When A Writer Gets It Wrong

blog-15-imageEvery now and again a client tells me that the last writer they hired got it all wrong. I can’t help feeling sorry for the writer. We’re a tribe, even if we’re mostly invisible to each other, and I can imagine another writer’s pain all too easily.

I’m sure there are freelance writers out there who do get it wrong. And I’m pretty sure I’ve sometimes been that writer. That’s why the first thing that goes through my mind when a new client asks me to write something is: What if you hate my work?

Close on the heels of that come a few more worries:

What if I draft a key proposal and the funder rejects it? Will you think it was my fault?

What if I’m too stupid to understand your charity’s work/accounts/fundraising plan?

What if I miss the deadline?

What if you have a brilliant in-house writer and you’ve asked for help only because you’re short-staffed? And what if your in-house writer has a strong style? Should I try to copy it? Or write in my own voice?

When Bad Things Happen to Good Writers

All these things have happened to me. Well, almost all. I’ve never yet missed a deadline, and no client has told me they hate a draft. People have however disagreed strongly about whether or not my approach was the best.

Sometimes, the person who retained me loves what I do, but the CEO or a Trustee doesn’t. One Trustee once told me — blushing, and apologizing for the dreadful thing he was about to say — that my multi-million pound case for support was “frankly too sexy”. It was anything but. It described technical solutions to a technical problem. He’d been disturbed, I think, by the short sentences, active verbs, and straightforward appeal for engagement. Whatever…

I’ve also spent days on proposals that were turned down. Only now, after thirty years in the industry, do I dare to believe it wasn’t my fault. The last time it happened, the well known American philanthropist had simply changed priorities. That first rejection should never, of course, be taken to mean the door’s locked for ever.

I’ve learned that it’s best to write in my own voice, the one that’s fuelled by coffee and music. I also know that getting it right may mean spending a lot of time reading around a subject, or digging into a charity’s history and plans. I used not to bill for this “prep” time. Today I do, and so should every professional writer. Just saying.

How To Help The Writer Get It Right

If you’ve gone to the trouble of finding and hiring a freelance writer, there are some things you can do to help them*. Here are the five best practices that I’ve learned from my wonderful clients.

  1. Tell the truth

As a lawyer once said to me (don’t ask), “Please. No surprises.”

Your CEO is going to leave right before you launch a campaign. Your key funder is about to withdraw support. There’s a serious misunderstanding amongst senior staff or Trustees. The project director’s been fired.

These kinds of things crop up all the time. You may think they’re irrelevant for the writer. After all, we’re not going to mention them. But we do need to know. If there’s the tiniest bit of smoke somewhere, we smell fire. And when we smell fire, we don’t write so well.

An astute reader can sniff that smoke too.

Trust us with the truth. We’ll make you look good. That’s our job. And if there’s something you need to sort out before you send a proposal or campaign materials, we’ll tell you that too. That’s also our job.

  1. Think twice before you hit “send.”

Inevitably you will send your writer, in email attachments, old proposals, mailings, financial statements, links to your strategic plan on your website, and so forth. I think of this as desk dumping. It’s fine, but ask yourself each time: would you print out and read this many pages? Because if we’re going to understand you, we will probably have to do just that.

At the very least, include a succinct guide to the documents. Let us know who wrote them, why, and how they relate to your needs now. If there’s something that already works, tell us.

Better yet, start off by meeting your writer in person. Together we can zip through all the background documents. The writer can ask questions on the spot and will quickly see what’s already working and what isn’t. It’s a much more efficient introduction to the background material.

  1. Allow time, for drafting and for drafts.

I like at least a month’s lead time for an ambitious proposal, and much longer for a full-blown case for support. I have to get to know your charity back to front, talk to people, and experiment with creative approaches. You will want to run drafts by colleagues or Trustees and let me know what needs changing. It usually takes three drafts to get a proposal right. As for a big case for campaign support – it can go through some 20 versions over a whole year. That’s not getting it wrong 19 times. That’s getting it right.

  1. Talking of talking… don’t lock us up.

You writers, a client once said. You always want to talk to people.

We do! It’s lonely staring at a computer all day!

But it’s not just our sad need for human contact that you’re paying for. We need to ask questions and hear plain English answers. We listen for stories and insights, and for the words that the people who love your charity like the best. We want to know what your top donors and Trustees really think.

Introduce us nicely, so people will want to talk to us. Do it right away, when you first hire us. My starter list for interviews might include: the CEO, CFO, project directors, campaign chair and/or a Trustee, and three or four beneficiaries (I don’t like that word but you know who I mean – the real people whose lives you make better).

  1. Write to us.

We too want to help disabled children and teenagers with cancer. We want people to have clean drinking water and decent medical care. We want a cleaner planet. Your stories, your work, you: it all matters to us.

So please, send your lonely writer a note some day. If we helped you raise money, let us know. Let us know too if we made a difference to you or your colleagues – if you enjoy writing more yourself, or if we inspired you in any other way.

And a million thanks to the people who do just that for me. You make my day!

* Why help us at all, you may wonder? Because it makes for a better relationship, better writing, and more money raised. Simple.







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!


Story Time

lmg_grandmotherBy the time you read this, the EU referendum will be over and all the difficult emotions it’s aroused will, let’s hope, be calming down.

Today, it’s 24 hours away and I – like you, I bet – would rather think about anything else.

It’s story time.

About twenty years ago I was working as a campaign consultant in New England. One of my clients was a big neuro-rehab hospital with a long term care unit. They wanted to raise a few million for capital upgrades. Most of my time was spent on the road, talking to people who ran successful companies and belonged to elite country clubs. I clocked over 27,000 miles on my battered blue Chevrolet that year.

The hospital included a paediatric unit. It was a heart-breaking place. Some of the children had been born with terrible brain damage because their mothers had been ill during pregnancy, or were addicted to illegal drugs. Some had been badly injured in road or biking accidents. Many of the children lived on the ward for years, limp and helpless. If they were well enough to do some schoolwork, a tutor sat beside their hospital bed every day.

One day the director of fundraising asked if I’d do some extra work for them. Their annual appeal was coming up and results from the last one hadn’t been strong. Would I draft the next one?

I thought of the children, and of the kind pediatrician who sometimes brought his two bouncy sheepdogs in for ward rounds. I suggested that perhaps he could draft the letter, and we could include a picture of his dogs with the kids.

That sounded fine. I went to chat to the pediatrician, and from him I learned that one of his patients on the ward, a seven year old girl, had had a stroke.

A stroke? It was news to me that children could have strokes. (They can and do.) This little girl now faced a long recovery. There was a further problem. She was the daughter of Polish immigrants who spoke no English. Yet the parents needed to understand what their daughter’s therapists were saying, especially as they would have to keep her speech and physio therapy going at home.

The pediatrician, being imaginative, had found a solution. There was a Polish kitchen worker at the hospital. Why not ask her to come over to the ward and serve as interpreter? That’s what happened. For several weeks the kitchen worker had been leaving her canteen post and interpreting for the parents.

Out of curiosity, I went down to the canteen to meet the kitchen worker. She was an older woman, white curls bundled up into her hairnet. You know that cliché, her face lit up? Well, when I asked her what it had been like to help the little girl, her face really did light up. She blushed and she shone and she looked about twenty years younger. It had been a total high point for her, and rightly so.

You can guess who got to sign the appeal letter. It did really well, thanks entirely to the kitchen worker who agreed to tell her story.

Sometimes we think we have our story, but there’s another better one lying just below or behind it. The doctor with the sheepdogs was lovely, but he’d be there for the next appeal anyway. The kitchen worker’s story was more urgent. It was happening at that very moment. She was still interpreting for an hour a day when the appeal went out, and the little girl and her parents were still preparing for her discharge.

An ask from a kitchen worker is also much more unexpected than one from a well-paid doctor with letters after his name. When she said that the hospital needed private support, it carried a lot of weight.

The lesson for me was: When you’re looking for compelling stories, leave no stone unturned. Who’s the newest person at your charity? The oldest? Who cleans the offices, stuffs envelopes or shakes tins? These are often the people who see the most. Ask for their story, and they might share it with joy. And joy – like other less positive emotions — is catching.

P.S. There’ll be a guest blog over the summer on how one particular type of charity leader (the charismatic founder) can shape language and writing behaviour across an entire organisation. After that, we all deserve a holiday. I’ll be back in September with more from the front lines of writing, and an update on the next Prospero Partners writing workshop.

How To Make Yourself Look Good

cat-and-dog-ftrThis month, it’s all about looks. Because the look of a page counts – more, if some research is to be believed, than anything we write.

Maybe you, like me, spend hours recasting a document first in a serif font (Didot’s a current favourite) and then in a sans serif (I’d vote for the bold Verdana). Result! A totally different document!

What’s even more amazing is the difference a designer can make. Designers have sometimes done such a great job with my writing that I simply don’t recognize it. It looks crisper, stronger, warmer. Suspecting the designer of having secretly changed my words, I’ve checked the original. Nope. The words are just what I wrote. But suddenly they’ve come to blazing life.

Less often, a designed product feels disappointing. I’ve seen too many rectangular column layouts, uninspiring headshots, colours straight off the official brand palette that aren’t right for the content, too-small fonts or white fonts on a pale background, and irrational hyphens that are as much fun to tackle as a wet stile in a bramble bush.

So this month I asked a great and very experienced designer-writer, Michael Smith of Cog Design, to chat with me about how writers and designers can best work together. He made lots of great points, all of which depend on one really critical piece of advice:

Work Together From The Beginning

Here’s what usually happens. A writer drafts a document, other people change it, and only then is a draft sent off to the designers.

The writer meets with the designers to discuss layout and so forth, and wonders why they look so sad and weary, or worse, uncooperative. Do they need more coffee?

What’s happened is that yet again the design team’s been brought in way too late. They’re expected to take a document that might not have any clear theme, or that’s way too long. On a tight deadline they’re told to “make it look good,” as if the design’s the icing on a cake that’s already been baked.

This I can tell you from hard-won experience: writers and designers should work together before a single word is written. When I’ve been lucky enough to create a document hand in glove with designers, the finished result is miles better.

Why is that?

 Designers need themes.

 As Michael says, people tend to think that designers are “visual” and writers are “verbal.” In fact, a good designer, like a good writer, is a communicator (Michael writes almost all his copy himself). And communicators work with themes — coherent creative concepts that help determine words and tone, images and layout, colours and fonts.

 A theme isn’t a strategic or financial goal (“we need to feed the hungry,” “we need more money”). It isn’t programme descriptions or mission statements. A theme inspires inspirational feelings as well as actions. It also has to be right for your audience.

I once wrote a campaign case for a University that had suffered some seriously negative press. The audience was major donors and Trustees. The theme was fresh new leadership, from top to bottom. Every decision I made – the placement and detail of financial information, the people I interviewed and the questions I asked – was determined by that theme. Likewise the designers, who worked with me from the beginning, could make amazing decisions that reinforced the leadership theme on every page.

Whatever your theme is, you and the designers should create it together at the very beginning. You will spark off each other, you will know where you’re going, and each of you will do better work.

Writers write too much.

We love words. So we write and write. Yet if there’s one thing that drives designers nuts, it’s long documents packed with long sentences. Designers will remind us, rightly, that when we write for a charity we’re not novelists or journalists. As some of us are also novelists or journalists (or would like to be), this point can hurt a little. Too bad. The designer wants to make the document easy to read. That means less is more.

Writers can be precious.

We hate people telling us to change our copy. We have delicate egos. Work with the designer from the beginning and it will be a team sport. It won’t be all about you. And it’s much easier to accept changes to things that you didn’t make all by yourself.

Writers hide.

We tend to be introverts who keep our heads down. But designers want to talk to us. Make yourself available. Return emails and calls, and go to meetings.

Designers can save us from ourselves.

If you’re writing for young people, for example, you might be tempted to use slang, misspellings, chopped up sentences, and freestyle punctuation. (The design equivalent, according to Michael, is a splashy graffiti look.) If you’re writing for august elderly millionaires, you might reach for stuffy longer words. Either way, you risk sounding pompous or condescending. An experienced designer has seen this before and can help you find a tone and style that isn’t self conscious, one that works for you and the audience.

Some writers (not you) don’t have very good taste.

When it comes to images, writers tend to trawl through a stock library (where permissions are already granted) and then present the designer with a preselected batch. Now the designer is stuck with images that might be impossible to scale up or down, or might not reinforce the theme. They might consist mostly of clichéd headshots (complete with fake smiles) or pictures of people by themselves. A general rule of thumb that helps me, by the way, is to choose only images of people doing things together.

Fight for what’s best.

You may have to fight tooth and nail to work with designers from the outset. This fight is worth it.

I’m still proud of that University case, which I wrote about 15 years ago. It so impressed one up-and-coming young leader who was featured in it that he agreed to join the Board and co-chair the campaign. It gave the other campaign chair confidence in making his most important pitches. And it was of course part of a wider suite of communications, online and off, that all carried the same strong theme. The campaign was a huge success, and the University’s reputation recovered.

Best of luck to you, and I’ll be back in June with something completely different…




Breaking News

dogwritingBreaking news: scientists have found a cure for cancer!

Well, sort of. Some scientists, some cancers, for some people, some of the time. Not such a sexy headline. So how do you write for the public about scientific research?

I thought I’d have a go at answering that question this month. I’m focussing on medical research because that’s what’s most likely to be funded by charities.

I’m not an expert on scientific communication, so I asked four people who are: a communications manager for a medical charity, two people who have spent decades writing professionally about medical research, and a senior neuroscientist. They were so generous with their time and insights that this month’s blog is longer than usual – I’ve come up with eleven guidelines.


 1: Talk to the researchers.

If you work for a charity that directly funds medical research, then you shouldn’t have much trouble getting an appointment. You’ve raised the money, and the researchers know that.

If you work for a University, say, then the researchers may be raising millions all by themselves from major funding charities, government sources or pharmaceutical companies. Your first hurdle might simply be getting their attention. My experts advise writing in advance, giving lots of lead time.

Explain why you need their story. Maybe you want to let the media know about an award, or some major donors are interested in their work. Then submit a list of questions in advance, to show you’ll have your wits about you when you speak with them.

You need to modify your questions for each scientist, but one of my experts suggests the following:

  • Can you give me a non-technical summary of your research?
  • What new research results can you tell me about?
  • Why is your research so important in your field?
  • What’s the future direction of your research — your goals?
  • How many people suffer from the disorder you are studying?
  • What are the potential (clinical) benefits of the research?
  • Are there any ethical considerations such as human or animal research?
  • Has the research been published?  If so, where and when?

You’ve now got a skeleton framework for a 20 to 30 minute interview.

2. Remember that researchers worry.

A top worry is that they’ll be misunderstood and misquoted. Explain that you will be using “lay language”, and that you will also strive to maintain the integrity of their research.

Your job is to build trust, just as you would with a sensitive donor. Tell them that you will therefore show them anything you write, and will take on board their corrections and feedback.

If you feel intimidated, bear in mind that there are many kinds of scientists. A neuroscientist and a geologist who want to understand each other’s work will need to ask questions and use lay language, just like you and me.

3. Good science writing is good writing.

Use short sentences, short words, active rather than passive verbs, and a generally straightforward style. Terms like “scientific method” mean nothing to most people. Instead of saying “A hypothesis was proposed,” write, “X put forwards the idea that… .”

The more familiar you are with a subject, the harder it can be to write about it – which means that when you step in to write about research, you can offer a valuable fresh eye. It’s your job to ask questions until you are confident enough to use plain language.

4. Use stories and analogies that are close to home.

A cancer researcher compared the action of targeted therapies to an ambulance pushing through congested traffic – an analogy that makes perfect sense without misrepresenting the science behind the therapy.

When developing stories, it can also work well to bring together different points of view. Supposing you want to talk about potential new treatments for Parkinson’s disease: you could talk to a basic researcher, a clinician who sees patients, a social worker, and a patient or the patient’s spouse. You could set their stories alongside each other, showing how the research has an impact on real people.

If you’re very lucky you might even be able to arrange a meeting or panel discussion that brings these people together. They will learn from each other.

5. Get your head around risks and benefits.

Perhaps the most commonly misunderstood ideas are those relating to risks and benefits. Percentage values can be very useful but also very dangerous. A casual reader might think that if a risk increases by 10%, for example, then 10% of the population are at increased risk. But if only 1% of people were at risk in the first place, then a 10% increase in risk isn’t that big. It’s 10% of 1%.

That might seem obvious, but once you start writing about false negatives and positives, and placebos and clinical trials, you can quickly find yourself in deep water. The truth is often counter-intuitive.

Don’t be dismayed if these concepts are hard for you to understand. They can be hard for many clever people, including (rather alarmingly) some doctors. Keep on asking until you’re clear, and make sure any journalists you talk to understand the ideas too, or you might wake up one day – as one of my experts did – to find a front-page story, attributed to her, that claimed that 1.7 million women in the UK were at grave risk if they took a commonly prescribed medicine. Not true, but the editor had misrepresented the numbers.

6. Go visual.

A picture can do the job of many words. Ask your researchers if they have diagrams or infographics, or design one yourself.

7. Build relationships with the media.

Get to know which editors do what. There’s a difference between a health editor and a science editor, for example, and they’ll want different stories. It’s fine to make phone calls to newspapers and media sites if you want to know who’s who and what they’re interested in getting from you. For more on working with the media, one of my experts strongly recommends the Science Media Centre.

8. Sell new

Journalists like results and are really interested in just one question: ‘What’s new?’ They don’t care about work in progress and surveys, so don’t waste time trying to sell stories halfway through, no matter how brilliant the work.

9. Put your main points first.

When placing a story in the press, it’s hard to get nuances across. Find the most important message and place it up front.

That means that if researchers are kind enough to send you a summary of their work, you’ll almost certainly need to write a new opening, which of course you will run past the scientist before using.

Here’s an example. A scientist wrote about her research into how we listen to music:

Music is a complex acoustic experience that we often take for granted. Whether sitting at a symphony hall or enjoying a musical melody over earphones, we have no difficulty identifying the instruments playing, following various beats and melodies, or simply distinguishing a flute from an oboe. Our brains rely on a number of sound attributes to analyze the music in our ears. These attributes can be very simple like loudness. They can also be very complex like the identity of the instrument or the source, formally called ‘timbre’.

It’s good. She has something to say. But it’s too flat for a press release, and it doesn’t tell us why this research is important. Here’s what my expert came up with:

How do we listen to music? How do our brains process the sounds and rhythms that produce an experience that enriches our lives? Scientists at Johns Hopkins University, USA have used a mathematical model to mimic brain cells and define how we are able to distinguish different musical instruments. The same approach could help people whose hearing is impaired to enjoy music.

The revision uses questions and short sentences to draw us in, and puts the most important point up front.

Ideally the first 50 words capture the whole story. Readers should be able to skim the first paragraph or two and know the answers to the basic questions: who, what, where, when, and either why or how.

Here’s another example:

Three British neuroscientists have today (1 March) won the world’s most valuable prize for brain research, for their outstanding work on the mechanisms of memory. This year’s winners of The Brain Prize are Tim Bliss, Graham Collingridge and Richard Morris.

 The Brain Prize, awarded by the Grete Lundbeck European Brain Research Foundation in Denmark is worth one million Euros. Awarded annually, it recognises one or more scientists who have distinguished themselves by an outstanding contribution to neuroscience.

Who, what, where, when, why, and how – all answered right away, with an interesting explanation to follow immediately:

The research by Professors Bliss, Collingridge and Morris has focused on a brain mechanism known as ‘Long-Term Potentiation’ (LTP), which underpins the life-long plasticity of the brain. Their discoveries have revolutionised our understanding of how memories are formed, retained and lost.

10. Don’t overegg

There’s often a tension between catchy stories that make for great headlines, and accuracy. Watch out for exaggeration and overstatement. We don’t have a global cure for cancer yet, and people are very sceptical of grand claims. Also, be prepared, warns more than one of my experts, for an enthusiastic chief editor to run with your story and get it wrong.

One of my experts will put a story aside, refusing to publish or share it, if she feels either that she hasn’t understood the science well enough herself, or the results sound weak to her. (Another lesson here is that it’s all right to trust your own judgement, and it gets easier with experience.)

11. Read read read (and it’s OK to skim)

I didn’t know, until my experts told me, how many peer-reviewed publications are now available as open access. The open access movement makes it much easier for you and me to keep up, and the language on the blogs is lively and down to earth.

For example: “As cannabis becomes more socially acceptable,” the BMJ blog tells us this month, “it’s important that prospective mums-to-be and clinicians are fully up to speed on the potential harms of using the drug during pregnancy, caution the researchers.” Mums-to-be? Up to speed? That’s jargon-free language for you!

BioMed Central includes a “Plain English Summary” of new papers, and you might enjoy ScienceAlert – it’s a bit like the TED website, seductive and refreshing, and you can probably justify reading it at work.

The Art of Science

Writing well about science is an art, said one of my experts. So, by the way, is doing science. Research means false starts, interruptions, delays, technical challenges, and a lot of hard work. It means you’re always hungry for time to stare out of the window and ponder an idea. It means you sometimes wake up full of doubt, and sometimes wake up with a brand new insight. It means you have a dream, and you’re prepared to endure indifference and rejection to achieve it.

Just like being a novelist, composer, painter, film-maker – or a fundraiser, for that matter.






Thanks Again

I taught some workshops last week on writing thank you letters. The charity in question had been using the same templates for years, and bit by bit the life had drained out of them.

Here’s a sentence from one of the letters they were sending out:

“We need to continue our efforts to raise over £9 million necessary this year to fund our normal running costs, and your thoughtful gesture at this time is particularly appreciated.”

As one of the workshop participants pointed out, the word “efforts” gives the game away. It’s bad manners to sound needy when somebody’s just given you a gift. (You wouldn’t do that to your favourite generous aunt, would you?) Remember: people give to charities that meet needs, not charities that have needs. A thank you letter is never the place to go on about how much more money you still need, or, for that matter, to use the passive verb form when you get to the actual thank you (“is particularly appreciated”).

“Demand for our services has doubled over the last 10 years,” another letter explained, before launching into detailed lists of the numbers of people served. Fine for a report to the Board of Trustees. Not fine for new donors who just want to know that they’re helping real people get through a tough time.

Yet another paragraph read, “We could not continue in our work without supporters such as you. Your support helps us to provide support … “

The minute you read this out loud, you can hear how often the writer (or writers, since lots of people had had a go at these templates) used the word “support”. The word loses all its meaning through sheer repetition.

The writers knew that there was lots of room for improvement. We did some creative exercises and chatted about what we really want to hear when people say thank you, and I hope everybody left with loads of fresh ideas.

For my part, I went home to find something interesting had arrived in the post.

About six months ago I went to a fundraising dinner for a charity called the Young Women’s Trust. It used to be the YWCA, which, amongst other services, ran hostels for women. Today the Young Women’s Trust doesn’t run any hostels. Instead it works tirelessly on behalf of low-income young women, who still bear the brunt of poverty, unemployment, and economic inequality.

I’m not much of a one for fundraising dinners. Like many writers, I’d rather sit on the sofa and read. I went only because I was asked by somebody I respect. I took along a young woman who’s just started out in the charity sector, and then, thinking I should set a good example, I gave £500 out of the family CAF account to support a training workshop for young low-income women.

I’m mentioning all this because you may sometimes have to organise fundraising dinners, and you might wonder why people go to such events, and why they give. My answer is: we go because we’re asked by people whom we respect, and we give because we feel some social pressure to give. Many of us would rather stay home, but we don’t mind going because we feel proud of ourselves for doing the right thing, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Except, of course, for the fact that the most difficult gift to get, and the most important, isn’t the first gift somebody gives. It’s the second. That’s why thank you and follow-up letters are so important.

Soon after the dinner, I got a lovely thank you letter from the fundraising director and then, gradually, I sort of forgot about the money I’d given.

So I was surprised as well as pleased last week to come home to a long thank you letter from one of the young women who attended the workshop. Thanks to Abby, who gave me permission to reproduce it, you can read the entire letter at the bottom of this post or click on the link for a PDF version.

What Abby’s Letter Taught Me

There’s lots we can learn from Abby’s letter, some of it quite surprising. Here are my five top take-away lessons:

  1. Writers in workshops often tell me that they never start a letter with the words “I am writing to….” Well, Abby’s letter just does that. It’s fine. We zip past the opening words to the important bits in the opening paragraph, about what’s happening and how I’ve helped to make it happen. So if you’re stuck for an opening, just use the plain old “I am writing to…” and then get on with it.
  1. You’ve been told that “less is more”. I may have told you that myself. But when it comes to personal letters and stories, longer is fine. I loved reading a story with a real arc to it, from when Abby was struggling with depression and anxiety through to her life today, which she describes with words like “powerful” and “amazing.” She’s describing a process of inner change, which is always interesting (it’s why we read novels), and she’s honouring me by taking so much time to write to me.
  1. Abby doesn’t ask me for more. In fact, there’s nothing here about how much money the Young Women’s Trust spends or needs. That’s a good thing, because a charity’s money problems are not my problems, even when I’m a donor.
  1. What is my problem? As a donor, it’s figuring out whether or not I’ve had an impact. It’s feeling connected to other people. It’s deciding what to do with the money in the CAF account. Abby’s letter addresses those problems very well. She makes it crystal clear that I’ve had an impact, by showing me everything the charity has done for her. And because it’s so obvious that the Young Women’s Trust has helped her, I assume that they also help many other women in many other ways. I don’t need lots of facts and figures to prove impact. Abby’s letter speaks for itself.
  1. It sounds like a real person. Abby’s a naturally strong writer who’s writing in her own voice. She’s honest. It takes much courage to admit to depression, even now, even when your story has a happy ending. I never felt that the letter had been ghost written by a copywriter, or edited to death by a manager, and it turns out I was right. She was given a green light to write what she wanted. So often, we “professionals” just need to get out of the way and let the people who’ve experienced a charity’s work first-hand tell the story the way they want to.

P.S. The funny thing is, I now want to give again. You’ll see that Abby includes a staff person’s name and phone number in the letter, so if the spirit moves me (or you), I know who to call. And she’s included it in the P.S., which is a part of any letter that people actually read. Job well done!

Abby’s Thank You Letter

Abby's letter

On The Money Part 2: How To Tell Great Money Stories

Financial CrisisAnything about charities and financial wrongdoing catches my eye these days. Here’s an example, which I spotted in an article about the financial crisis by the ferociously energetic James Meek:

When, in 2007, Northern Rock had to be rescued by the Labour government… it turned out that the bank’s management had bundled together much of its future income stream from people making monthly mortgage repayments and used it as collateral to borrow £49 billion from around the world, with which it created more mortgages. It did this via a so-called charitable trust called Granite, based in the offshore tax haven of Jersey, which used, as its nominal charity, a tiny organisation from the North-East that helps those with Down’s Syndrome. Northern Rock never bothered to tell the charity its name was being exploited in this way. It didn’t occur to the bank or the regulators that there was any problem with what they were doing. Why would it? There were pages on the Treasury’s own website explaining how it should be done.

They did that to a charity? And people think we’re the bad guys?

Meek’s a writer we can learn from. He uses verbs that tell a story all by themselves: rescue, bundle together, bother, exploit. He slips in the word “people”, because that’s what his story is really about: people, not money. He asks a short question, making us feel his indignation, and he saves his most heated accusation – that the Treasury was enabling this behaviour – for the end. We feel that he’s talking to us in person.

The best money stories are like Meek’s: they’re not so much about money as about the constant tension between good and bad that exists within all of us. What if we too want to tell a gripping money story that’s about that tension?

Take a look at your charity’s recent financial history. There’s probably been a year in which income fell. Why? It might have been bad press, a stumbling economy, or a chief executive who loathed asking for money.

When income fell, which programmes if any had to be cut? Who suffered on the front lines?

Even if income’s been steady, you might have had to raise money for a less than sexy cause (your overheads, say, or basic research). Maybe you’ve met donors who want to fund work you can’t or won’t do – and you’ve had to tell them no. Maybe you even said yes, and then lived to regret it.

Maybe you have too much money. Your charity might have inherited huge reserves, and now you struggle to explain why you have to raise programme funds. Maybe, even today, you get a big public subsidy, or your charity did so well for a couple of years it couldn’t spend it all right away.

I’ve seen all these things happen to charities, and they make for great stories. Because the big question is: then what happened?

Even if we don’t know what happened next to Northern Rock, there’s an implied lesson in Meek’s paragraph. There are good guys and bad guys, and eventually the truth will out. It’s a morality tale.

We too can tell morality tales about money. Yet we tend to hide our best money stories even when they have good endings. We don’t want to air our dirty laundry (the chief executive had to go) or look less than perfect (the charity had to change its strategy).

That’s a shame, because real-life money stories, when handled right, are compelling. They’re not saccharine tales of angelic perfection. They show that people are hurt when we raise less money, raise it in the wrong way, or raise it for the wrong ideas.

Another reason we shouldn’t avoid our own morality tales about money is because it’s bad for us as writers. The second worst fundraising copy I see is when writers get to the “asking for money” bit. Suddenly, people who can write beautiful, clear prose fall back into muddy euphemisms. And the worst? When writers try to hide something they think is financially embarrassing. The classic symptoms are jargon, passive verbs, and long sentences.


So here’s my February challenge to you, while it’s still too cold to eat lunch outside. Write your very own “Big Short” story about the toughest money challenge you’ve seen at your charity. Pick a subject that makes you squirm a bit – the one you hope people won’t ask you about.

You might, for example, write about how you had to slog extra hard to raise money for a new programme. Who set the financial goal, and how? What happened when the money didn’t roll in? How did it feel when week after week you got nothing but rejections? Were you saved by a single kind donor (and if so, why?), or did your campaign suddenly go viral? Did the CFO at your charity find some extra money in reserves after all, or was the new programme quietly axed?

You can burn this story when you’re done. But before you do, set it aside for a day or two. Then take another look.

You might have ranted a bit, but you probably told a story with twists and turns. You described the bad guys, even if they didn’t mean to be bad, and you showed how hard it can be to do the right thing – and how important. You told a people story, even though you were writing about money.

You’ll move mountains if you can harness that kind of passion when you’re writing more “standard” fundraising copy. Maybe you could tell a story about a shy person who once plucked up the courage to ask for a big gift, and lo, your charity was born. Or about a brave donor who took a risk in funding something untested. Your story might remind us that when critics say something can’t be done, it can be people who have the courage to ask for money and other people who have the decency to give it who prove the critics wrong.

That may be one story you don’t want to burn.

Stay tuned, and if you want to read the whole of James Meek’s article, it was the lead story in the February 18th 2016 London Review of Books and is available online here.


On The Money

Money Image Blog 8The British have all kinds of strange ideas about themselves. One is that British people don’t like talking about money.

What strikes me, after living in a very polite corner of the U.S., is that the British love talking about money – as long as it’s a grumble. What’s more satisfying than complaining about property prices, or the cost of a peak-time ticket from Swindon to Paddington? We all agree on what’s outrageous, and then we all feel closer.

Which is why 2015 was so interesting for those of us who care about the charity sector. The bad news, and there was plenty of it, was almost all about money. We asked for too much, too often. Our own government gave too much. Charities spent it the wrong way and on the wrong things, such as executive pay. Down went the barometer of public trust. Up went our defences – with dreadful consequences for our ability to write clearly.

Grumbling is a national sport, and it’s so tempting to join in. “The future does not look any brighter,” a charity executive wrote in a letter to supporters last year. “On the basis of current projections, we will have to find very substantial additional savings…in the face of such a bleak financial outlook.”

Now, there are circumstances in which it’s all right to sound desperate. You can get away with it if:

1) Your readers know you really well and trust you completely.

2) You avoid all self-pity or blame.

3) There’s a fixed amount for an urgent need that you have to raise by a real deadline.

4) You’re only going to play the desperate card once — and never, ever again.

That means that most of us can’t get away with it. So here are five simple “writing about money” rules that will help build trust in tough times.

Rule 1. Write positively about what money can achieve.

One fundraiser wrote:

“Support from The XYZ Foundation would also enable us to develop the digital infrastructure at the Trust. Making the internet available to participants to record and track their own progress. This would give participants the chance to develop digital skills and support them to look for local opportunities.”

 The tentative conditional verbs (“would”) and the jarring incomplete sentence (“Making the internet available…”) made the writer sound nervous, as if perhaps she was hiding something. When she changed “would” to “will” and wrote proper sentences about the participants (“People can track their progress online. At the same time they can develop digital skills that will help them look for jobs locally.”), she instantly sounded more like a woman with a plan – not somebody looking for a way to pay for overheads.

Rule 2. Use a menu.

They’re old-fashioned and they’re simple, and that’s what makes them great. Also, they work just as well with major donors looking to give a million as with entry level givers who want to give £10. Say what X amount buys, and make it a round figure. List the items from most expensive to least. And do say how many people have supported which menu items in the last month or year – we all like to know what other people are doing with their money.

Rule 3. If you write up a budget, write a budget narrative that explains for every line item how you will use that money.

If I showed you my business budget, you’d see that the cost of posting this month’s blog is £34.80. It’s not big money but it’s real, and real is what people want from you, right down to the cost of stamps, paper clips, and blogs. Remind your readers that nothing you do is free.

Rule 4. Get the money up front.

We’re our own worst enemies when we try to tuck the “money bit” at the end of an appeal letter or proposal. You don’t always have to ask for money in the first sentence (although sometimes you can.) Do however write with money in plain view, right from the beginning.

You might for example let the reader know immediately that you are going to ask for money, and then write, “Let me tell you why.” Or you could take a leaf out of the famous Bruce Barton letter of 1925, which achieved a 100% response for Deerfield Academy. The letter begins:

“For the past three or four years things have been going pretty well at our house. We pay our bills, afford such luxuries as having the children’s tonsils out, and still have something in the bank at the end of the year.”

Don’t let anyone tell you that such a direct approach, with words like afford and luxury, only works with Americans or is out of date. Imagine receiving a letter from the Chair of your own favourite charity that begins:

“For the past three years things have been going well at XYZ charity. We’ve been able to pay for our core programmes, we’ve met some unexpected new demands, and we’ve balanced our books.”

You might find it refreshingly open. You might be curious (what’s gone wrong, then?). You might be irritated. Even so, you’d probably keep reading. And you just might respond more generously, especially if the letter maintained a direct, upbeat tone and explained to you what your money can do.

Rule 5. Use a donor to catch a donor.

Donors are innately helpful people. That’s why they give. Why not ask if you can quote them if they’re well known trusts or businesses? Suggest wording that’s direct about how you use money. “We made a two-year grant to this charity, and then we monitored it closely. We wanted to be sure this was a good investment. We’re delighted with the outcomes, and in fact we’re considering funding them for one more year.”

You can also ask your closest donors to put up a challenge or match. It could be a 1:1 match on all new donations this month, or a promise to give £10,000 once others have given £40,000 to reach an important £50,000 goal. Just make sure that you write about these challenges in very plain language.

As the Bruce Barton example reminds us (and the whole letter is available on the SOFII website at http://sofii.org/files/281BBmajordonorletter.pdf), there’s nothing new in any of these approaches. Yet it’s so easy to forget these basics when we’re under pressure. Remember that you’re raising and spending other people’s money, so you have nothing to hide and nothing to grumble about, either. Your optimism and courage will shine through in every word you write.

This is Part One of On The Money. In Part Two, I’ll suggest a more creative exercise you can do to strengthen your ability to write well about money. Stay posted!


A Gift That’s (Almost) Free

Girl readingLast month, I promised that I’d let you know what should be on every great writer’s gift list. I’d no sooner hit “Publish” on that blog post than I thought of about ten very expensive things. A room of your own. A Mont Blanc pen. One of those Italian coffee machines that make the strongest coffee taste creamy. How about a private income?

So what, I wondered, can you ask for that’s free? And that might make a big difference to you as a writer?

I know it sounds naff, but I’m going to suggest time. Because it takes time to discover other people’s stories, and time to tell them.

You may have a hundred reasons to put off talking to yet more people (and ninety-five of them may be the unread emails in your inbox). Many charity writers find it almost impossible to get away from their desks long enough to visit a support group, attend a lecture, or hang out in the grant-funded lab.

Far be it from me to recommend yet more ways of procrastinating – but great writing often starts when we do just that: leave our desks and spend time with other people.

Earlier this year, I was sitting in a high street coffee shop listening to a mother describe the moment when she heard that her child had won a much-needed scholarship. She and her husband had already been through so much. They’re professionals who emigrated to Britain in difficult circumstances and are slowly rebuilding their lives. They’ve struggled with illness and loneliness and the weather. When she got the good news, she was in her kitchen making supper and she actually fell to her knees from sheer relief. Her description of how she felt was so much better than anything I could have made up at my desk.

Sooner or later, if we take the time to ask questions and listen to the answers, we’ll come up with pure writing gold. Maybe you, like me, struggled with GCSE maths, so you don’t want to pester clever grant-funded scientists in their lab, even if you are the one raising the money. Do it. Pester them. They love to talk about what it takes to cure cancer or grow drought resistant crops or whatever. You may not understand the finer points of biochemistry, but you can find out how they built their team, what the biggest technical obstacle has been, or what one question they’d really like to answer in the next three years.

What if your charity’s stories are about vulnerable or young people, and you have to honour strict confidentiality rules? It’s so tempting to fall back on the same well vetted stories on the shared drive, but if it feels stale to you, it will feel stale to the reader. Perhaps you can ask for consent, or change names and identifying details. You might want to let the people you interview review your drafts. The mother I just described changed two or three details in my fundraising copy, and I’m sorry to admit this, but she made it better.

It’s easy to forget, isn’t it? It’s our job to tell stories. As story-tellers we may not get everything right, but we can’t let that stop us, because if we’re listening and if we care, we won’t get anything really wrong, either. And yes, it really does take time — time to meet people, to ask questions and listen, to take notes and write them up, and to write draft after draft.

So give yourself time. Loads of it. Once a week, talk to somebody new who’s doing something for your charity, or who’s been helped by it. Ask lots of open-ended questions. Keep going until there are tears in your own eyes, or you finally grasp what the researcher actually does, or you’ve dared to ask the questions that you thought might make you look dumb.

And here’s a special year-end message for any manager (or just your own conscience) who thinks you don’t have the time to wander off to chat to people. Your time is worth a great deal. And great stories from the front lines? They’re worth even more.




When I lived in the US, I loved Thanksgiving. No presents, decorations, or religion – just eating together and gratitude.

Now I’m back in London, I’m grateful that I still get invited to a Thanksgiving dinner. Every November about twenty of us, some Americans, some not, clear a space in a friend’s living-room, shove trestle tables together, and light candles. Everybody brings something to eat, and after the first couple of courses we all name one thing for which we’re grateful. (One year, five people chose the NHS.)

It’s always moving to listen to other people speak. Usually, somebody chokes up or reaches out and squeezes a partner’s hand. There’s that beautiful hushed feeling when people stop fidgeting and really listen.

What does that have to do with you, and with writing?

Well, most of us have to write thank you letters or emails at work. Sometimes it’s a joy, but if you’re thanking yet another mid-level donor whom you’ve never met, you might find yourself falling back on the same old templates. Here’s an example of an opening to a typical thank you letter from a large UK charity:

Dear donor,

Thank you so much for your donation of £1,000 to the Charity. I am delighted that you have chosen to continue your support as Patrons. Your support over the past two years made a real difference to our learning programmes and it is fantastic that you have chosen to continue to support us in this way.

You’ll notice that the word “support” gets used three times, but that’s the kind of watering down that’s common in template letters, isn’t it? You may also notice that it’s impossible to identify the charity. I removed the real name, of course, but the same opening could be used for almost any charity.

You can do better. To get going, here’s an exercise you can try at home.

Think of somebody who helped you in the past – a teacher, an older relative, a trusted friend. Choose somebody you didn’t thank properly at the time, perhaps because you were too preoccupied with your problems.

Now’s your chance. Write to that person and thank them. Really thank them. From the heart. Then read the rest of this blog post.




I can’t read what you’ve written, but I’m going to place some bets.

  • You got straight to the point in the first sentence.
  • You used the word “you.”
  • You conjured up a memory or experience you have in common.
  • You know there are many barriers between you and your reader’s attention (time, failing memory, possibly lingering resentment on their side). So you didn’t waffle.
  • You assumed nothing. You don’t know how this person feels about you today. You wrote with humility and an open mind, using natural language in your own voice.
  • If you read your letter out loud to somebody else, you could bring tears to that person’s eyes.

You want to give your donors that same special feeling. You can’t wear your heart on your sleeve every time, but I bet you could steal a simple phrase or two from your personal letter and use it in your next thank you letter at work. You might start by conjuring up a real experience. You might say “you” a lot. Explain right away exactly what the donor has made happen — people often do more good than they realise, and equally they often assume their gift has achieved very little. It’s your job to show them that their actions have real meaning, in real people’s lives.

In other words, write a letter that nobody could else write. One that people are thankful to receive – so thankful, they might even give again.

Next month: what’s on every great writer’s gift list – and should be on yours…



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