Six Deadly Sins of Nonprofit Writing
Confessions of a sinner
As a veteran writer for nonprofits, I know that mission-focused organizations win credibility with strong writing and lose credibility with poor writing. “Great content builds authority,” writes Caryn Stein, Director of Content Strategy for the Network for Good. “Great content reinforces trust.” And with credibility, authority and trust come grants, donations, influence, visibility, members and volunteers — all the makings of a successful nonprofit organization.
For those who practice the art of writing for nonprofits, I offer up these six deadly writing sins, which I know about only because I have, on occasion, committed every last one of them:
1. Infatuated with my own writing, I have committed the sin of enormous sentences.
“I have believed that it was so important that I make my vital, pressing, urgent point in the very first sentence of my direct appeal letter that I simply explained myself into a tape recorder and produced a transcript; then, I added punctuation; but I made sure that I got everything into that first sentence, because not only are long sentences: 1) smarter, 2) balanced, and 3) better, according to Mrs. Landers-Strunk-White, my 4th grade teacher, but, second, what was I saying?”
2. At a loss for words, I have committed the sin of compulsive clichés.
“So that said, I have pleaded that [my organization] and America faced an unprecedented crisis in [my issue], especially the children, and there was no time to lose worrying about making sense because, in the final analysis, in the new normal, if we didn’t utilize effective governance to get all hands on deck, then our organization and all of our stakeholders wouldn’t survive this perfect storm of these uncertain times, donor fatigue, and grapefruits the size of — wait for it — hail.”
3. In fits of conceit, I have committed the sin of relying on myself as my own proofreader.
“I am a skilled communications specialist with more than two decades of writing experience. I don’t need any editorial help as I am fully capable of poofreading my own writing.”
4. Terrified of offending anyone, and to emphasize the enormous importance of just about everything we do, I have committed the sin of over-capitalization.
“When we Welcome the Governor, the Mayor, the City Councilor, the President of The Board, the Assistant Manager of Food Services, the Supplier of Office Supplies, the Incoming Chairman and the Outgoing Chairman of The Local Chamber of Commerce, the Friendly Policeman, the Family Doctor, our Dear Friends and our Loyal Supporters to Our Annual Fundraising Event, we make sure that they are properly and respectfully Thanked in The Annual Fundraising Event Program Book.”
5. Forgetting my audience, I have committed the sin of excessive acronyms.
“When I was with the WWWWFFFFFF I spent so much time in my own special, wonderful world of women, wildlife, wrestling, wainscoting, flora, fauna, federations, ferengui, foundations and fun that my CSIA (Constant Stream of Incomprehensible Acronyms) AOEC (Alienated Our Entire Constituency). TTYL!”
6. Finally, I cannot lie: I have committed the inexcusable, the indefensible, the deadly sin of over-listing.
“Connected text is hard; it requires prepositions, punctuation, special care, orderly thought. Lists are so much easier: countless enumerations of goals, objectives, strategies, programs, important points, less important points, priorities, publications, obstacles, achievements. When writing, and lazy, I have at times lost my list-less-ness, and hence, my way.”
Mark Twain once advised: “To get the right word in the right place is a rare achievement.”
Whether writing for a new website page, a grant application, a newsletter, a fundraising appeal letter, a Facebook post, or an annual report: find the words, in the right place, at the right time.
That is the daily challenge faced by those who write not for profit, but for a cause.