5 Ways to Break Bad Nonprofit Writing Habits


Resolve to Become a Better Nonprofit Writer

Have you heard of Quitter’s Day? It’s when most people have given up on their New Year’s resolutions.

And it was January 12 – well in the rear-view mirror by now.

But nonprofit friend, you are not a quitter. That’s because your community, people and/or pets, depend on you to keep getting better at what you do.

Why writing matters

One great way to do that is by becoming a better writer. Writing helps to develop strong relationships with donors. It snags grants and helps your community to understand and care about the complex need that your programs solve.

I read so much nonprofit writing (about great causes!) that is just plain unreadable. Somewhere in between our 10th grade composition course and now, we decided that good writing needed to be complicated writing.

And that makes everything from fundraising to managing a program that much harder. And you need things to be easy, so master these 5 tips below and your boss, donors and other readers will thank you.

  1. Turn on readability statistics: You might not know that Word contains a free tool that tells you how readable your copy is. Most people prefer to read at a 9th grade level or lower. Yes, even the highly educated want this because they are strapped for time. Turning on this feature also will help you find (and root out) passive tense, jargon and snooze-worthy sentences.

  2. Break up your copy: Why do listicle articles like this one get read? Formatting. That means liberal use of bold and italics, concise sentences, bullets, numbered lists, headings and subheadings. The truth is that few of us read anymore. We scan and skim for information we can use. And it’s not only readers that penalize you for big blocks of text. Google’s algorithm now checks for proper formatting as well.

  3. Focus on the hero: Your organization is not the hero of the story. I know that’s hard to hear, but stick with me. When approaching a story, you need to identify who is the main subject. That’s because our brains naturally relate to individuals, not groups. That person, pet or forest is the protagonist (let’s root for them!), but they’re not the hero either. Who is? The donor who made your work to help that person possible.

    Less like: Thanks to your generous support, we were able to provide 500 bowls of food to cats in need.

    More like: Your generous support fed 500 cats in need like Fluffy. We couldn’t do that without you!

  4. Find the tension: I wish things were different, but humans tend to gravitate to conflict. In dramatic literature (or Dwayne Johnson movies), you often see conflict peak at the end of the second act. This is a great place for readers to first meet your protagonist, at their moment of greatest need. Perhaps it’s an addict who hit rock bottom. Or a single mother who must choose between paying the power bill and feeding her children. Either way, this cliffhanger makes the reader want to read more. Ignore the tension (or fail to find it) and you’ll bury the lead.

  5. Quote emotion only: Stories consist of two basic parts: facts and emotion. Facts are the meal and emotion is the seasoning. If you under season, the meal will be dry and lack flavor. But if you over season with meaningless (and often flabby) quotes, the meal will be spoiled. It’s better to quickly paraphrase information to move the narrative forward. Then use the best quotes to spice things up.

    Less like: The volunteer told the executive director, “We have to do something to help this mother of four.”

    More like: “I can’t imagine being homeless and nursing a newborn. My heart broke,” said our volunteer.

It may seem daunting now to take on the task of becoming a better nonprofit writer. You may even want to quit somewhere along the way.

But if you apply these five tips to everything you write, I promise you’ll see a difference in the way people view you as a professional, and the way they respond to the stories you tell.

Laura Ingalls is CEO of Abeja Solutions and co-creator of Beezable, a tool that automates direct mail fundraising. She’s produced for CNN, served as a humanitarian spokesperson in Iraq and led award-winning nonprofit and corporate communications teams. Read more from Laura.

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