3 Reasons a Copywriter Should Tell Your Nonprofit’s Stories

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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)

Show, Don’t Tell, You’re Making a Difference

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Is your organization “making a difference?”

If so, can you find a new way to say it?

One of my most meaningful jobs was at a fundraising organization for a children’s hospital. If supporting a place that rescues kids from the brink of death isn’t “making a difference,” I don’t know what is. But my much-smarter supervisor refused to let us use that phrase.

“Every nonprofit says that,” she’d (accurately) point out. “We need to show how we’re making that difference.”

She was right then, and she’s still right.

A nonprofit mailer I just received invited me to join all the people “who are making a difference in the fight against premature births.”

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Wouldn’t a statement such as, “Become one of the millions who are making sure babies are born healthy” resonate more and reinforce the mission? Backed up by the story of a real baby born healthy because of the nonprofit’s intervention, this mailer will plant an immediate picture in my head: Babies are dying. I can help.

By seizing every opportunity to paint a picture or tell a story, you’ll do more than “make a difference.” You’ll grab someone’s attention long enough to communicate your message and inspire them to action.

Writer Makes You See What’s No Longer There

I’ve never wanted to go to Alabama. Until now.

I started reading “A march into history” by Scott Vogel of The Washington Post because of the subhead, believe it or not:

“Alabama women who lived it help give a 21st-century spirit to the civil rights struggle.”

The black-and-white photo showed only males, but because of the writing, I was intrigued by the idea of a story about strong women previously unrecognized by history. In several strokes of genius in what could be a primer on storytelling, Vogel aims to get an emotional reaction from his readers.

This is much more than an article about why you should visit the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute museum and research center.

Continue reading “Writer Makes You See What’s No Longer There”

The Psychology Behind Storytelling

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As a nonprofit professional, unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few years, you know that storytelling – sharing the real stories of real people whose lives were enriched by your help – is the best way to reach potential donors.

More and more, causes are using stories in their solicitations. So why do they sometimes not work?

Let’s first examine the psychological context to see why (when done well) real stories do work.

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Making Data Analytics Work for Freelancers (or, How to Get and Keep Clients)

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“Do you want more clients? Do you want to keep good clients coming back?”

Nearly early every head in the room nodded vigorously in response to Jed Jones, co-founder and chief data scientist at MindEcology.

The key to finding and keeping good clients, Jed said, is using metrics to match your needs as a freelancer to those of your clients. Sadly, most freelancers don’t do an adequate job reporting back to their clients on how they did.

Metrics? In freelance communications?

“Metrics aren’t just the numbers. It’s reminding clients how you fulfilled your agreement.”

“All of us need to own ourselves as a small business, and there’s a data component to any business,” Jones said. “Metrics aren’t just the numbers. It’s reminding clients how you fulfilled your agreement.”

Jones, a former writer and marketer for Dell in Japan who was speaking to Freelance Austin, has been on both sides: A freelancer looking for work, and a company hiring freelancers.

Can you guess the most pressing needs of content creators (writers, photographers, editors, designers, strategists, social media users) and those of clients and prospects?

Content Creators’ Top 4 Needs

  1. Get more clients and projects, and keep existing work.
  2. Create positive buzz about our business.
  3. Complete projects with minimum friction and maximum efficiency.
  4. Minimize clients’ unhappiness and maximize their happiness.

Clients’ and Prospects’ Pressing Needs

  1. Make more sales/get more donations.
  2. Generate interest, views and submissions.
  3. Save money and control costs.
  4. Recruit more members, readers, consumers and/or customers.
  5. Keep their [your contact’s] job and please their boss.

“Every one of a client’s needs relates to revenue, and you’re a cost center,” Jones said. They’re hiring you so they can check things off their to-do list and get favorable feedback from their peers or bosses or clients,” Jones said. “That’s your job.”

The obvious way to make a client happy is to produce a quality product on time and within budget. But it doesn’t end there. A freelancer can use metrics (data) to show all the ways in which she’s helped the organization, reflecting her true value.

“You want to make sure they understand how good a job you did for them,” Jones said. “Tell them in six different ways, then tell them once or twice more.”

Jones’ official definition of metrics is the quantitative measure of how your project performed or is performing. His self-described “looser” definition includes qualitative information.

What to Measure

When deciding what to measure, think back to the client’s needs, who’s going to care (internally and externally) and what objective your project is tied to.

Quantitative Metrics

  • Revenue or funds raised
  • Views/reads/new visitors/purchases
  • Shares/likes/follows
  • Click-throughs
  • Downloads
  • Content that’s the agreed-on length, submitted by deadline and within budget

Be sure to compare your quantitative metrics to benchmarks the client gave you with the assignment. If you didn’t receive any, asking for them will show you’re thinking about results.

Qualitative Metrics

  • Client feedback along the way
  • Lifetime value of what you did
  • Number of revisions, or the ease of the revision process
  • Ways you helped make the project work smoothly

Many freelancers are reticent to share this kind of information with clients because we feel we’re tooting our own horn.

“Yes! We are, and we have to be,” Jones said. “I’ve learned in my own career that being humble is no good. Telling clients what they can expect from you, updating them on your progress regularly, and showing them the many ways you helped them post-engagement is the only way to get and keep the best.”

4 Ways Not to Choose a Hero for Your Nonprofit Story

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In nonprofit fundraising, telling the story of someone who has directly benefited from an organization’s services is the most effective way to move a potential donor to action. Finding such a story can be difficult, of course, but that doesn’t mean you should take the easy route.

No matter what kind of time crunch you’re in, resist the temptation to:

1. Use a board member’s story.

Maybe a member of your board of directors was once a beneficiary or an on-the-ground volunteer. But if they’re on the board during the fundraising campaign, find someone else to feature in your campaign. Telling a real person’s story gives your organization credibility, so don’t run the risk of negating your authenticity by using an insider.

2. Select a subject by consensus.

Your internal team is not the audience. Each of you is too invested in your own view of your nonprofit to be objective. You also may be biased toward a candidate because you know the person, or you may have other biases you’re not even aware of (most of us do). Given all that baggage, getting everyone to agree on the story to feature in a fundraising campaign too often devolves into selecting the lowest common denominator. Seek advice from outside your inner circle.

3. Use a story simply because a big donor suggests it.

Donors, staff and volunteers undoubtedly are your best sources for story subjects. However, that doesn’t mean you should select a particular subject simply to please them. Doubling your fundraising results from last year will please them much more than using a story that doesn’t illustrate your message or move your audience to action.

4. Let communications and development staff find stories in silos.

I could (and will) write an entire post about why communications and development departments that work together get the best results. In the 2017 Nonprofit Communications Trends Report, only 34% of communications staff reported being consulted about fundraising decisions. These organizations are missing out – and giving yours a chance to get ahead. Be the nonprofit that keeps territorialism out of the discussion, and you’ll see truly stunning results.

All this boils down to one thing: Don’t let too much of an internal focus derail your fundraising efforts. Keep your target audience and the behavior you want them to exhibit at the forefront when you’re selecting someone to feature in your fundraising materials.