If I had to pick the worst and most frequent problem I see in nonprofit writing, it wouldn't be jargon or lifeless language (although those are certainly big problems). The biggest problem is that the writing just doesn't speak to its audience.

Your first job as a nonprofit communicator, and your most important one, is to know who you are talking to, or writing for, at all times. Then you need to match what you say to the interests, needs, and values of those people. What you tell a board member about a project will be different than what you tell the foundation project officer funding it. What you tell your individual donors will be different from what you tell your clients (or whatever you call the people you serve).

You are talking about the same project, but in different ways to different people, based on who they are. It's not about hiding anything from anyone; it's about tailoring the way you talk and write about your work so that it best matches the ears and eyes on the receiving end. That's the only way that your communications will have the impact you are hoping for.

So what do your supporters want to read, and what bores them to tears? Only you and others who know your list of supporters can answer that question fully. But I'll give you a head start.

Several different donor surveys point to this kind of content being most wanted:

  • Results (tell them what you are doing with their money and what difference it makes)
  • Success stories (personal stories that show the difference you are making in specific people's lives)
  • Action alerts (tell them what they can do to help)
  • Gratitude (make them feel thanked, included, and loved)
  • How-tos (show them how they can make change in their own lives)
  • Funny, inspiring, or otherwise noteworthy items (so good they can't resist passing on to friends)

Know your audience, make a promise, and deliver it!

This article first appeared in our weekly Nonprofit Marketing Tips e-newsletter on January 20, 2011.