A well-placed op-ed can help your nonprofit call attention to an important issue or change minds about a controversial topic.
Unlike reported news stories, op-eds are opinion pieces that are written by those who aren’t on the staff of a newspaper, magazine or website. They offer outside voices the opportunity to express opinions and share ideas in their own words.
Traditionally, they appear opposite the editorial page (hence the name, op-ed), which is where the newspaper’s editorial board expresses its opinion on important issues.
But while newspapers don’t quite carry the same influence as they once did, op-eds can nonetheless be valuable tools for advocacy-minded organizations and groups that are looking to raise awareness about a problem or issue.
In fact, one could argue that op-eds have more influence than ever.
That’s because a published op-ed not only appears in the newspaper, it also appears online, which gives your nonprofit the opportunity to point to it on its own site, in blog posts, and through its social media channels.
But, as is the case with pitching stories, it’s a challenge to get news outlets to run your opinion piece.
Newspapers and other outlets typically only have the resources and space to run a limited number of op-eds. As result, competition for these pieces can be fierce.
So how can your increase your odds of getting published?
Here are 10 tips that can help you get your op-ed to the top of the pile:
1. Be Targeted
Before you begin the process of writing and pitching an op-ed, spend some time thinking about which outlet or outlets are of greatest value in terms of reaching your target audiences. If you’re a locally focused nonprofit, that will likely be your local newspaper. But it could also be an outlet that reaches a certain demographic, a trade publication, or a website.
2. Get to Know the Publication
Once you’ve identified the outlet you’re looking to target, spend some time reading its opinion pages. Get a sense of the type of pieces it typically runs and its preferred tone. Reach out to the opinion editor to inquire about its editorial guidelines and, if possible, discuss potential topics or ideas. This will help you avoid sending a blind pitch — and it could end up giving you the intel you need to draft a piece that will appeal to that editor.
3. Understand That You’re Writing On Spec
It takes time to write an effective op-ed. But you have to invest that time with the understanding that your piece might not be accepted. Ultimately, you need to invest that time in writing a strong piece for it to get considered, so resist the urge to cut corners. If you can’t afford to take the time to produce a high-quality piece, your chances of success are low.
4. Don’t Be Afraid to Ghostwrite
Newspapers typically won’t accept op-eds that are written by a director of communications or spokesperson. Your piece will need to come from an expert in the issue you’re discussing — most likely your top executive or another official within your organization. Often, these folks don’t have hours to devote to writing an op-ed on spec. So you’ll likely need to draft the piece yourself under another person’s byline — or hire an outside ghostwriter to work with the expert to create a strong draft.
5. Make It About Your Mission
Most news outlets will not publish op-eds that are promotional in nature. As a result, a piece about why people should support your organization or attend your fundraising dinner isn’t likely to fly. Instead, you need to focus on an issue or problem. Think about your mission and what you’re trying to accomplish and develop topics that build off of your mission. If you’re working on anti-poverty initiatives, for instance, consider writing about the root causes of poverty or effective programs.
6. Find Creative Ways to Position Your Point of View
Identify a creative angle or framework for your piece to increase your chances of success. For example, if you work for a nonprofit that specializes in early-childhood education, you could offer advice to a newly elected official on how to address that issue. You can also look for opportunities to offer insights into new research or explore the implications of a new report or Census data that relates to your cause.
7. Illustrate With Real Stories
While it might be tempting to load your op-ed with data, keep in mind that people are more likely to remember human stories than they are hard figures. As a result, try to find ways to incorporate anecdotes and stories into your piece to help give it added punch.
8. Keep It Short
Most newspapers and websites aren’t looking for lengthy opinion pieces. They expect writers to keep their opinion submissions short — often in the neighborhood of 800 to 1,000 words. Newspapers, of course, have limited space, so they need to fit as much as they can into their limited real estate. But even though the web offers unlimited space, attention spans are short. So your pieces should be, as well. Jennifer Finney Boyer of the New York Times recommends that if you send a piece that’s longer than what the outlet usually publishes, that you include in your cover letter that the piece can be cut.
9. Be Ready for Dissenting Views
If your piece discusses a controversial topic, be prepared for a negative response from some readers. Your piece might prompt nasty online comments or angry letter to the editor. Be ready for blowback — and develop a plan for how you’ll respond. This is a good problem to have, since it means that your piece was not only published, but it also struck a nerve. But have a plan in place for how you’d like to engage those who disagree.
10. Remember to Repurpose
If you are fortunate enough to get your piece published, make sure you have a plan for promoting it on your website and through your social-media channels – and freely encourage your board members and others supporters to help you spread the word. Since you wrote the piece, you might even be able to cross-post it to your blog or edit it to submit it to other outlets. And if it doesn’t get accepted, make sure your time and effort isn’t wasted. Use the piece in your own channels or pitch it somewhere else!
One last thought: there are some other great resources on opinion writing for nonprofits. If you’re serious about developing your nonprofit’s thought leadership voice through op-eds, check out the following:
The Op-Ed Project — A great collection of advice and resources for nonprofits on everything from how to pitch to how to write an effective column.
5 Steps to Op-Eds That Change Minds — Practical advice from NMG expert Nancy Schwartz (and it includes some links to awesome op-eds from actual nonprofits).
Peter Panepento is principal at Panepento Strategies, a full-service content, digital, and social strategy firm for nonprofits and socially-minded companies. He was formerly an assistant managing editor at The Chronicle of Philanthropy and a senior vice president at The Council on Foundations. He also serves as Nonprofit Marketing Guide’s adviser on public relations.