When was the last time you received a handwritten letter? Not an invitation or thank you card, I’m talking about a handwritten, personal letter written on paper. If you’re like most Americans, it’s probably been a while.
The art of writing letters, and writing in general, has fallen by the wayside. We live in a world of smart phones, emails, text messages, Zoom, and LinkedIn. Handwriting feels foreign to most of us. When we do write, our sentences are chock-full of acronyms and errors, and our penmanship is atrocious. We dodge opportunities to write whenever we can, though we never cease to smile when we open our mailboxes and discover a handwritten letter addressed to us.
Writing is a skill learned early in life, and most of us disliked writing and grammar classes as much as we disliked eating vegetables. Our distaste for writing followed us into adulthood because we still suffer from the same writing inadequacies we had in childhood. We suffer writer’s block. We struggle to organize thoughts. We spell poorly, and we know less grammar and sentence structure now than when we played tetherball. It’s all very humbling.
Why is good writing important?
Good writing, and I mean good writing, should be a top priority at your nonprofit because good writing is a tool of tremendous power, influence, and leverage. A single compelling press release might land you a national television interview that leads to 100 new donors and $100,000 in funding. A motivating flyer could inspire dozens of people to volunteer for your new program, and a persuasive letter to a senator might inspire new legislation.
The nonprofit world swims in an ocean of written documents. There are annual reports, grant applications, website pages, blogs, appeal letters, policy documents, procedure manuals, thank you notes, press releases, program reports, research papers, legal documents, advertising copy, board orientation documents, promotional material, and much more.
Each of these communication vehicles influences its readers in some way. Each will make positive or negative impressions on a reader about the nonprofit, the person who wrote the material, and the concept or ideas expressed in the material. The result could mean the difference between whether or not a nonprofit receives a major grant, acquires a new donor, or secures a key partnership.
Good writing often goes unnoticed, but poor writing doesn’t. It can create lasting, negative impressions. Most people will forgive an occasional grammar or spelling error, but writing letter after letter and document after document littered with spelling errors, grammatical mistakes, and choppy sentence flow will dilute the credibility of a writer—and a nonprofit. Not good.
You may have only one chance to make a good impression, so you want to make each impression, especially a written impression, the best it can be. To do that, you need to value quality writing as much as you value quality programming, and you need to adopt a culture of quality writing as early in your lifecycle as possible to harness its power and influence.
Case Study: The lost art of writing
One of the organizations I ran, Sun Valley Adaptive Sports (SVAS), once excelled in shoddy writing. The founding administration put little time or effort into the written word, and it showed. There was no letterhead or style guide. Donors received poorly formatted appeal letters. Typos and grammatical errors were common in grants and corporate documents, and the copy written in brochures and on the website was dry and lifeless.
Had SVAS written about the good work they were doing in a compelling, professional manner, it may have been able to raise more money, secure more media coverage, attract more volunteers, and establish more business partnerships. Instead, the quality of writing was so poor and made so many negative impressions, it turned some people away from SVAS to more “professional” nonprofits in the area.
One of the first major to-dos the staff tackled after I took the helm at SVAS was evaluating corporate documents and marketing literature. The goal was to review each document and separate the poorly written ones from those of acceptable quality. After reviewing more than 200 documents, I’d say we tossed 90 percent into the dumpster and the remaining 10 percent went into a hopper to be rewritten and reformatted.
Later that week, staff started the arduous process of rewriting and reformatting the documents we kept and creating new versions of the ones we trashed. The objective was to write compelling collateral material to rebuild our brand, increase public awareness, raise money, and improve donor and volunteer relations.
The first thing we did was establish a comprehensive style guide. We then wrote a new set of marketing materials, programming literature, operational handbooks, and appeal letters to donors and foundations. Nothing was untouched; we even scrapped the website and built a new one.
Next, each staff member made a personal commitment to write better. They began to focus on spelling and grammar, and writing compelling, thoughtful copy. Staff also helped one another write and edit material. In fact, we created a policy stating at least three staff members had to proofread any document slated for public distribution.
It didn’t take long for SVAS to see quality writing pay off. Within six months, executives from major media companies such as CNN, NBC, and Newsweek were responding to our compelling press releases with calls to produce features about the work we were doing to rehabilitate wounded veterans.
Newspaper columnists and talk show hosts called for interviews after reading our poignant op-ed pieces. Donors commented on our thoughtful appeal letters and inspiring support material. We even received compliments from foundations saying the quality of our grant applications and reports were some of the best they had ever seen.
Looking back, I believe one of the important factors that catapulted SVAS to national prominence, and one of the most understated, was SVAS’ ability to write and publish all types of powerful and compelling material about our amazing programs and the impact we were having on people’s lives.
If you want to bolt past the competition, fulfill your mission, and become a gold standard nonprofit, you must become a master nonprofit wordsmith. The sooner in your lifecycle you make a commitment to this objective, the faster you’ll see the results you hope to achieve.
Tactics and Tips
1. Hire staff who can write
When hiring staff, I seek out candidates who write well, especially managers. I want a program director who can write compelling stories about the experiences of our participants. I want a volunteer coordinator who can write inspiring thank you notes, and I want a development officer who can write thoughtful appeal letters to donors.
Good writing requires good writers, and the more quality writers you have on staff—and on your board—the more opportunities you’ll have to use the power and influence of writing to accomplish your objectives.
If you’re a startup, you’re in luck. You have a chance to a hire a team of good writers from the start. During the hiring process, make the skill of writing a top requirement for all positions.
At many nonprofits, the skill of writing is an afterthought in the hiring process. If you look at the job descriptions they post, the skill of writing is usually listed toward the bottom, or it’s lumped into a general category such as “good communication skills.”
That won’t cut it. The skill of writing should be toward the top of every job description you post, including those for part-time positions. You should also include the skill of writing as one of your screens throughout the hiring process.
Carefully read emails and resumés of applicants and look for telling clues. Is their writing clear and concise? Is the tone of their writing professional and friendly? Do you spot spelling errors and sentence fragments? Do thoughts and ideas flow smoothly, or do they bounce around? Is the text well formatted?
If an applicant gets an interview, ask him or her to bring along a few writing samples. If you’re hiring a grant writer, request samples of grants he’s written. If you’re hiring an operations manager, request samples of strategic plans, program assessments, board reports, or other documents she’s written.
Read these documents carefully. How’s the grammar? Spelling? Thought flow? Paragraph length? Layout and design?
When applicants make it to the final round of the interviewing process, give them a topic in their area of expertise and ask them to write three short paragraphs about it. Provide them a quiet room and a time limit, say 20 minutes. We all write better when we have time to edit and massage our writing, but writing on the spot, under a little pressure, is a telltale sign of someone’s writing ability.
If forced to make a decision between two final applicants, a good writing sample might be the determining factor that swings your favor to one applicant over another.
2. Encourage staff to improve their writing
Let’s say you’re beyond the startup stage. You’ve been up and running for seven years and have 10 staff members. Four are poor writers, five are average, and one is an excellent writer. In this situation, you would want to find ways to improve the abilities of the less skilled writers.
This is easier said than done. The topic of writing can be a touchy subject because many people are insecure about their poor writing skills. They may have grown up in a grade school that didn’t emphasize writing, or perhaps they were simply left-brained, science and math types.
So, if you’re going to discuss someone’s writing ability with them, be sensitive to their insecurities. I would also suggest keeping the discussion centered on improving the overall quality of writing by your nonprofit, not the poor writing skills of the person you’re talking with. Make the focus corporate, not personal.
The good news is your staff can improve the quality of their writing with a little time and effort. Start simple. Suggest staff subscribe to a daily email subscription service such as “Spelling tip of the day,” “Grammar tip of the day,” or “Writing tip of the day.” These are fun and gradual ways to improve writing skills.
You can also buy a subscription to Writer’s Digest and leave it on a table in your break room. The magazine is loaded with tips on style, technique, grammar, and inspiration. The articles and sidebars are short and easy to understand.
One of the best ways to improve the writing quality of your staff is to get them to write more often. Encourage staff to take on assignments that require writing. Do you need a new brochure? How about a new page on your blog, a helpful report for the board, or a series of press releases? Does the thank you letter to donors need updating? Would volunteers benefit from a training manual?
Assign these tasks to various staff or teams of staff. If you’re fortunate to have a star writer on staff, use this person as a resource to help others improve their writing abilities as they work on their writing assignments.
Your star writer can also help fellow staff members learn how to organize thoughts, write compelling stories, and write with rhythm so words glide across the page. They can share samples of their writing to illustrate key concepts such as simplicity and clarity, and they can teach tips on editing and proofreading.
Writing is an art people can do well if they practice. Your job is to discover ways to create an easy-going environment that encourages your entire staff to become better writers. If you do, the written word will become a tool of power and influence your nonprofit can use to achieve the impossible.
3. Use a professional
You may find yourself in the unfortunate position of having talented and hardworking staff with little or no ability to write compelling copy and no motivation or willingness to learn. In this case, you need to outsource important writing tasks to a professional writer.
You have many choices. Freelance writers are always looking for work and most have affordable rates. Reporters at small newspapers or online periodicals often moonlight and may offer to write at discounted rates if they believe in your cause. Colleges and vocational schools have interns that will write for free because they can earn credit. Other options include professors or high school English teachers that teach writing, or one of your volunteers who has a writing background.
What’s most important is finding an experienced writer who can quickly and affordably create powerful and effective copy. In some cases, a written document may be your only chance to raise money from a potential donor, persuade a decision maker, or influence a business partner. If you don’t have good writers on staff to deliver the goods, outsource the work. Otherwise, potential opportunities will slip by one-by-one until there are none.
4. Editing: Turn gold dust into gold bullion
The best writers know there is no such thing as good writing, just good rewriting. Rewriting (editing) is often crowned as the “art” of writing and it’s usually the most time-consuming and frustrating aspect of writing.
I agree. I wrote the draft of a book in less than a month, but spent almost a year fine-tuning sentences, finding the right transitional phrases, swapping out dull words with sharp ones, and scanning for grammatical errors and typos. Editing can be a mind-numbing task and there were times I threw up my hands and said, “Why am I spending so much time on this?!”
You may not have a staff of great writers, but you may have a staff of great thinkers. An alternative to hiring a professional writer is having your staff write draft copies of your most important written material and then giving these documents to a professional editor that can transform gold dust into gold bullion.
A big advantage of taking this route is cost. Hiring an editor to edit copy is less expensive than hiring someone to write and edit copy. Plus, your staff knows your programs and operations better than anyone, so they are in the best position to write about such subjects.
Another option is to pay your star writers small bonuses for editing copy or teaching staff how to edit and polish writing. They could show staff why it’s useful to read copy slowly out loud during the editing process to listen for rhythm and spot grammatical errors. They could explain why it’s effective to sprinkle copy with quotes, anecdotes, and photographs, and why it’s important to use generous amounts of white space.
Whoever you use to write copy, make sure quality editing is a part of the process because it’s during the editing process that the real gems of what you want to say are made to shine the brightest.
5. Write compelling stories
Whether you’re writing a letter to a donor or a press release for the local newspaper or blog, you can add tremendous power and effectiveness to your writing by adding compelling stories and anecdotes.
For example, let’s say you want to write a blurb in your annual report about how your ski program enriched the lives of local children with disabilities during the past season. One way to do this is to list your accomplishments. You could display a bullet-pointed list highlighting how the program doubled the amount of children it served, tripled the amount of time each child skied, increased the amount of one-on-one instruction, and how the program taught three children with Down syndrome how to ski for the first time.
Pretty good, but bland. Now, imagine if you supplemented those facts with a success story about one of the children in your program, say Stu. Stu has Down syndrome, a heart condition, weak muscles, and a tendency to isolate himself. Stu had never attended your ski program because his family is poor and his mother thought the program cost a lot of money.
Early that December, Stu’s mom bumped into one of your volunteers at the grocery store. During conversation, Stu’s mom asked about the cost of the program and the volunteer assured her the ski program was free. The next week, with encouragement from the volunteer, Stu’s mom brought Stu to one of your after-school ski clinics to see if he’d enjoy it.
By the end of the session, Stu was hooked. He joined the program and skied twice a week—all free. At the end of the season, he competed in a regional Special Olympics alpine racing event. He was a little shaky on the first run, but on the second run, Stu’s time was good enough to earn him a silver medal. (You show a picture of Stu and his glorious smile holding his silver medal above his head on the winner’s podium.)
Below the picture, you add a quote from Stu’s mom. In it, she expresses gratitude for the program and how Stu would not have been able to participate in such a program had the program not been free. You end the story with a “kicker” stating how much time Stu has been spending in the gym lifting weights and training, because his new dream is to win a medal at next year’s national Special Olympics alpine event.
Which was more compelling, the list of facts, or the story with the photo? Stories are powerful and persuasive vehicles that can bring your mission to life in the hearts and minds of all types of supporters.
Write more success stories of the great work you’re doing. Write them in a compelling manner, accompanied by captivating photos, and distribute them through a variety of media channels. It’s one of the simplest things you can do to motivate others to join and support your mission.
Your volunteer coordinator writes training manuals. Your board secretary writes fundraising invitations. Your marketing coordinator writes ad copy. Your board members write thank you letters, and your chief executive writes partnership proposals. Everyone at your nonprofit has his or her hand in the writing jar.
Dull, choppy, and sloppy writing will smudge your image, taint your brand, and create negative impressions that steer people away from your nonprofit. Sharp, smooth, and clean writing will create positive, lasting impressions that draw people to your nonprofit.
If you want to separate yourself from the thousands of ordinary nonprofits fumbling about, it’s important you realize, and put into practice, the power of quality writing and the ability it has to shape images, raise money, inspire people, and influence opinion.
Start by making quality writing a top priority at your nonprofit. Create standards and guidelines for quality writing and then set up structures to facilitate quality writing among staff.
Encourage staff to write compelling and persuasive text and give them the time to edit, massage, and rewrite documents. When hiring staff, make the skill of writing a primary job qualification. If you lack a team of good writers, outsource the work to professionals, or at least outsource the editing portions.
Quality writing is one of the secrets of success that flies under the radar of most nonprofit leaders. Don’t miss this opportunity. Push quality writing to the forefront of your strategic to do list as early in your lifecycle as possible. If you do, you’ll stand out from your competitors like a bestselling hardcover stands out against a secondhand book collecting dust on a discount rack.