A story in 14 words

You know, I write a lot of stories designed to inspire people to give to nonprofits and causes. Then I read a headline like this:

Patagonia’s CEO is donating company’s entire $10M Trump tax cut to fight climate change.

An entire story of cause, giving and inspiration in one sentence. Not bad.

Why copy should always come before design

Would you buy an outfit for someone you’ve never met?

Of course not. You’d likely miss the mark, buying a men’s romper when they prefer a skinny suit or a size XL dress when they wear a petite small. In the end, the design outside wouldn’t fit the personality inside.

The same thing happens when a marketing team jumps right into the visual design of a project and expect to drop in the message later.

And just like the outfit, this approach to creative work won’t result in the best fit for you or your client.

Let’s explore two examples.

“MCON is for people who give a damn about social change and are ready to take action.”

When the Achieve agency team began to think about branding for MCON, a conference for social movements, we spent the most time on developing the messaging first.

Why? We wanted to make sure our audience knew two things: MCON was the biggest, baddest conference for people who want social change, and it would never be your normal, stuffy, we’ll-talk-at-you experience. That’s how we came up with “MCON is for people who give a damn about social change and are ready to take action.”

If we’d started with our designers, they undoubtedly would’ve created web and promotional graphics that would catch your eye. (They were very good.) But with the words “people who give a damn” and “ready to take action” as clues, they were able to hone in on the personality we wanted to convey and attract: People who don’t wait for permission or take no for an answer. People who are doing rather than talking. Innovators. Activists.

Pictures speak a thousand words, it’s said … but you want potential supporters to know exactly what you’re saying and what action you want them to take.

In fundraising campaigns, powerful visuals can help drive donor behavior by enhancing an emotionally compelling message. One of Achieve’s clients, Big Dog Ranch Rescue, saves dogs from being euthanized at animal shelters (they’re called last-day dogs) and had a goal of raising $50,000. Visuals for a fundraising campaign seemed a no-brainer! What’s better than cute puppies and doleful dogs staring into the camera?

However, we’d already determined that the client needed to communicate a clear message and a strong call to action. So we started with copy. We told the story of how a donor could save a dog’s life with a $100 gift, and “Save 500 Last-Day Dogs in 30 Days” became the theme and call to action.

Only then did we determine visuals. No sad, desperate animals here: Our photos were of happy dogs and puppies enjoying (perhaps their last day of) life.

The story and visuals were used in a multichannel campaign that resonated with donors – exceeding the client’s Great Give 2016 fundraising total by $175,000 and its #GivingTuesday total by another $150,000.

Design before copy can inhibit or limit a copywriter’s creative thinking. Writing the copy first can set a talented designer’s brain on fire with ideas. Best of all, when writers and designers are allowed to work together without the constraints of clients or managers inexperienced in writing and design, they can produce work that astounds, inspires, moves – and leads to achieving your goals.

I originally published this post at achieveagency.com. Photo by RawPixel.

How ‘PR spin’ helps communicate clearly

Among everything we as a society are (hopefully) learning from last week’s confrontation among high school students, Native Americans and Black Hebrew Israelites, I hope one of them is this: Using a PR firm to communicate clearly with the media and the public at large is not, in itself, a bad thing.

The family of Nick Sandmann, the MAGA hat-wearing student in the initial video, hired a public relations firm to help him write a statement to share his version of what happened that day. This action ignited a tweet storm of criticism, equating PR with “spin, spin, spin.”

This reaction is nothing new. The public is most often aware of PR when a celebrity or organization is trying to sidestep responsibility for a mistake. Because the stereotypical PR pro is a bullshitter, the public blames them for the obfuscation.

Telling the truth as we know it

In reality, nearly all PR pros advocate for transparency and accountability, especially in a crisis. However, we’re not the client or CEO; we can only advise, then support whatever decision is ultimately made.

In the case of Sandmann, this is a high school student and his family – people like you, or your sister’s kid, or your next-door neighbor whose teenager is always doing dumb, teenager stuff. All of a sudden, this kid is bombarded with experienced reporters on deadline, each scrambling to get the story first. 

Can you imagine what that’s like? And can you imagine any other situation in which we’d expect a high school student to represent himself in such a high-pressure situation without professional advice?

Now, I’m not naive. Maybe Sandmann is an absolute jerk, and his family sought help to mitigate his behavior. My point is that the fact of simply hiring a public relations firm does not necessarily mean we’re getting a story that’s inaccurate from their point of view. 

Regardless of how you feel about the social issues at play in this situation – and believe me, I’m not defending anyone on those grounds – give the family a break on trying to communicate clearly and keep the situation from getting worse.

4 Steps to Great Nonprofit Storytelling

As a nonprofit leader, you can find plenty of lists telling you what to do and what not to do for your year-end fundraising: Reinforce your message with Facebook ads. Tell donors how their gifts help. Don’t forget to say thank you. Capture email addresses!

No. 1 on my list: Take an honest, objective look at how you’re telling your story.

That word “story” can be perplexing. If your website has an About Us page, you’re telling a story, right? If a direct mail letter explains why you need to raise funds, aren’t you being persuasive?

Maybe. But neither is the right kind of storytelling for donors, because these stories are too focused on you.

Who does a potential donor want you to focus on? Them! How do they want to feel? Like they can create real change in the world … through your nonprofit.

OK, that last part, “through your nonprofit,” is the path you want them to take once they are inspired to help. To generate a desire to join you in doing good, you need to inspire emotion and them the power to act on it.

Your storytelling focus is the key. In your end-of-year fundraising (or any awareness-building or fundraising campaign), you could try to write a donor-inspiring story that focuses on what your nonprofit empowers a donor to do. Or, you could write a story that focuses on what a donor can do through your nonprofit.

There’s a subtle difference in those two statements: The focus. Keeping it in mind will help you and your staff transform your storytelling.

Here are some tips on how to write a donor-inspiring nonprofit story:

1. Interview a beneficiary.

Best-case scenario is to interview someone whose life has gotten better because they experienced your nonprofit. That’s why people volunteer for and donate to any cause: to create change in someone’s life. So, start with a real person for whom donors made help possible.

If you’re with a homeless shelter, interview someone who got on the path toward self-sufficiency after interacting with your organization. If you’re with a community art center, find an artist who can now pursue a lifelong dream, thanks to donor support. If your agency protects the environment, talk to people who have lived in a polluted one. You get the idea.

2. Do your homework.

When you ask for suggesstions of people to interview, be clear about what type of individuals you’re looking for. (Review my 4 Ways Not to Choose a Hero for your Nonprofit Story). Then find out as much as you can about their interactions with employees and volunteers from your agency. If you don’t ask, you may never know about the heartfelt letter they wrote or the volunteer who visited them in their home. Google them for news stories, too. The insights you gain can give you valuable story background and great ideas for interview questions.

3. Make it a conversation.

In your interview, don’t stick too closely to a list of scripted questions. Treat them as a guideline rather than an itemized must-answer list. Whenever I interview a potential story subject, I get the best information and most quotable quotes from letting them talk.

Give yourself plenty of time to do this. Try not to schedule a meeting immediately following the interview to avoid being rushed and to give yourself time for final reflections after you end the call.

And listen, actively and with your full attention. People willing to share a life-changing experience with you deserve the most respect and patience you can muster. Allow them to be tentative and to talk at their own pace. If they pause, don’t jump right in with your next question.

Give them time, ask attentive questions, and they’ll get deeper into details that will speak to a donor’s emotions.

4. Write about the individual, not the organization.

You could write the individual’s story as, “See what we did for Jane Smith!” Or, you could write the story from Jane’s perspective.

How do we learn empathy? By putting ourselves in other people’s shoes. Putting your audience in Jane’s shoes – witnessing her everyday struggles, understanding why she didn’t seek help, feeling her amazement when your nonprofit stepped in and being proud of herself when you left – is hands down the best way to show a donor why their gift matters.

Your donor can be a hero. They truly can change someone’s life. And you’ve shown them how.

A word of caution to those in charge:

If you’re a board member or CEO, use your influence sparingly. If this is a big shift in your nonprofit’s messaging approach, don’t scrap an idea your staff planned strategically simply because you have another one, or the board treasurer wants to write the letter, or “what we’ve always done has worked well.” Maybe it has … and maybe a new approach will work even better. Talk through the merits of each with open minds, and consider testing each approach with a real audience.

I guarantee one thing: Your nonprofit will never have more credibility, empathy and potential for donations than when a beneficiary sings your praises for you.

4 Ways Not to Choose a Hero for Your Next Fundraising Appeal

female boxer happy

(This post has appeared on my LinkedIn and at Achieve’s website.)

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, avoid these pitfalls in writing a nonprofit fundraising appeal:

1. Don’t 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. Don’t select a subject by consensus.

Your internal team is not the audience. Each of you is too invested in your own viewpoint to be objective. You also may be biased because you know the candidate or for any number of other reasons. Given all that baggage, getting everyone to agree too often devolves into selecting the lowest common denominator. Seek advice from outside your inner circle.

3. Don’t use a story simply because a big donor suggests it.

Donors, staff and volunteers undoubtedly are your best sources for finding 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 move your audience to action.

4. Don’t let communications and development work in silos.

I could 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 territorial fights 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.

3 Reasons Why a Professional Should Write Your Cause’s Story

Chalkboard: What's Your Story?


Your communications and development teams are brainstorming approaches to your next fundraising campaign. Fueled by collaboration and the smell of multicolored markers, they’re excitedly filling big Post-It wall pads with phrases and sketches, reconfigured and brand-new ideas. Then a development staffer chimes in with, “Why don’t we ask one of our clients to write the appeal this year? I know the perfect person to do it!”

You feel the room almost physically divide as co-workers mentally retreat into their departmental territories.

To the development employees, 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?

Meanwhile, the communications side of the room is tense. They thought their development friends were finally getting it: credibility, consistent messaging, the principles of great storytelling. In a panic, they think it’s all headed out the window.

I couldn’t agree more with the development staff: Nothing’s better than hearing from someone whose life a donor helped change.

However, I couldn’t disagree more with the suggestion for executing the idea.

Storytelling is an art, and not everyone is an artist. So, here are my top three reasons why a copywriter, not a client or donor or board member, should craft a beneficiary’s story for your nonprofit’s appeal:

1. Most people are not strong writers.

By asking someone to write a coherent, cohesive, compelling story about a crucial event, 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 unusable? Do you grit your teeth and go forward because you can’t afford to offend the writer or the person who suggested them?

2. They know their story, but not your message.

A woman who escaped years of abuse through the help of a nonprofit shared her story with me in a two-hour phone interview that was emotional, raw and all over the place. If she’d written the appeal, the point would have been lost in the details of her experience. My job as a copywriter was to share her story (her authentic, emotional story) in a way that showed how donors saved her and rescue women just like her every day.

3. You lose advantages inherent in an interview.

When actively listening to someone tell a story, you can guide them 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 home a crucial point. As the writer, you can make sure you end up with the information you need.

One argument I hear often is, “But I’ve seen videos of clients talking about themselves, and people love them!”

Yes, videos can be powerful motivators. However, the most effective ones are planned, shot and re-shot over hours and hours, and carefully edited.

A talented copywriter can take the best of a client’s story and put it into context: This happy ending is possible because donors like you stepped in, and we can create more stories with your support. The result will be a much more powerfully persuasive appeal designed to elicit targeted audience behaviors that will move your organization toward its goals, without any loss of authenticity.

Read my 4 Steps to Great Nonprofit Storytelling, too.