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Writing Tips for Non-writers

FCW 11.18.20

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.

Say it with me: I’m a writer.

Sure, fundraising requires much more than putting pen to paper: the charisma to build relationships, the knack for deftly navigating a database, and the courage to ask for money.

But perhaps the most unsung skill of a fundraiser-in-the-trenches is the language we speak every day on the Communications team at Campbell & Company: writing.

From strategic donor proposals to thoughtful thank you notes to a coherent development plan, every fundraiser needs the tools to write well. This is true whether or not you identify as a writer in the “about me” section of your LinkedIn profile, whether the word “communications” shows up in your job title, and honestly—whether or not you like to write at all.

And while strong writing is essential to every nonprofit, few nonprofits have staff members wholly dedicated to the practice of it. Even fewer have a standalone communications and marketing team, adding more writing to the development staff’s “other duties as assigned” column. That’s why writing skills—especially writing tailored for a donor audience—are a critical muscle to keep flexing organization-wide and year-round.

I’m lucky to be the kind of person who lives to write and writes for a living. And while some of my job is putting an organization’s best ideas, visions, and plans into the right words, it’s also to help my clients see themselves as true owners of the message.

So this week, we’ve collected our team’s best advice for the writers among us.

Part 1: Set yourself up for writing success.

Writing requires a particular mindset and environment to do well. Unfortunately, the constraints of the professional workday threaten to throw a thousand wrenches in your best writing, unless you can exert a little control over the process.

Put yourself in the path of inspiration, and listen.

Relying on one’s own brain for a compelling idea, message, or story is a lot of pressure. Lucky for us in the nonprofit sector, we work in the thick of inspiration every day.

As you listen and learn from organizational leaders, volunteers, program staff, colleagues, and clients—take note. Notice what makes you perk up and lean in, write it down, and let your notes break you out of your next bout of writer’s block. (Of course, make sure you’re not quoting people without their permission and that you re-share a client story in an ethical way).

Protect your time.

There’s a reason authors fantasize about pursuing their craft from a cabin in the Adirondacks with a wood stove and no cell service: TIME. Not just time to write; but time to give your brain the space it needs to write well, including thinking time, research time, and editing time.

Left unchecked, a typical fundraiser’s calendar leaves you trying to write through breaks in 30-minute meeting blocks while responding to time-sensitive emails scarfing down lunch at your desk. This never ends well, because the mental effort of switching between tasks costs you focus and productivity.

Instead, proactively block off two- to three-hour chunks of time on your calendar that you can use to brainstorm an outline, bang out a draft, or polish a final piece with fresh eyes. Your best writing will happen with few interruptions and distractions, so put away the tools of the workday (email, phone, internet) and allow yourself to really dig in.

Have faith in a bad first draft.

The best cure for writer’s block is just getting started, and you almost always have to write something meh before you write something good. If you trust the process, your three bad paragraphs might yield the message that will anchor your end of year appeal or event speech, or spark the right edit the next day with a pair of fresh eyes.

So go easy on yourself if your rough draft is, well, rough.

Manage feedback strategically.

We’ve already covered writing by committee (steer clear if you can!), but nonprofit writing isn’t meant to be a solo game either.

The key to getting and managing good feedback is being intentional with a draft to capture a range of insight without giving up the writing reins. Sending a full draft by email with no context is sure to invite a flurry of unhelpful line edits, but a specific ask of your editor can point you in the right direction.

If your piece is too long, ask for what could be cut. If you want to make sure a donor understands your theory of change, ask a trusted Board member to gut-check for jargon. Find an editor you can trust with an early draft for direction, reserve near-final pieces for high-level sign offs from leadership.

And when seeking consensus from a group, focus your feedback invitation on higher-level messages and big ideas so you don’t get stuck on the nitpicky details. 

Part 2: Write your heart out.

Cultivate voice.

An authentic voice imbues words with emotion, perspective, and style. Whether you’re speaking as yourself, ghostwriting for your Executive Director, or writing on behalf of your organization; understand the voice you intend to capture, look for an editor who can make sure that voice is coming through, and make sure your writing passes the conversation test.

Let verbs do the work.

Nonprofit communication is designed for action: donating, volunteering, attending, and sharing.

Actions require active verbs, and your job as a writer should be to deploy them as much as possible. Nonprofits tend to use the same bland verbs (offer, access, provide, engage…) ad nauseum, so get creative with verbs that are energizing, specific, and vivid.

Focus on messages, not copy.

Remember how the most essential components of your case for support can fit on a notecard? If you find yourself writing in circles or getting long-winded, step back from your sentences and evaluate: what are the five most important things I want someone to take away from this piece (and repeat word-of-mouth to someone else)?

Boil your key ideas down to memorable messages to keep your writing skimmable and powerful.

Bring it to life.

While lofty visions and big ideas help nonprofits convey impact and scale, you also need to bring your writing down to earth. Stories, details, and metaphors are your friends when it comes to helping readers envision and connect with your work.

Perfection is the enemy of the gift.

Contrary to all my advice in this post, thoughtfully crafted sentences are not what secure transformational gifts—relationships are. So relax, get in the writing zone, get writing done, get feedback, and then get writing out the door.

Ask yourself: is going back for another round of edits really going to change the outcome, or is it keeping me from having a conversation with a donor? Check in on how your writing is working in practice and let it guide you toward the next version (and there’s always a next version). 

As we reflect on a year of unprecedented tumult and change in our sector and country, let’s all take comfort in a time-honored skill and trusty practice that will never go out of style (or be replaced by robots). Here’s to writing our way to stronger relationships, better communication, and higher levels of giving.

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Anna Goren
About Anna Goren Anna offers balanced and collaborative solutions to complex communications challenges in the nonprofit sector, where she shares a passion for her clients’ missions and is motivated by...
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