Writing for rights: Five pitfalls to avoid

8 Mar

Words are for free. And yet, they are loaded with meaning.

As writers exclusively working with the not-for-profit sector, we are conscious of the impact of the words we use. Words shape perceptions and opinion. Words signal to another that you’re of the same mind, or not.

Many not-for-profits that we work with have the programme and the fundraising teams working in separate bubbles. The programme team feels that the fundraising team dumbs down issues and strips it of nuance. The fundraising team feels that the programme team weighs down words with jargon so that it doesn’t make sense to a lay reader.

In much of the fundraising copy of the 80s globally, and the 90s and early 2000s in India, images and words were used to elicit sympathy. They spoke of sadness, wretchedness and urged the donor to lift the person out of that state. While most fundraising has thankfully moved on to using positive images – both visual and verbal – some things remain the same.

Just this week I got a call from a tele-calling agency that took me back to the 80s in the words used and most importantly, in the tone of the caller. The caller painted an overtly purple picture of a child that needed my help, right now.

Hence, to writers of fundraising and tele-calling copy everywhere: Here are five things to keep in mind.

  1. Do not take away agency.

“Geeta is an AIDS victim.”

The use of the word “victim” implies powerlessness and denies agency. Individuals and communities have the power to make decisions for themselves and to bring about change in their own lives, with a little help.

Do write, instead:

Geeta has AIDS”, or “Geeta lives with HIV”, as appropriate.

This states facts and doesn’t strip away Geeta’s dignity.

  1. Do not distort meaning.

“Geeta was fired from her job because of her sexual preference.”

The use of the word “preference” implies that how one identifies is a preference, a choice, or worse, a luxury.

Do write, instead:

“Geeta was fired from her job because of her sexual orientation.”

“Geeta was born a man, but identifies as a woman.”

  1. Do not impose judgment.

“Geeta and her friends were promiscuous.”

The use of the word promiscuous, to indicate sexual behaviour, comes loaded with a certain moral framework. Even where the writer may not necessarily share this moral framework, it’s possible to continue using these words and phrases because they are such a common part of language as it’s used by the general public and the media.

Do write, instead:

“Geeta and her friends had multiple sexual partners.”

This is much more direct and factual, without the weight of morality.

  1. Do not make objects of people.

“Geeta works with the disabled.”

The use of such a phrase strips away any identity that people might have other than the disability that they have. Surely there’s much more to a person than the disability they are born with, or live with? This is a pet peeve that objectifies people, and is often used by people who passionately advocate for the cause of people with disability.

Do write, instead:

“Geeta works with people with disability.”

This acknowledges that the people are people first; that they have a disability is a part of them, but not all of them.

  1. Do not attribute more – or less – weight to actions.

“Geeta decided to get rid of the baby.”

Phrases such as these are implicit with the judgment that abortion is a casual decision. It’s also inaccurate, tilting the meaning against the woman’s right to choice.

Do write, instead:

“Geeta decided to have an abortion.”

“Geeta decided to end the pregnancy.”

We’ll throw in an extra one, for good measure. This is for people who design materials for non-profits.

  1. Do not cram in every sq cm of space with words.

While we understand that print space is expensive, resist the temptation to fill every square cm. Keep in mind that a reader’s eyes can easily glaze over column after column of tightly packed text! Give the reader a chance to take in what you’ve just written, breathe, and form an opinion.

Do, instead:

Let the words breathe. Give them some white space.

As Mark Twain said, “The right word may be effective, but no word was ever as effective as a rightly timed pause.”

How to make statistics dance

1 Mar

“Imagine the world as a street. All houses are lined up by income, the poor living to the left and the rich to the right. Everybody else somewhere in between. Where would you live? Would your life look different than your neighbours’ from other parts of the world, who share the same income level? Welcome!”

This is Dollar Street, an online visual tool that makes everyday life on different income levels understandable. An invention of Anna Rosling Rönnlund at Gapminder, Dollar Street is an example of how data can be brought to life.

For not-for-profits, data is indispensable to effective communication. But the gap between using data and effectively using data is a wide one!

Most not-for-profits bung in a statistic in communication materials and expect the statistic to grow a mouth and tell its story.

Let’s put this to test.

Organisations that work on child sexual abuse in India often quote this statistic on prevalence:

More than 53% children in India report facing one or more forms of sexual abuse. (National Study on Child Abuse, April 2007)

While horrific to people working in the field, the statistic by itself does nothing to drive home why it is so.

But try telling it like this…

Every second child growing up in India has been sexually abused in one or more forms.

… and the appalling reality of child sexual abuse becomes instantly clear.

The first thing you can do, therefore, is: Bring your statistic to life. The simple act of rewriting the statistic above makes it much more real.

You can also add another layer of clarity by depicting the statistic as a visual. Even a simple illustration, as above, helps the reader visualise the extent of the problem.


The second thing you can do, therefore, is: Give your statistic a face.

And then you have a completely different level of use of data, where your data tells a story, paints a picture, illustrates a complex problem, often all of these at the same time.

See below a Slate infographic that shows how different groups of people in the Syrian war relate to one another. This infographic is all the more ingenious because it uses easily recognisable emojis to express how the different actors view one another.


Which brings us to the third point: Make it dance.

The Dollar Street example that we started with is an extreme example of the third level– it’s data that you can see and almost touch. It’s data that’s now a story.

Send us a statistic that you often use for your work – and we’ll pick the first one we get and turn it into a walking talking creature.

Have website, will fundraise? Not necessarily.

21 Feb

Creating a website and waiting for donations to pour in is a bit like buying a car and expecting it to drive itself.

So we put the website URL on visiting cards, brochures, annual reports, and email signatures, and then wait. Those with some resources to spare dabble in social media (read Facebook) and post the website URL on Facebook with an appeal. When that still doesn’t pay, we shrug our shoulders and tell ourselves, “Well, as a small/ medium not-for-profit, we can’t afford to advertise the way these big organisations can, so this is the best we can do.” The enthusiasm for the website wanes, and in no time, the website is dead. But we know that we should be doing more on the web, so every three to five years we fiddle with the website and make cosmetic changes.

This cycle is all too familiar for us who have been working with not-for-profit organisations of all sizes for the past 16 years.

So here it is, in simple, unequivocal terms: Just a website will not raise you money or supporters online.

Simple promotion tactics – while important – are not enough.

  • Putting your URL on print materials is a good start, but people have to key in your URL into a browser, and that calls for serious interest or commitment.
  • Putting your URL on your email signature is slightly better, but most people tune out your email signature, unless you force them to read it in some way.
  • Posting an appeal, even a well-written one, on Facebook is good, but if you haven’t built the relationships, no one is reading.

In last week’s post, we talked about how it’s not what you do with the donate button, but what you do around it. This week, we talk about how it’s not about just having a website, but how you drive donors to visit and give on it.

What you need is a digital pipeline that drives potential donors to your website, engages them in conversation and gets them to give again.

Here are three ways in which you can do this:

  1. Put in place a regular email marketing campaign to build and nurture a list of warm donors. An email newsletter can become your #1 tool in driving online donations. It can get people to give for the first time, and one-time donors to give again and give more.
  2. Get donors who have given even once to engage with you on social media, say Facebook. This gives you a low-cost method of regularly communicating with and retaining donors.
  3. Tie these three channels – the website, Facebook and the email newsletter – into a digital loop that powers your acquisition and retention engine.

Now that your basic loop is in place, you can add elements (such as advertising) according to your budget.

To find out how to put this digital pipeline in place, write in to us.

The #1 tip that makes your donate button click

13 Feb

Ask early, they say. Ask often, they say. The answer, you’d think, lay in a sprinkling of donation buttons on the website: Donate. DONATE NOW. DoNaTe (animated). Not so.

If the mystery of the perfectly positioned donate button has you confused, you’re not alone. Where should you put the donate button on your website? Above the scroll, of course, so that a reader can see it without moving down the page. But what else? While a lot of opinions exist on the colour, shape, size and font of the donate button, these are – while important aspects – not the #1 factor that drives potential donors to click.

The #1 factor to consider is not so much what you do with the donate button – as what you do around it. How do you engage your website visitors in a conversation that leads up to the donate button?

It comes back, as it usually does in fundraising, to storytelling.

The most powerful reason to give that you can offer your donors is a chance to be part of the change your work brings about. Bring that change alive for them on the website. Not in a separate link called “stories of change” or worse, “success stories” or ugh, “case studies.” Tell your story right up on the home page and let it dance.

People give to people, and not to organisations. We’ve heard that often enough. But how often do we find organisations describing themselves on the most prime real estate on the homepage: “We are a charitable trust aimed at xxxxxx,” and plonking the donate button right next to that! No donor will be moved to give by the registration specifics of your organisation. No donor will be moved to give by a jargon-filled statement of work – no matter how impressive or how enduring. No donor will be moved to give by the list of luminaries on your board.

What does, will and continue to move a donor is your mission. The reason you exist. The story of how your work helped a woman pull her children out of manual labour and gave them back their childhood, with a full belly and lessons at school. The story of how a village artisan now provides jobs to other artisans in his community.

The story need not be long – indeed, on a website, it can’t be. And resist the temptation to tell the whole story in four lines (Meena was poor. But thanks to us, now she’s working at xx).

How much of the story to tell, and how to tell it, are important judgments to make. A good story, when told well, moves people into clicking. Right then. Right there. And that’s where you need the donate button. Right around the most persuasive copy on your website – the story of change.

Screenshot (571).png

See how the story of David and Dinesh gives you a flavour of the kind of change HOPE foundation has brought about: an incentive for young children to stay in school. The excerpt does not dwell at length on their family background, nor on the long-term changes in the family, but on just their love for dance. While a reader can click on the full story, the excerpt still tugs at the heartstrings. And the donate button is right next to it. Stories like these helped HOPE foundation take their online fundraising through the website up by 700+ per cent.

You can also do all of the above by evoking a picture of the problem that you’re addressing, and how the reader can be part of the solution. More on that, another day.

We’ve got nine more tips like this one to get your website in shape to raise money. Download our cheat-sheet, 10 ways your website can raise more funds, right here.

So you think you know your target audience?

25 Jan

It’s a lesson we learn in Communications 101. Know your target audience well. Then budgets and deadlines take over, and we settle for “Make intelligent guesses about your target audience.”

It’s a lesson worth going back to especially now, when many not-for-profits working on reproductive and sexual rights face huge budget cuts under the new political dispensation in the US. And it’s a lesson that the best minds in Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign completely missed.

But first – what does “Know your target audience well” mean? For one, it means, “Know who your audience is.” In this case, the answer is not simply, “women”. Who are these women? What is their every day like?

Two, it means finding out where your target audience is in relation to the issues you’re talking about. If an audience segment is tilting in favour of what you have to say, why is it doing so? What are the pain points of individuals in that group that your message addresses? If the target audience is opposed to what you’re saying, what are their concerns, their objections and their barriers?

Not knowing the target audience well – or making assumptions about it – can result in messaging that’s completely off target.

Back to the Clinton campaign. The campaign rested on a big assumption. It assumed that people who support reproductive and sexual health and rights (made evident through their support for Planned Parenthood) would not vote for Donald Trump (because stopping federal funding for Planned Parenthood is a well-known Republican stance). Huge mistake.

The campaign completely missed that there is a large chunk of Trump voters who are actually Planned Parenthood supporters. A study on healthcare policy conducted just prior to the elections showed that 48% of people who planned to vote for Trump were in favour of continued federal funding for Planned Parenthood. They just didn’t know that voting Trump was contrary to their support for Planned Parenthood. And no one pointed this out to them.

The Clinton campaign, instead of focusing on issues, almost entirely focused on the personality of Donald Trump. Again, huge mistake.

In December, Planned Parenthood conducted a series of focus group discussions with people who supported the organisation but still voted Trump. Michelle Goldberg writes in Slate, “The focus groups are also revelatory. They suggest that the Clinton campaign made a fatal mistake in depicting Trump as outside the bounds of normal conservatism. Clinton’s camp had hoped that doing so would lead Republicans to defect. Instead, it helped some people who distrust conservatism to reconcile themselves to Trump.”

In other words, the campaign should have firmly tied Trump to the Republican platform on which he stood. By focusing the majority of attention on his larger than life personality and derision for his “personal beliefs and actions,” the campaign divorced Trump from many of the specifics of the Republican agenda – such as cutting federal funding for Planned Parenthood. This, despite the fact that Trump had publicly stated that he would strip Planned Parenthood of funding unless it stopped supporting abortions.

Goldberg writes, “But many of the people in the focus groups didn’t know he’d made this assurance, and those who did didn’t take it seriously. It seemed as if Trump’s lasciviousness, which Clinton hoped would disqualify Trump with women, actually worked in his favour. The focus group participants couldn’t imagine that Trump would enact a religious right agenda.”

All this points to flawed campaign planning: not understanding how Trump’s women supporters perceived him and the Republican agenda, and therefore, not knowing where to attack.

The trajectory of this campaign holds invaluable lessons for the non-profit campaigner. Segment your target audience as narrowly as you can. Then systematically get to know each segment.

If you have the budget, invest it in target audience research. Actually, let me take that back. If the campaign is important, then get the money to invest in target audience research. If you absolutely don’t have the money, then get volunteers to at least do a dipstick survey.

Only then can you craft your key messages. And only, only then, develop your communication materials. Never, ever, start a campaign by thinking of what materials you’ll need.

You might think this is pretty elementary. But the best brains got this wrong. And Clinton lost her chance to connect with 48% of the women who voted for Trump.

Do you have an example of a campaign that went wrong or right, because of knowing the target audience well? Write in to us.


The SDGs, Dobby and the Deathly Hallows

23 Sep

Just two days to go for the Quidditch World Cup 2015, oops, er.. the UN meeting in New York to announce the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the successor to the Millennium Development Goals. The SDGs have been accused of being bloated, some of them impossible to measure, and my favourite, “higgledy-piggledy.” The SDGs number 17, and have 169 associated targets. Did they just pull all that out of the Sorting Hat, was my first reaction. A grant-seeker’s nightmare, was my second.

First and second instincts apart, global goals do have their pluses. For one, as The Economist article points out, it has the whole world looking in the same direction, allowing for focused investment and deeper impact. Think of all three houses coming together to fight Voldemort (T silent). Measurability brings with it greater transparency, and boosts confidence that investments will bring rewards, thereby attracting corporates and wealthy philanthropists. And sure, technology (the modern-day equivalent of tessomancy, or reading tea leaves) makes it possible to accurately assess both the extent of the problem and the effectiveness of the solution.

But there are pitfalls. And the pitfalls lie not with the SDGs, but the grants that will follow them.

None of the following is an original argument – it has been made countless times by advocates of local resource mobilisation, also known as the Order of the Phoenix. But since we are on the threshold of a new global order led by wise and powerful witches and wizards, it’s worthwhile to repeat them. (Those who don’t learn from history… and all that.)

The emphasis on making every knut count implies that even more of the money is earmarked for actuals on the ground – syringes, life-saving drugs, food… This puts pressure on the money that’s available for human resources. Not among the large primary recipients of grants, but among the recipient organisations at the end of the line. No, not Dobby. The grassroots non-profit (the jargon we in the sector like to use is CBO – community-based organisation) that is granted a “project” to run, does so with minimal staff (and house elves) just about qualified to implement task ‘x.’

In an ideal world, a CBO would have its own larger vision of what it must do to benefit the community it serves. It would then raise funds from local and other sources to do what it must do. But seldom is that the case. Most small organisations have their eyes fixed on the project – and the project alone. Suddenly, usually at the time when the grant is coming to an end, they are exhorted to diversify income sources, find the Philosopher’s Stone of Sustainability and basically produce a fourth name out of the Triwizard Cup.

Would they have done things differently if they’d been told that one day the grant would come to end? That’s a bit like saying would Harry Potter have done things differently had he known “neither can live while the other survives”?

Usually, once the grant ends, once the success of the programme leads to its logical close, priorities shift. The CBO either scrambles for existence, closes down or what’s most common, waits for the next project.

And here’s where grant-makers can learn from The Deathly Hallows, and do things differently this time around.

For those not tuned into Potterwatch (oh, but you’ve stopped reading a long while ago), a quick and dirty guide to the Deathly Hallows. To defeat death, a wizard has to be master of three magical objects known as the Deathly Hallows, comprising the Elder Wand, the Resurrection Stone and the Invisibility Cloak.

Here’s our version of the Hallows for grant-making.

  • The Elder Wand: Build a strong core. In other words, strengthen the organisation by helping build a strong core team, a powerful vision and solid systems.
  • The Resurrection Stone: Strengthen communication, to bring back to life forgotten, dead or non-existent supporters.
  • The Invisibility Cloak: Wear the cloak of invisibility. Enable the organisation to have such a diversified portfolio of supporters that your project is but a small part of the whole.

For more tips on how not to be a Muggle with grant-making, see https://nosmallchange.wordpress.com/2015/08/24/grant-dont-grunt/.

Let the fun and games begin, at the World Quidditch Cup 2015, in New York!

Grant, not grunt

24 Aug

Vu’s post in Nonprofit with Balls this Monday, “Funders, your grant application process may be perpetuating inequity,” couldn’t have been more well-timed. (Link to the post at the end of this one.)

Over the past few weeks, we have been working with community-based and led organisations working with men who have sex with men and transgender people. Most of these organisations have just been registered or are in the process of doing so. Most are in desperate need of resources to meet the immediate challenges of the community. The annual amounts to be raised are comparable to the monthly spend on biscuits in the nutritional programme of a large non-profit. The organisations are staffed by well-meaning and committed community members who are – and rightly so – focused on getting their programme off the ground. They have some way to go before they move from the road of “we’ll do what we get funds for” to “how do we get the money to do what the community’s needs.”

The story of these CBOs is no different from those we’ve seen hundreds of times in the past 15 years that we’ve been doing this.

Small organisations aim for the mirage-like oasis of self-sustainability, which is an intrinsically noble goal. But the quest often means that such small CBOs have to somehow transform into expert grant writers and makers of spiffy presentations that wow high net worth and corporate audiences. The other option is to raise resources by building avenues for generating income, in other words, by setting up business ventures. But this too requires business development skills if returns are to justify investment. And that’s something that again, most CBOs don’t have.

Grant-makers could make this quest just a bit easier – and infinitely more meaningful, especially for small community-led CBOs – by doing these four things.

  1. Go for function, not form. Typically, at the workshops we conduct, we drill into participants the basics of good communication – often running the risk of oversimplification. We’re happy if participants leave having understood just one thing well – how to tell a good story or how to talk about your achievements, rather than activities. But come Monday morning, as they fill out the next 14-page format to please the grant-maker, all the understanding comes undone.

Grant-makers, review your reporting requirements and ask for stories or for achievements – things that the CBO can actually use in their next presentation or elevator speech. The skills they develop in writing and sending you a good story of change are skills they can use with other donors, including individuals and corporates. This would be a much better way to build the capacity of the CBO for real.

  1. Help them through the language barrier. We find that once they learn the basic elements of good communication, most CBOs can write strong concept notes in their local language. But the ordeal of expressing themselves in English wrings out any poetry or power that the story might hold.

Grant-makers, either evaluate concept notes in the local language (you can afford to hire someone to do the job) – or fund the cost of a skilled communicator who can recast it into English BEFORE you make the grant. Including the cost of these skills in the grant budget, if it’s offered at all, doesn’t help.

  1. Don’t bury them with bureaucracy. It looks like monitoring and evaluation will soon be elevated to the status of a legit science (just kidding; fingers crossed). While the principle of monitoring indicators of success is fine, it makes drudgery of work. Recording attendance sheets in triplicate, before and after psych evaluations, auto-rickshaw bills and Instagram photos of every meal consumed (okay, I’m exaggerating now, maybe not the Instagram food shots) turns up the heat on an already wilting-under-the-pressure CBO.

Grant-makers, dump the excessive paperwork. If your donor asks for it, then please educate your donor.

  1. Pay for staff, not elves. The task of raising resources involves submitting proposals, concept notes, presentations, budgets and sundry attachments, all to be done by the already overworked and extremely underpaid CBO staff who are not qualified to do all of this in the first place. The desire of grant-makers to keep management budgets low means that very soon, all non-profits will be staffed by elves who creep in at night and do the work of men and women.

Grant-makers, provide core funding to hire skilled staff or paid volunteers who will actually show up. And this might sound like an unabashed plug – but pay for consultants who will actually implement, and not just give advice.

And here’s the inspiration for this post – Vu’s post: Funders, your grant application process may be perpetuating inequity

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