5 Ways to Ease the Pain of Nonprofit Writing

Not every nonprofit has the luxury of a Communications Director, much less a dedicated writing team. 

But it’s still our duty to tell stories that inspire action. 

The stories we tell have the power to spur a donor to remember us in her will or to encourage a volunteer to serve as the face of our mission. The words we write even save lives, from time to time.

These are the moments that keep us writing in this business. But there are plenty of moments that feel more like being an NFL linebacker – taking the hits play after play.

Here are 5 things you can do to take some of the pain out of writing in 2018:

Get a playbook

It seems pretty basic, but I’ve encountered a fair number of nonprofits who are writing without a designated style book. The effect is that one part of the organization thinks it’s playing football, while the other half is certain they’re playing rugby. (I can hear the bones crunching now.) Align the team around a common playbook. I like the online Associated Press Style Book because it produces work that a large percentage of the population can easily understand. But if someone makes a case that your brand is a better match for the Chicago Manual of Style or Reuters, go ahead. Just use the same playbook, and those pointless debates about the Oxford comma will end once and for all. What does the book say?

Choose a playing field

How do professional writers get things down so fast? They are familiar with the basic structures of short stories, plays, poetry, journalism, PR and business writing. Then they bend (and even break) those templates according to the task at hand. A clear structure makes it easy for the reader to follow your story line and invites them to read more. You might start out the way I did: using journalism’s basic inverted pyramid and lead paragraph structures. Get good at using them, or just jump ahead to the temple structure recommended by star writing coach Ann Wylie. 

Know your position

All nonprofits should have a 3 (maybe 4 max) main messages that everyone in the organization knows. Then you support these brand messages with hard facts, emotional stories and interesting quotes. All of this information should fit neatly on one page only or you can kiss consistent use goodbye. With sound messaging in hand, a writer can focus on weaving one or more of these ideas into everything they write. That provides the audience with a strong sense of your organization’s brand—and your writer with a great place to start.  

Keep track of your stats

Did you know Word contains a free feature that rates your writing according to how readable it is? It also will tell you if you’re using the dreaded passive tense. In general, I aim for at least 50 percent readable, a grade level of 10 or below, and zero passivity.  

Reduce the number of referees

There’s only one thing worse than a bad call. That’s a referee team that contradicts each other. Nonprofit (and business) writers often have more than one editor. That’s fine if each editor plays a distinct role: a grammar/style editor, a subject matter expert who checks facts (not grammar) and a final proofreader. It’s not fine when the referees hold up the game with conflicting calls or the main referee has 13 other jobs. My advice: have one dedicated editor with the authority and guts to make the hard calls. Get a contractor if you need to. Then let someone else do the final proof. Don’t edit by committee.

Nonprofits have amazing stories to tell. Don’t let them get sidelined by confusing plays and poor sportsmanship. 

If you follow these steps, you’ll free up whomever is writing to make amazing gains for your nonprofit, with far less pain in communications for all. 

Laura Ingalls Fuqua is co-founder of Abeja Solutions, a fundraising marketing firm in Phoenix, Arizona. A recovering journalist, Laura has worked over 20 years as a professional communicator in both the nonprofit and corporate sectors.