fundraisers would recognize:

Scenario 1:

You and your Executive Director are sitting down with one of your best prospects to cultivate the seven-figure lead gift your campaign needs. You hand them the comprehensive case statement you’ve developed, and they say “Thank you, I’ll take a look at this later. I’m very happy to continue supporting the organization annually, but I’m not sure about doing more right now.” All eyes turn toward your ED. What do they say?

Scenario 2:

Scenario 1 goes GREAT, and your prospect says, “This is all sounding good to me, but I will need to talk it through with my partner.” Later that night, they’re recounting the conversation to their partner, who asks, “They’re certainly a good cause, but we have lots of good causes we care about…why should we make this our main commitment for the next three years?” What do they say?

Scenario 3:

Some parents from your independent school are gathered at a party and making small talk. Someone mentions having received “yet another” solicitation from the school and says, “Don’t they know we already pay tuition every year?” One of the parents in the circle is one of your annual fund volunteers, responsible for helping with giving in their class level. What do they say?

Each of these scenarios is quite ordinary. Each has important stakes for your immediate fundraising or your broader culture of philanthropy. And in each of these, it doesn’t really matter what your case statement says. What matters is what your people say, to other people, at a critical moment when they have their attention.

They aren’t going to recite the case statement from memory—and it probably wouldn’t be effective if they did. They are going to try to express your case in their own conversational voice—and unless they’ve been specifically prepared with conversation-ready language and practice, most of them will struggle.

A little help please?

This is why the most important job your case can do is to help your people speak comfortably, confidently, and effectively about giving—but not every case does this equally well.

Specifically, too much case writing looks like this:

As a global leader in innovative education, we are preparing future leaders with the critical thinking, problem solving, and collaboration skills they need to succeed in careers and make a difference in their communities and world.

…when what you want your board member or leadership to actually say when they’re on the spot with a donor might be more like:

Look around at the problems we face as a community and world. They call for the kind of students we see every day on our campus.

Or we’re writing stuff like:

The Annual Fund provides funding that supports a wide range of initiatives, including financial aid, faculty professional development, new program innovation, technology, and equipment.

…when what we want Person A to say to Person B in a word-of-mouth situation is:

Our Annual Fund gifts support all the things we love most about our school.

Building a case that works in conversation

So how do you get there? Here are some principles our Communications team puts into practice every day:

Think twice about writing a traditional case statement.

Our skepticism toward traditional case statements is well documented, and this is a large part of why. Having 15 pages of complex prose in your bag doesn’t really help you connect authentically with a person and think on your feet in a conversation.

Handing the same to your volunteers doesn’t make them feel more confident in communicating your case and may in fact intimidate them. If that weren’t enough, long narratives also make it too easy to avoid committing to clear core messages, and they rarely produce clean, conversation-ready language.

Develop your case in a presentation format.

In lieu of traditional case statements, we begin almost every case development project with a simple, text-only presentation document that we deliver live, out loud, to client audiences. The limitations of the format are a constant reminder to clarify our ideas, simplify our writing, and only write stuff that feels great to say out loud. Speaking of which…

Put everything you write to the say-it-out-loud test.

When the core messaging in your case for support comes out of your mouth, you should feel powerful. It should feel easy and natural to speak with emotion and passion. You shouldn’t feel like you’re reading—just talking.

This campaign is about all the learning that happens outside the classroom.

American healthcare is going where we’ve always been.

This is our chance to show our community what our values really mean.

Write stuff that a normal human would say in conversation.

This is about more than just eliminating professional jargon—it’s about avoiding the kind of writerly prose that works fine on the page but nobody would ever say out loud to someone else. That means embracing the power of direct language and avoiding complex sentence structures with too many clauses. If a normal person wouldn’t say it, you don’t have a word-of-mouth case.

Not this: Building on the impact of the recent significant investments in capital and programs made possible by our community, it is now time to invest in our school endowment to ensure our strongest future, for the benefit of every student today and tomorrow.

This: The endowment is the most important investment we can make in our school’s future right now.

Write a “talking points” version of your case.

This is what your board members actually want from you, and you will be a hero if you can provide it. You can do this as part of your case development process or an add-on at the end. Either way, it’s the quintessential test of conversation readiness.

You can always fancy it up as needed for your written materials and proposals.

Building out crisp conversational language into more formal written prose is easy. Distilling complex written prose into crisp conversational language is hard.

Ultimately, “the case lives in conversation” isn’t just a writer’s mantra—it’s a different way of thinking about case development: write what you want people to say.

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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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