Before I found fundraising, I taught English. Mostly to first-year college students, usually some version of that English 101 course that you remember with either fondness or revulsion.
We called it “writing,” but what we were teaching was “academic writing.” The purpose of the course was to prepare students to write papers for their college courses. What most college English teachers (and their students) don’t quite realize is that academic writing is very specific, with its own voluminous set of rules that don’t exist elsewhere. If you master it, you aren’t necessarily good at any other type of writing. In fact, years spent in academic writing just might damage your ability to other types of writing.
As an English teacher, I worked hard to drag students into the academic writing world. I was so proud when I succeeded, so sad when I failed.
And now I’m paying for it.
Some of those students really nailed that academic writing style. They embraced it with passion and carry it with them now, years later. They’re showing up as staff and leaders at nonprofits, and they really believe in academic writing.
I have some good news for you: We are not in school anymore. I realize that’s not such great news for some. But it’s important news.
Writing for fundraising is not like the writing your English teacher taught you.
So let Professor Brooks make amends for some of the damage he did by showing you a few important differences you can put to work in your fundraising…
You: the best pronoun
Formal writing often avoids 2nd person pronouns (you). But in nonprofit writing, you is one of our most important words. The reason is this: When you want people to donate, you need to talk about what the donation is to them … not what it is to us.
You might be tempted to write, “Please send a gift so we can save lives. We’ll make all the difference.”
You should turn that into a couple of you statements: “You have the power to save a life. Your gift will make the difference.”
People don’t give to support your organization or fund your programs. They give to make good things happen. They are making a decision about their response, not about yours. That’s why the word you matters so much.
Formal writing emphasizes a sophisticated vocabulary. It’s a way of signaling your education, your membership in an elite Club. Maybe that’s good in some contexts.
It’s not good in nonprofit writing, where we want to be inclusive and open to everyone. And even people who are in the Club are more responsive when we keep our vocabulary simple. You never know what terminology even highly educated people know, and everyone can understand it when you keep it simple.
You might want to write, “Jane is chronically food insecure.” That’s the educated insider way of saying it.
But in fundraising, you should make it plainer and more unspecialized: Jane is always hungry.
Formal writing emphasizes long, complex sentences. It’s considered “good style” to string together coordinate and subordinate clauses. Like this:
Because we’re already in Rwanda, our staff are ready to start the work, and that’s why I’m coming to you now.
There’s nothing terribly wrong with that sentence, but it would be easier to read if the three clauses become three sentences:
We’re already in Rwanda. Our staff are ready to start the work. That’s why I’m coming to you now.
I guarantee your English teacher would hate that. In academic writing, you have a captive audience of people who are forced to read what you write. So you can make it as elegantly complex as you want. When communicating with donors, you are always borrowing their time and their good will. That’s why complexity, no matter how well-constructed, is your enemy.
Fundraising encourages the readability and drama of short sentences. Even sentence fragments. Without verbs. Go ahead. It’s okay. Better than okay.
Your English teacher taught you that a paragraph is a unit of information. It starts with a topic sentence that introduces what the paragraph is about, then goes on to completely make that paragraph’s point. You don’t go on to the next paragraph until you have a new topic.
This makes paragraphs long. And English teachers like it that way.
Nonprofit writing ignores that organizational principle. For us, a paragraph is more of a visual unit than a complete unit of information. One topic usually goes on across many paragraphs, and there may or may not be any topic sentences to be found. We also frequently practice a major English-teacher no-no: One-sentence paragraphs. It’s all about propelling the reader through the text, keeping them moving.
Academic and business writing seek concision. With few exceptions, you are to say things once. Maybe twice.
But fundraising writing acknowledges a painful truth about communication: if you want readers to know what you’re saying, repeat it. Your fundraising call to action should appear three times, at the very least, in any fundraising message.
Our writing would attract the red pen of an English teacher who would rightly notice that “you’ve already said that!”
Clichés are allowed in nonprofit writing
Clichés – figures of speech that you’ve seen before – are considered sloppy and toxic by your English teachers. But there’s really nothing wrong with them in nonprofit writing. There’s a reason clichés catch on:. They express things people often want to express—in short (and sweet) ways that are easy (as pie) to remember.
Some more ways to disobey:
- Contractions are good. If you do not use them, you will sound like a robot.
- And feel free to start sentences with conjunctions. They help propel the reader forward.
- Footnotes should be banned from fundraising copy. A footnote is like a neon sign that says NOT PERSONAL. If you need to provide a source for something, do it in a colloquial way. (Instead of following a fact with a footnote, say, “I know this because I read it in last April’s edition of the Journal of Important Facts, on page 36, if you want to look it up.”)
- Semicolons, the lawyer’s favorite punctuation mark, should be avoided. They’re formal and legalistic. Hardly anyone knows how to use them correctly, so they’re confusing for many readers.
My best advice is this: If your English teachers helped you love reading and writing, showed you the power of revising your writing, and gave you a healthy respect – cherish them! Everything else they taught … don’t take it too seriously.
I’m not saying you should be sloppy. Know your its from your it’s and your their from your there. Spell words correctly. Make sure every sentence connects with those around it. Messy, graceless, error-filled copy can turn away readers as quickly as over-formal, too-academic copy.
But don’t forget that your job is to move people from inaction to action – and one of the hardest types of action, giving away their money. That takes some close attention of its own!
One of the best ways to really improve your fundraising writing is by joining The Fundraisingology Lab by Moceanic. You’ll get the tools, the information, and the supporting community that will take you to new places in your fundraising career. Join the waiting list now and you’ll be the first to hear when the doors open again!
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Oh my goodness – I really needed this permission! Thank you!