A Mightier Pen Can Help
Charities Spread Messages
By Maureen West
AT TABLE TO TABLE, an Iowa City antihunger charity, Bob Andrlik leads a staff
of only three other people who
are often busy working on the
So when he must write the organization’s grant proposals or
its newsletters, annual reports,
or anything else going out to the
public, he often turns to volunteers to read behind him.
They help to get his writing
just right, he says.
One volunteer who has a way
with words advises him specifically on grant proposals. Mr.
Andrlik credits her suggestions for a community-founda-tion grant that the charity gets
every year now that varies between $5,000 and $10,000.
“For many online [grant ap-
plications], you can’t insert pho-
tos to help make your case,”
Mr. Andrlik notes. “You have
to have data and passages that
appeal to the heart working in
Demand for strong writing
skills among nonprofit employ-
ees is growing as Facebook,
Twitter, blogs, and online com-
munications take a role along-
side the traditional news releas-
es, fundraising appeals, and an-
“Writing can’t be siloed with
one communications person
anymore,” says Jamie Millard,
who manages communications
at the Charities Review Council, a nonprofit watchdog group
in St. Paul.
But many nonprofit workers
don’t have the skills they need
to succeed, say experts.
Some need remedial writing
help, says Dalya Massachi, author of Writing to Make a Difference.
She says bosses shouldn’t assume that even college graduates can write at a professional
level because so few institutions
teach grammar or the critical
thinking processes that go into
“Many nonprofit professionals haven’t had that training
but can get it easily from books,
online, or more formally,” says
Ms. Massachi, of Oakland, Calif., who has spent two decades
helping nonprofits craft grant
proposals and handle other
Fortunately, she adds, many
nonprofit organizations or associations and colleges offer continuing-education classes that
can help people learn to write
strong grant proposals or produce better social-media contents.
Nonprofit employees who are
deeply involved in creating writ-
ten communications should con-
sider such training, says Kris-
tin Dunstan, vice president for
marketing and communications
at the Community Foundation
for Greater Atlanta.
Sometimes writing lessons
can come from unexpected places.
For example, Mr. Andrlik, of
Table to Table, who took cre-ative-writing classes in college,
says detective fiction has taught
him the power of tension and
suspense, which he tries to incorporate into his writing on behalf of his charity.
While he doesn’t exactly
channel Raymond Chandler
in his nonprofit-related writing, Mr. Andrlik uses his storyteller’s knack for connecting to
what different members of an
audience care about, whether
in a grant proposal or a speech
about Table to Table, which distributes unsold food from bakeries, supermarkets, restaurants,
and elsewhere to soup kitchens
and other places that feed the
For some potential donors, the
hot button is not wasting food.
For others, it is the crisis moment of being there when people need help. After the Eastern
Iowa floods in 2008, his fund-
Jamie Millard, of the Charities Review Council, says reading short fiction has helped
inspire her to craft concise, compelling blog entries.
raising appeal was, in part,
“Life can be upended when you
least expect it.”
“The floods were a shared
experience for the community,
and we tapped into what people
cared about,” Mr. Andrlik says.
“From a storytelling point of
view, we already had an emo-
tional connection, and we added
Claire Meyerhoff, a commu-
nications consultant in Alex-
andria, Va., who specializes in
fundraising, suggests paying
attention to any writing that
draws you in, even if it’s just an
advertisement or a magazine
“If you find yourself entranced, then ask yourself:
What is making you want to
keep reading?” she says.
The answer, more often than
not, is going to be conversational, jargon-free writing, Ms. Meyerhoff says.
is usually larded with jargon
phrases like “capacity building”
and “impacting,” she says, but
they convey nothing extra for
all their baggage.
“It’s better to just say in everyday language what you
mean,” says Ms. Meyerhoff.
And it’s better to say it
every day, say experts. Frequent
practice can help all writers improve.
Since last May, Dawn Svenson Holland, president of Flash-Point Fundraising, a consultancy in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, has
used the free writing Web site,
750words.com, which encourages daily writing.
She writes on any topic that
comes into her head, but it often morphs into writing she can
use for work. “It has definitely
helped me get unstuck when
I was doing proposals or case
statements,” says Ms. Svenson
Continued on Page C- 4
A Blueprint for Building
Your Word Power
Write down helpful tips.
The act of writing will help you remember good ideas, Ms.
Write to an audience of one.
Have one real reader in mind, such as a particular relative or
a neighbor, says Claire Meyerhoff, a communications consultant in Alexandria, Va., who specializes in fundraising. Write
as if you are speaking to that person. If, say, a family member
helped you with a down payment on a car, you wouldn’t write
that person a note saying, “Together we found the funds to
purchase. ...” Just say thanks for the specific way the person
Avoid complicated language.
Strike a conversational tone and avoid jargon. “Impacting
youth is like double jargon,” notes Ms. Meyerhoff. If something affects kids, simply say it affects kids.
Don’t tell readers what they already know.
It’s boring and a quick way to lose their attention. Organizations do spend a lot of time recapping their missions even to
people who are longtime supporters, Ms. Meyerhoff notes.
Break it up.
Encourage the eye to move down the page by avoiding block
after block of plain text. In addition to small graphics or photos, you can break up paragraphs by using bold sentences,
bullet points, and highlighted quotes, says Jamie Millard of
the Charities Review Council, a nonprofit watchdog group in
When writing for online media, don’t copy and paste the title
of an article and then just add the link, Ms. Millard says. Instead, take the time to write from your organization’s perspective to introduce the link. This will signal to your followers that
a real person took the time to share a thoughtful resource.
Keep it brief.
Nearly everything you write can be shorter. If you can read
something in 30 seconds or less, says Ms. Meyerhoff, you
have a readable story for social media. —Maureen West