Your nonprofit is only as strong as the people who support you. Does your copywriting reflect this understanding?
As my friend and fundraising expert Derrick Feldmann says, people support you when they believe in a cause: Eliminating homelessness. Climate change. Animal rescue. Saving children. They believe in improving society, not in funding your organization.
Why, then, does your “About Us” web page talk almost exclusively about you?
Here’s my argument: Your copywriting has to evoke an emotional response – and About Us doesn’t mean what you think it does.
It’s Not About You
Your website gives you a chance to show potential supporters who they’ll be and what they can achieve when they join you. This will require language that creates a vivid picture in their minds of a place where “us” includes them making a difference.
Consider the following real example from a nonprofit that offers services to and advocates for adults and children with disabilities:
As America’s largest nonprofit health care organization, [Organization] is committed to the comprehensive health and wellness of the more than 1.4 million people it serves each year and is prepared to respond to the needs of the one in four Americans living with disability today with outcomes-based services for all disabilities throughout the lifespan.
This 54-word sentence reads like an encyclopedia entry, not authentic copywriting meant to move us to action. We can’t visualize what it’s like to be part of this group, and we won’t feel an emotional connection to the people who need help. The language feels clinical and cold, keeping us from feeling the strength of their belief.
It’s About Them
Now, contrast it with a page called “Who We Are” from a nonprofit that serves the families of hospitalized children:
They’ve created have a picture in my head: a sick child who needs Mom or Dad around to feel safe. I’m in that room, and “What can I do to help?” is my gut reaction. The only way this could be better is if the story was told through one family’s experience.
Raise Your Hand Texas also did a pretty good job touching my emotions:
I like the clear language and focus on the students. How could the writing be more appealing? Would you feel the need more viscerally if this story was shared through the impact on one student?
In reality, research has shown that people respond more positively when they hear about one person in a situation than when they hear about a hundred. A large number feels overwhelming – “That’s too big a problem” – while an individual makes it easy to think, “I could help one child.”
Speak to Your Audience’s Heart
As with any communications piece, keep your audience in mind when writing your About Us page. They don’t need or want a recitation of your accomplishments, or the definition you put on grant proposals, or a formal business statement. They want to feel a sense of belonging, a desire to join with you in a cause they already have feelings about.
By the way, look at the language you use to tell your nonprofit’s history, too, since it’s often on the About Us page. Is it focused on buildings and organizational growth, or on an expanding ability to serve more individuals?
(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.
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.