Million-Dollar Nonprofit Writing

Not quite 10 years ago I wrote 25 words that helped generate more than $32 million for the nonprofit I worked for at the time.

The nonprofit… a children’s charity… was trying to develop a long-term income stream by buying (using nonprofit bonds) three assisted living facilities that would spin off extra cash flow. It was the most complicated deal I’ve ever been involved with.

Children’s charities and assisted living facilities don’t exactly line up and so we needed compelling and rational language that explained why the deal made sense.

I can’t find the exact key sentence, but it made reference to helping people at their most vulnerable stages of life; near birth and near death.

The bond issuance required an unbiased opinion letter from an unaffiliated lawyer who was an expert in nonprofit bonding. He identified my 25 words… among the thousands around them… as the underpinning for his positive opinion. Each of those 25 words turned out to be worth more than $1 million apiece.

The right words really can be invaluable to a cause. Used to be you could pawn off on the marketing-communications staff all the marketing, PR, and internal communications responsibilities.But with the rise of social media, which remains overwhelmingly tilted towards the word, everyone is now a writer.

A pity that everyone isn’t a skilled writer.

To brush up on your writing skills here are seven tips from an article published recently in the online version of the Chronicle of Philanthropy:

Seek feedback.
Professional writers and writing students have both formal and informal groups to review their work while it’s in process. Such groups all but demand that you have thick skin. However, chances are ‘workshopping’ your writing with others will help you improve faster than you could on your own.

Write down helpful tips.
Keep a journal of ideas and record them as they come to you. This will go a long way in helping you avoid the dreaded ‘writer’s block.’

Write to an audience of one.
This is an old writer’s trick that is more effective than you might guess. It works because most of us are talkers first and writers second. If committing your idea to the written word seems impossible, hold in your mind a single person and explain it to him or her. Then write it the way you’ve explained it.

Avoid complicated language.
When I was a kid I had a friend named Roy who was a terrific companion. But at age 9, 10, and 11, he was a little dim. When my writing gets too highfalutin or jargony, I try to strip out all the excess baggage such that someone like Roy could easily understand me. (What are the chances that Roy is now a rocket scientist or judge?)

Don’t tell readers what they already know.
Remember how much time the third Indiana Jones movie spends explaining what happened in the first two movies? The correct answer is almost no time is spent on backstory in the Indiana Jones movies. Instead, Indy’s adventures start from the first frame. Your writing should start fast, too.

Break it up.
Big blocks of text online are like death on burnt toast. Nobody wants any part of it. Even in print we use subheads, bullet points, pull quotes, graphics, pictures and the like to keep the text from turning into one big undifferentiated mess. Do at least that much online as well then add some meaningful links.

Keep it brief.
The Chronicle’s article says to be brief. But you should strive for more than brevity. You should strive to be concise. Remember what the Strunk and White wrote in their estimable book, Elements of Style? “Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.”