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 needs to raise funds, you’re telling a story, right?

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 does your reader want to feel? Like they can create real change in the world … through your nonprofit.

OK, that last part, “through your nonprofit,” is what you want them to feel. You generate that feeling by focusing on inspiring the emotion. Hand them the power to improve the world.

Your focus in 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 a nonprofit empowers a donor to do. Or, you can:
  • Write a donor-inspiring 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’s 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. 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. 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 names 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 multicolored markers, they’re excitedly 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 to write the appeal this year? I know the perfect person to do it!”

You 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?

Meanwhile, communications is tense. They thought development was finally getting it: credibility, consistent messaging and all the rest of the principles they build their outreach on. Instead, they’re about to watch all that go 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.

I couldn’t disagree more with your co-worker’s suggestion for executing this idea.

Here are my three most important reasons why a copywriter, not a client or donor or board member, should tell a client’s story in your nonprofit’s appeal:


By asking someone to write a coherent, cohesive 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?


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 donors help improve the lives of women just like her.


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!”

Yes, videos can be powerful motivators. However, the most effective ones are planned and/or edited.

A talented copywriter can take the best of a client’s story and put it into context: This story is possible because you helped, and we can create more stories again with your support. The end result will be a powerfully persuasive appeal designed to elicit audience behaviors that will move your organization toward its goals.