Writing Under Fire

When Passion’s Not Enough

I met with a woman recently who gives a fair bit of money away, some of it to charities I know well. We talked about a talented young fundraiser we both like. I began praising him, congratulating myself on doing him an invisible favour. Suddenly her expression changed from warm to sceptical.

“Oh, but these fundraisers,” she said. “They all have a passion for their cause. And then they all leave or get fired and go somewhere else, and then they turn up again with a passion for another cause.”

She has a point. Almost every day, LinkedIn tells me that somebody else has got a new job. People usually have good pragmatic reasons for change. Perhaps they have to move on if they want to move up, or they want a shorter commute. Or … something’s gone badly wrong at their old place of work.

Above The Parapet

At five o’clock one day you get an all-company email warning you that you won’t like the headlines in the morning. Your director’s been fired. You’re closing the much loved regional programmes for lack of money. Your field staff have been found guilty of wrong-doing. Your programmes, those programmes you wrote about with such passion, have done harm as well as good. Some people say they’ve done more harm than good.

You now find out what your friends really think. The charity sector’s corrupt, top to bottom. Staff shouldn’t be paid. All of the money raised, every penny, should go straight to the people who need it – and that’s not you. Criminal charges should be filed.

I’ve heard all these things, especially recently. Maybe you have too.

Meanwhile, those kind donors who support your charity are cancelling direct debits or refusing to answer your calls. Managers close their doors when they meet, and when they open them again they don’t look you in the eye. Paradoxically there’s less to do even when there’s so much more to worry about, but now doesn’t seem the time to book a holiday.

How do you find the right words in the face of trouble like this?

High Roads and Flood Rivers

We used to be told, back in the days of typewriters and rotary phones, to take the high road when things get rough. Never apologise. Never explain. We also had water-tight rules about who speaks to the press. (It wasn’t me.)

Rules about press contacts are always wise, but it’s hard to believe, in an age of 24-hour online news cycles, that anyone ever counted on silence.

As our online world grew, we learned to summon up empathy. I teach the “stepping stone” mnemonic “Feel Felt Found”. (It’s a variant on the crisis manager’s mantra ABC – Acknowledge, Bridge, Control.) If somebody’s upset, first you listen, so you know how they feel. Then you build the bridge. You can say that you, or others, have felt the same way. Then you reassert control. What you, or others, have found is…. By then you’ve theoretically jumped across the flood-rivers of blame to the safe far bank, leading the other person step by step. You can get back to your core message about all the good you do with other people’s money.

Real empathy is pure gold. You can work at it if it doesn’t come naturally. But if you’re sitting on a prickly pile of shame and defensiveness, your discomfort will leak out. It might be an exasperated off-the-record comment that goes viral anyway, or a weary smile on camera. It might be the moment when you say (or write) “I’m sorry if you feel this way” – the tell-tale “if’ shifting the responsibility to the other person — instead of the simpler, harder “I’m sorry I did this.”

Two Choices

If you feel you can no longer find the right words for your charity, let alone any passion, then your first choice is to leave. If you’re faking it, you won’t fool anyone. You’ll also develop some bad writing habits: procrastination, trying to sound like somebody you’re not, and hiding behind mealy jargon like “passion” and “world-class” and “unique”.

So the sooner you leave, the better for you as a writer, and the more likely it is that you’ll find a worthier job. Also, the sooner you leave, the less likely you are to be fired yourself. You might even change careers and become whatever it is you really wanted to be, before you became a fundraiser.

Personally, I always wanted to be a war correspondent who writes novels on the side. Anyone who knows me will laugh. I’m a complete wimp. The only time I witnessed somebody shooting somebody else (outside Beirut Airport in a heat wave, admittedly) I fainted dead away, while everyone else crowded closer for a better look. As for writing novels on the side, I’ve learned the hard way that novels take stamina, and mine is limited.

But I realise now that if you make the second choice — stay with a charity through the tough times – then that’s kind of what you’ll be: a war correspondent.

Pick your battles

Never mind the battles in the boardroom: let others fight those. Instead, put on your emotional flak jacket and go to the edges where people are taking risks and learning to live with loss.

Hang out with the scholarship kids. Talk to people with cancer. Walk through the forest that mustn’t be cut down. Drink coffee with the rough sleepers. Interview a scientist and don’t rest until you understand why those test tubes are spinning inside a laboratory centrifuge. Be a mystery shopper at the theatre or the art gallery. Ask the people around you why they’re there, what it is they love so much they’d freely give money to defend it.

You’ll hear details that will break your heart, metaphors that make sense of mystery. You’ll also have something to fall back on besides mnemonics or tight-lipped denial: great, authentic stories. When you’re writing under fire, those stories will come to your rescue. If the time is right, you can share some of them with donors or friends. If not, you can keep them to yourself for now. They’ll help you feel good about doing good with words.


PS This is my 24th and final blog post. It’s eight months late by my own self-imposed deadline. I used to boast that I never missed a deadline, but self-definitions that include the word “never” in them are never true, at least in my family. In any event, that’s it for now. Stay in touch and keep an eye on my website. I won’t be moving on anywhere, and I’ll be posting details of future workshops, speaking engagements, and new ideas about writing for good.