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What Do You Want to Say?

What Do You Want to Say?

This is always the $64,000 question.

And with our world unhinged, and norms abolished, it’s true today more than ever.

What do you contribute to help people cope, stay strong and be well?

What can you do to make the world better?

What should you offer that’s within your ability to give?

What do you want to say?

Nonprofits everywhere – and businesses too – are crafting statements of solidarity. Some are from the heart. Some are based on insight, training and self-reflection. Some come from a place of “we better say something.” Some are crafted awkwardly by well-meaning people and sometimes do more harm than good, alas.

I’m not judging; just asking.

Are You Conveying The Message You Want?

I won’t attempt to advise you how to craft this particular statement (should you be inclined to do so). I’m having trouble finding my own words in this regard and, regardless, my voice won’t be your voice. And, above all else, you must be true to yourself.

I’m neither an expert on you, nor an expert on institutional racism, on white supremacy and privilege, or on equity, diversity and inclusion. But I am happy to point you to useful resources (see Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) in the Nonprofit Sector – Essential Resources for Nonprofit Professionals on Bloomerang blog, and Open Resource Guide on Google Drive, and Nonprofit Marketing Guide blog, and CompassPoint blog, and “Acknowledging Your Privilege and Becoming an Ally”: a Guide to Resources for White Folks).

I know only that injustice anywhere endangers justice everywhere.

We ignore this at our peril.

We are together, on one planet.

There’s no escaping the fact our fates are very much bound to one another.

So I just need to say that. I’ve been haunted for my entire life by the poem by Martin Niemoller which Amy Eisenstein channeled eloquently in a recent blog post.

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.

If you know me, you know I bring this poem into personal conversations when I feel the need to make a point. But I don’t do it in a vacuum; only when I have specific action I want people to take. In other words, when I know what I want to say.

I don’t know what I want to say to you and your nonprofit about speaking out right now on the specific issues facing all of us as a society. I’m being honest here. I haven’t done the work I need to do to speak with confidence. I’m beginning. And there are others, with stronger voices, to whom I’ve already pointed you.

Here is what I can tell you.

Your Nonprofit Has a Platform

Don’t squander it by going silent due to fear, confusion, frustration or sheer overwhelm. That helps no one. Your job is to get it together so others can come together.

You have people who care what you have to say.

Speak out to them!

You don’t have to be all things to all people, or address issues beyond your ken.

In fact, that can distract you so much it may prevent you from speaking out on core issues that still matter. Let’s face it. The world is filled with many pressing problems. You have a case for support and a mission, vision and values focused on addressing one or more of these.

Stick with your mission.

Yet take care to shape it within the context of what people today are thinking, seeing and feeling. Employ empathy in so doing. When you come from a donor-centered place, that’s what keeps your message current and your platform relevant.

Before Pontificating from Your Platform

What I will help you with today is a process to (1) focus and (2) relay your message – whatever it may be – at any point in time.

It’s a method I advise you to practice consistently to clearly communicate whatever you want to convey. Whenever.

Be it about response to a crisis… or mission critical updating, reporting, and thanking… or any desired call to action.

Whatever your message, take care to craft it wisely and deliver it effectively.

Since we’re in a time of social distancing, I’m concentrating today on email messaging.

Let’s look at two components of your message, and learn how to be smart about them:

  1. Content
  2. Writing

4 Truths about Message Content

Think of all of your messaging as a campaign. A campaign to win hearts and influence minds. A campaign with an end game

To begin, you need a plan.

A plan that takes you straight to your desired end.

It’s that end that justifies your means; always keep it in sight.

1. Define the goal driving your campaign before crafting content.

I’ve seen too many absolutely beautiful messages that go nowhere.

You may have a Ph.D. in creative writing. You may be a poet. You may have received ‘A’s’ on all your term papers. It doesn’t matter. Being a good writer is not enough.

Content should not exist in a vacuum.

You must, must, must define the goal that drives your email campaign.

It reminds me of the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem:

I shot an arrow into the air,

It fell to earth, I knew not where.

Your message must be aimed precisely at your target.

Otherwise, you make it difficult for your audience to understand why you’ve sent it.

At best, this accomplishes nothing. People just don’t take action.

At worst, it frustrates folks and makes them think a little less of you.

As Seth Godin, marketer extraordinaire, eloquently writes: Begin with a simple question: What’s it for?

2. Emphasize content relevant to your target audience.

Gather information to the extent humanly possible. Don’t wing it when it comes to content. Don’t go from your gut or what you assume. Find out, directly, what your peeps think and care about!

  • Try sending a donor engagement survey. Surveys facilitate your transition from “organization-centric” to “customer-centric” communications. After surveying your supporters you’ll know what folks want you to tell them (vs. what you want to tell them)
  • Call a random subset of supporters and ask them how they’re doing and what role they see your nonprofit playing today.
  • Send some test messages via tweets or other social media posts and see what folks respond to.
  • Track the web pages most visited, the emails most opened and the content most shared. This helps you understand what content your people are valuing most today.

What you knew before may not hold true now. The ultimate in relevancy is to be able to connect with supporters based on their interests at the moment. The world is changing rapidly, so stay alert, nimble and quick.

Avoid sending generic mass emails with one-size-fits-all messages. When you do this, you’ll seldom get to the point effectively. Because you’ll add in all sorts of content that seems ‘extra’ to large numbers of your email list.

Split your email list into segments. Segmentation is essential to getting a relevant message to the right audience. Think carefully about why you’re messaging that segment and what they most want to hear. Customize your copy so it appeals to your audience segment and excludes content in which they’ve little interest.

3. Make content easy to read and quickly grasp.

People are inundated with emails. In fact, folks often consider pruning their inbox to be one of their most important organizational tasks. So if your content is difficult to access it’s going to go unnoticed. Don’t take this wrong; I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t send emails! Your supporters still want to hear from you. I’m simply suggesting a good email is a terrible thing to waste.

  • If the point of your email is buried in the third or fourth paragraph, many folks will miss it.
  • If the text is dense, the font is small, the colors are hard to see on a screen, the important copy falls ‘below the scroll,’ or any other design pitfalls abound, many folks will hit ‘delete’ without reading it.
  • If you don’t include compelling images, and try to convey everything through text, you’ll make your message harder to comprehend within the roughly one to eight second timeframe (depending on which expert study you read) you have to grab attention. After all, pictures are worth 1,000 words. Just make sure to choose the right ones (i.e., photos that tell stories and complement your message).
  • If you use copy above a 4th – 6th grade level, many folks will simply give up. If there’s a call to action, they may miss it.

Don’t forget to make sure your message displays easily on mobile devices as well. Last year, mobile accounted for 46% of all email opens.

4. Include a clear, direct call to action (CTA).

It’s your job to craft your content so people can react and follow through. The CTA is what reels in all the energy you’ve put into this message so that it redounds to the benefit of your cause. And frankly to the benefit of your constituent.

Sometimes clients tell me “we sent an email to our entire list.” I say “what happened as a result?” They look at me blankly, as if the mere act of sending the email meant they were enacting a smart, ‘best practice’ strategy.

No, no, no.

I mean, really, what’s the point?

If you don’t have something you want folks to do, how will you know your email hit its mark?

If folks know what you want, and it’s something they can do, this makes them feel good. And when they feel good about engaging with you, they want to continue this behavior. They may even tell their friends.

Don’t be cute or cagy about this. Use direct, unambiguous language that makes the point of your message clear as a bell. Place your CTA someplace where it’s easily noticed. In fact, place it multiple places. It’s the whole point, so it’s something that bears repeating.

4 Truths about Writing Winning Email Messages

Once you know what you want to say, it’s time to effectively express it. Which is sometimes easier said than done.

It’s often easier if you say it before you write it.

I like to talk breezily into my phone, without overthinking. Or sometimes I’ll tell my husband what I’m trying to get across. You can tell your dog, teddy bear, best friend or mirror. Just talk! Record what you say so you’ve got a baseline of what you want to say.

Stick with the core; don’t embellish.

1. Personalize your content keeping the target audience in mind.

It’s not about you; it’s about everyone else. As you write your copy, think about what the person on the receiving end wants and needs to hear. If you’ve surveyed your constituents or otherwise endeavored to appreciate their current interests and concerns, get together with your team and make a list of problems your supporters may be facing now. How can you help them?  Also consider the problems they may wish to help you address. How can you help them to help you?  In other words, always ask yourself “What’s in it for them?”

At a minimum, call your donor by their name. No “Dear Friend.” A friendly, informal, personal salutation creates instant rapport.  Don’t overdo this and sprinkle the person’s name throughout the body of the email. Nothing seems more automated and canned.

2. Use second person narrative to make readers a part of your story.

Keep the focus on your constituent. Use “you” and “your” rather than “I,” “us,” “we” and “our.” [If you use Bloomerang, the Ahern Audit can help with this]. Write like you’re speaking to a friend. Read it aloud to see if it sounds stilted, too formal or replete with jargon.

Highlight the benefits to your supporter. Avoid dwelling on all the features that make your nonprofit great. While this may be true, and it’s important to you, it’s not what your constituents most care about.  Nor will it in any way ‘hook’ them or move them towards engaging with you.

Show readers how they can join you right away in doing something amazing. “You can make sure Jimmy gets a meal tomorrow.” If you want, attach a brief video with Jimmy talking about how he doesn’t know where his next meal is coming from. Honestly, that’s really all I need to see and hear. I don’t need pages of statistics on the numbers of homeless and hungry in the county or the programs you’re adding to address increased demand. I know you want to tell me all that stuff, but… is that what you told your husband, dog, teddy bear, or friend?

3. Review, refine, and rework your content with A/B testing

One of the best ways to know if your message is crafted in the best way possible is to text variations. This is known as A/B testing, and the key is to alter only one variable at a time. This is critical, because otherwise you won’t get clarity on the reason one outperformed the other.

Simply design two different email templates and randomly split your email list into two groups. Each template should have one different element. You might try the subject line, the sender, the shape, color or placement of the donation button, the image, or whatever you think might make a difference.

4. Leverage the power of the P.S.

You may already know the value of the P.S. in a fundraising letter. It’s the Park Place and Boardwalk when it comes to all the available pieces of real estate in your message. The same can hold true for your email.

It’s a great place to reiterate your SMIT – single most important thing you have to say. Consider reiterating your call to action here. Or add a bit of urgency – could be a deadline — to motivate readers to act now, not later.

Make Sure What You Say Gets Heard

Trees fall in the forest all the time.

So what?

If no one hears your message, don’t be surprised when they take no notice.

Here are a few procedural tips to assure your message is heard:

  • Avoid spammy content which messes with email delivery. Some of the ways to avoid spam filters in your email marketing include: (1) limiting content to 150 – 200 words to keep under spam radar; (2) avoiding image only emails as filters treat them as empty messages; (3) avoiding all-caps sentences, exclamation marks and phrases like “Free Offer,” “Click Here,” “Don’t Miss” and “This is not spam.”
  • Update your lists and validate email addresses using an email validator adhering to GDPR-complaint security protocols.

Are You Conveying The Best Message You Can?

Take a minute right now to jot down the SMIT – single most important thing – you’d like to say to your constituents this week.

What do you want to say?

Got an idea?


Before you craft your content, also think about why you want to offer this particular message.

What’s your end game?

You’ve got to know this going in, or you’re apt to say the wrong thing. Or maybe you’ll say the right thing, but in the wrong way.

Go back and re-read this article, follow the tips, and take a cue from Nike:

Just. Do. It!

P.S. “We’ve got to be as clear-headed about human beings as possible, because we are still each other’s only hope.”  ~ James Baldwin

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