Your nonprofit’s communications and development teams are excitedly brainstorming approaches to your nonprofit’s next campaign. Fueled by collaboration and multicolored markers, they’re filling big Post-It wall pads with phrases and sketches, reconfigured and brand-new ideas. Then someone (usually in development) chimes in with, “Why don’t we ask one of our clients or donors to write the appeal this year? I know the perfect person to do it!”
You can feel the room almost physically divide as co-workers retreat into their departmental territories. To development staff, the idea makes a lot of sense: People become donors to help solve a problem. What could be better than hearing directly from someone whose life they helped change? You might even be able to involve a donor you’re trying to cultivate for a larger gift.
Meanwhile, communications staff feel a definite chill. They thought development was finally getting it: credibility, consistent messaging and all the rest of the principles they build their outreach on. Instead, they fear they’re about to be left out in the cold.
I couldn’t agree more with the development staff: Nothing’s better than hearing from someone whose life a donor helped change. I also couldn’t disagree more with your co-worker’s suggestion for executing this idea.
Here are my three top reasons why a copywriter, not a client or board member, should tell a client’s story in your nonprofit’s appeal:
1. Most people aren’t strong writers.
By asking someone to write a coherent, cohesive story about a crucial interaction with your organization, you’re asking them to use a skill most won’t possess. What do you do when their story needs significant editing at best or, at worst, is dull? Do you grit your teeth and use the story because development can’t afford to offend the writer?
2. They know their story, not your message.
A woman who escaped years of abuse with the help of a nonprofit shared her story with me in a two-hour phone interview. If she’d written the appeal, the message would have been lost in the details of what happened to her. My job as a copywriter was to share her story (her real, authentic story) in a way that also showed how the nonprofit helps change the lives of women just like her – and needs gifts to keep doing it.
3. You lose the advantage an interview gives you.
When you’re actively listening to someone, you can guide the direction of the story with your questions. You can gently move them along if they get off track, ask for details about a particular aspect to make it more vivid, or explore a comment they gloss over but you know could drive the point home. As the writer, you know what you need to end up with – so you can make sure you get there.
One argument I hear often is this: “But we have videos of our clients talking about what happened to them, and people love them!”
Videos can be powerful motivators. However, here’s a question: Were those videos edited – a few minutes cut out here and there, a sentence from near the end moved to the beginning, on-screen graphics or text added, etc.? Or did you post the raw footage, start to finish, on your website so you wouldn’t offend anyone?
A talented copywriter can take the best of a client’s story and put it into context: This story is possible because your nonprofit was there to help, thanks to donors. The end result will be a powerfully persuasive appeal designed to elicit audience behaviors that will move your organization toward its goals.
(first published on LinkedIn)