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How-to Library • Featuring articles from past issues of Contributions

Bosses: Stop Rewriting Your Staff!

by Tom Ahern

Last week the phone rang. Here's what I heard from a communications director at a large nonprofit:

"I wrote a headline for a press release. I wrote it just like you taught me." I'm training the staff in best practices. "And Bill rewrote it." Bill's the boss. Good boss, too. Confident, caring, articulate. Maybe too articulate, it turns out. He fancies himself a capable writer.

Praise to the boss. Answering to a board of directors, and its occasional fire-spitting rogue members, isn't a job I'd wish on an enemy.

But here's the thing: being executive director does NOT make you a capable writer. Occupying the top box in an org chart grants you no special verbal powers.

Seeing through a Donor's Eyes
Raising More Money with Newsletters
Fundraising Materials
Click on any book cover for more information.

On the contrary: Being executive director mounts you on a pedestal where you can safely mouth only lofty-leaning vagaries which take all sensitivities into account. Job #1: Offend no one.

That is not the job of a writer. In fact, it's exactly what effective writers DON'T do.

There is a difference between "normal" writers and "effective" writers. Most EDs and other miscellaneous superiors (board members spring to mind) are "normal" writers. "Normal" writers are people who are literate. They can read and (presumably) write an understandable sentence. But their continued employment does not depend exclusively on their ability to write effective (i.e., successful) communications.

An effective writer in a fundraising operation or a nonprofit news operation (the usual nonprofit communications activities) has one overriding goal: to get outsiders to act as desired.

To get people to write a first check. To keep existing donors loyal and generous. To cause newspapers to run stories that highlight our issues and our competence at dealing with those issues. That's what is really required for effective writers. Making the board or executive director happy is -- sorry -- not even on the Top 100 list.

To do her job consistently and well, an effective writer needs professional training. Mentoring is best. Books are easier to come by. A few good how-to books (they exist in abundance), and you're off to a great start.

Training is a requirement. Most of the things that matter in persuasive writing are neither obvious nor commonly known. Quick, take this test: "What are the top seven emotional triggers that drive audience response?" "How many personality types are there?" "What's the fastest way to shut down a skeptic?" "What's the most powerful word in fundraising?"

Not sure? That's what I mean. The "normal" writer won't know. The effective writer HAS to know. Writing to persuade is mostly about psychology. It's not about getting an A in English class. If you don't know persuasion down its barest psychological bones, you can't write effectively. You just make mistakes.

Which brings me back to my phone call. I'm trying to train this staff person. And the ED is overruling her (and me, by extension). He can do that. She'll shut up. He has all the power in a hierarchy, after all: "The boss says...."

But is it helping the organization's chances of acquiring new donors and retaining existing donors? No.

Is it helping the organization's internal capacity to communicate effectively? No. Is it building a capable, confident employee who takes pride in her work? Not at all. Doing it right doesn't matter, she sees. All that matters is pleasing Bill, her boss. And her boss doesn't know what he doesn't know.

Sad story. No improvement possible in this situation.

Unless... You -- wonderful, smart, boss who would be a leader -- stop second-guessing your professional staff. If you want someone to write effectively, make sure they're trained ... then let them fly. Alone. Without your well-meaning help in the editorial department.

Sure, you might get a few sprained wings. You might also end up with an eagle.

Tom Ahern is author of Seeing Through a Donor’s Eyes, How to Write Fundraising Materials that Raise More Money, and Raising More Money from Newsletters than You Ever Thought Possible, all published by Emerson & Church.


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