Founder Speak

This month my business partner Wilder Gutterson and I were chatting about what happens to people’s writing in charities that are strongly “founder driven” — meaning a visionary founder is still at the helm. (Wilder’s just completed a Master’s degree in organisational psychology.) We identified three particular challenges writers face in founder driven charities. Here they are – with some ideas about how to tackle them.

1. A lot of founders don’t like writing.

A lot doesn’t mean all, of course, but we’ve met many founders who prefer talking to writing, speed to process. These are front-of-the-pack people of action. One founder even became addicted to words that begin with the letter “A”: the charity had to act assertively and ambitiously, be aggressively alert to advantages, and so on. The in-house writer had fun quietly introducing words that began with later letters in the alphabet.

You, as a professional writer, also know that good writing is a creative process that demands patience. Yet fast-acting founders might think you should dash off every document at lightning speed, run a spell check on it, then move on. That’s how they work – and telling them anything else won’t go down well. We overheard one powerful charity founder tell a gifted writer, with astonishment, “Oh, I finally get it! You write drafts!

Worse: the founder who dislikes writing may especially dislike your writing. Your job is to capture their dream on paper, and you’re bound to get it wrong.

So when writing for them, keep it short and simple. Emails should fit in a screen shot. Summary proposals should be one page, max. Letters you draft for their signature should go straight to the point and end with a very short closing paragraph. If there are words they really love, try to use them, but embed them in sentences that you craft.

2. Founders tend to tell rather than show.

They believe the problem they’re solving is the scourge of the earth. They think their charity’s solution is the best one, or even the only one. Of course they do. They founded a whole charity to fight this problem, single-handed.

Some people are swept along by their fiery enthusiasm. Others quietly retreat. It’s your job to fill in the blanks by showing rather than telling. This is especially true in grant applications, where you need to outline exactly how you will measure impact. A good strategy is to start with the evaluation section, or rehearse with colleagues how you can prove you’re a good investment. This is typically the bit that founders overstate – and in so doing, they lose the trust of experienced funders.

Encourage founders to tell personal stories, too. Stories are a lovely way of showing impact, as long as there are numbers to back them up. Most founders are great natural story tellers, or can be with just a little coaching.

3. Founders don’t like disagreement.

So what if you do disagree? What if the preferred “house style” is leaden, or your founder doesn’t have a perfect grasp of grammar?

This is where you need every ounce of your emotional intelligence. If your founder whips out a red pen and only makes things worse, or writes something you know could be better, don’t fight over the changes then and there. Instead, ask them what impact they most want to have on the reader. Don’t tell them how you’re going to change the text. Just go away and do it.

If they say they want to inspire confidence, for example, then revise with shorter sentences and pepper your text (or theirs) with more active verbs. If they want to impress upon people how terrible a problem is, then blend one very powerful (and short) story with some rock-solid evidence. If your founder insists on something ungrammatical (using the verb “comprise” wrongly is a common one), it’s best to say something like, “Isn’t English weird? I used to get confused about the word comprise too! I had to look it up three times!”

That way your founder isn’t shamed. For while founders may be incredibly compelling in person, they also tend to lie awake at night worrying that nobody cares. They think they’re busier than everyone else (and they may be). They feel easily overloaded by other people’s ideas. They’ve given heart and soul to this charity and exposed a lot about themselves in the process, and the last thing they want is to be held back or corrected.

So take it easy, treat them gently, and don’t let their dislike of writing get to you. You’re doing something you love that they themselves can’t do – and that’s not an easy thing for a founder to admit.

PS Are you a founder? Let us know if any of this rings true – or not – for you! And kudos to you for doing the hardest job of all!