You + a Writer (Can) = Fundraising Success

Sooner or later, every fundraiser is faced with it. You can’t avoid it, despite the horror stories you’ve heard whispered in the hallways at conferences and posted on social-media sites.

Eventually you will have to rely on someone else to write copy for your fundraising program. You simply can’t do everything, and something has to give.

The writer may be an outside professional hired to write a grant proposal, direct-mail letter, newsletter or capital campaign proposal. It may be a staff member who is “loaned” to you for a project. It may be the daughter of your receptionist who needs credit for a school project. But it won’t be you.

So how do you make the experience a win-win for everyone instead of a waste of time and money at best and an unmitigated disaster at worst?

Make sure the information you provide in the first place is up-to-date. OK, that sounds easy enough. But sadly, this first step is where many projects break down. You forget to mention that the information on your website is outdated. Or the story you provided was meant only as background as that project is no longer applicable.

There is a lot of information out there about your nonprofit. Apprise your writer on what is good information and what isn’t. Admit it when your website isn’t up-to-date. Cross out old information in a brochure. It’s better to provide a would-be writer accurate numbers written on a napkin than graphically beautiful brochures that have bad facts.

Several months ago, I proposed to a nonprofit (at its request) using a specific project for the focus on the appeal letter. The response was, “Where did you come up with that? Don’t you get us at all? That’s not what we do!” Oh, sorry — I picked it up directly from your website …”

Avoid embarrassment all around, and make sure the would-be writer is equipped with accurate information from which to work.

When you get the first draft, remember that you are not reading an essay for English 101. It’s a conversation that just happens to be in print.

So read the copy out loud. Mark things that make you stumble because your reader may stumble there, too. But unless it’s a corporate mandate, don’t purge all contractions or colloquialisms; after all, that’s how we talk. And an occasional split infinitive or a sentence starting with “and” or “but” is OK. Really.

Oh — and so are one-word sentences.

Edit to make it better, not just different. It’s always tempting to want to leave our mark on things, so give us a red pen and a piece of copywriting, and our inner editor comes out. But resist the urge to earn your keep by over-editing.

It’s easy (for me, at least) to fall into the trap of putting in a lot of edits that are really just my personal preferences; they aren’t going to make one iota of difference. So I have to fight (myself) to avoid that. After all, my pointless edits can discourage a writer until he or she won’t even try to challenge the status quo anymore; you’ll just get same-old, same-old copy time and again. The reasoning becomes, “Why bother being creative? All the life will just be sucked out of it by the editor.”

But feel free to edit freely to make it read better, give more accurate information, flow correctly or whatever is needed that truly improves the copy.

Combine comments from multiple editors into one master document. In other words, you have to make the call. Don’t send your writer two or more sets of edits and expect him or her to decide who is higher in the organizational pecking order and thus has to be followed in case of a disagreement.

This is especially trying when one editor likes something and another doesn’t. How is the writer to decide if it stays in or not? Someone has to make the judgment call — and that shouldn’t be the writer.

Make it easy for the writer to see any changes and offer explanations. It’s challenging (and time-consuming) to be sent back a document with the changes just made with no use of “track changes,” highlighting or another tool to call them out. Learning from the changes made helps a writer not repeat the same changes over and over, but if they are buried in the document, they may be overlooked and the learning experience doesn’t happen.

Also, if there’s a reason for something, add a comment so the writer knows not to repeat the same thing again. For example, a comment may read, “Mary (the letter signer) never likes to call them donors; she prefers supporters or partners,” or, “We don’t use contractions here; our board chair feels they are too informal.”

Ask questions. Don’t be afraid to ask, “Why did you write it this way?” instead of just changing something. There may be a very valid reason that the writer chose a particular word or left out some information. You’re not abdicating your responsibility to the writer; rather, you are working as a team to make sure the copy both reflects your organization and its needs and is written the best way possible to communicate that message.

A writer who works well with you is not by chance; it’s the result of open dialogue and some give and take on both sides. This old dog knows how much easier it is to write fundraising copy when there’s a good partnership with the person initially reviewing the copy. Writers want to nail it for you, so mutual respect goes a long way to making that a reality.

Originally published in NonProfit Pro.

Author: PJBarden

With a professional career in strategic fundraising that spans more than 35 years, Pamela brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to working with nonprofit organizations. She specializes in writing fundraising copy, grant proposals, P.R. materials, instructional articles and blog entries, as well as developing and executing fundraising strategy for her clients. Pamela is a Certified Fundraising Executive (CFRE); an instructor for UCLA Extension School’s Fundraising Certification Program and the University of La Verne, College of Business and Public Management; a frequent webinar speaker; and author of two online courses for UCLA Extension. Pamela earned a Doctorate of Business Administration in 2015; her doctoral project (dissertation) was entitled “Nonprofit Organizations’ Awareness of and Preparation for Legislation, Regulation, and Increasing Scrutiny.” She is a past winner of a Gold Award for Fundraising Excellence and an ECHO Award from DMA; recipient of a Distinguished Instructors Award from UCLA Extension; a weekly columnist for NonprofitPRO (formerly Fundraising Success); and a monthly contributor to Blackbaud’s blog, npEngage.

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