Rogue Ink

April 29, 2008

Writing for Non-Profits or Why Cheese is Awesome

Filed under: Copywriting,Entrepreneurship — Tei @ 5:25 am
Tags: , , ,

I was going to write a post on freelancing ethics, but I’m not feeling particularly ethical today (you have to sort of be in the mood to get on your moralistic high horse) so I’m going to talk about why writing for non-profits is different than writing for other kinds of companies.

As with all things, the key is in the words (oh, English language, how I heart you). A non-profit does not work for profit. A for-profit, as in all other companies, works for profit. I know. It’s all so clear and magical. Wait a sec, though, because I’m going to change it up: this means that when you are writing for a for-profit, you are generally selling something. This is, in fact, a good thing to tell people about yourself if you write sales copy for a living: I can help you generate more profits. The granddaddy of sales copy is Bob Bly, and this is exactly what he tells people, over and over again. I can make you more money, says he, and he is evidently correct on that point. And that’s awesome for Bob, but it doesn’t work for non-profits.

This is not because non-profits do not need money. They actually always need money. Throw a stone into a roomful of non-profit people, and you will give some non-profit guy a head wound, and that guy will not have health insurance, because non-profits always need money. So money is still a factor here.

The difference is you are no longer getting people to buy something. You are getting people to invest.

We HATE investing.

When we buy things, we know exactly what we’re getting, and what it’s going to do for us. I buy cheese because I really like cheese. It is delicious, it smells good, it is frequently studded with nuts or rosemary or apricots, it goes great with a glass of wine, it keeps me from getting too skinny (a thing I worry about constantly, let me tell you) and it featured very prominently in the wonderful Redwall books of my youth. These are great reasons to buy cheese.

When we invest in things, we do not usually know what we’re getting. Very few people actually own stocks and bonds, few people have CDs or savings of any kind, because they don’t understand the investment. So someone has to explain it to us.

Here’s the clincher: nobody likes to have stuff explained to them.

We get bored. We tune out. We start counting the freckles on the bank guy’s face, and deciding that maybe he should have been a little friendlier with the sunscreen in his youth, because some of those freckles are big and strangely-shaped and look decidedly precancerous. We start wondering what we’re going to have for dinner. We start hating the term ‘CDs’. Not really, because music CDs are great, but we mostly use mp3s now and why would they call investment-CDs CDs when there were already CDs in the world and those CDs had music on them? Investment CDs are never going to compete with music CDs, we think. We are wondering if this guy is still talking about the CDs. We kind of have to pee. We wish he’d finish up.

When we get bored, we never find out what the awesome investment is going to do for us, and so we never invest. We take our money and we go buy cheese, because we know all the delights of cheese, and they are numerously delicious.

Back to the Non-Profits

Non-profits get their money from donations. There is a huge list of things that fall under the category of ‘donations’ – grants, government and state monies, privately wealthy folk who for some reason don’t see the immediate necessity of funding my personal lifestyle and choose to write checks to other causes instead – but for the sake of discussion, ‘donations’ about covers it.

When someone is being asked to donate to a non-profit, they are being asked to invest. They personally are not going to get the return on their investment, but they want to know that their money is going to accomplish something good. I know, these are selfish evil people, but they want to be able to have the warm fuzzies that come with sending your money off to save starving children. They want the fuzzies. They are complete addicts for the fuzzies. They want to know why your brand of fuzzies is better than the other guy’s fuzzies, and in order to do that, you’re going to have explain, and as I’ve already said, nobody likes shit explained to them, so you’re going to have to be entertaining. You’re going to have to tell them a story.

Writing for businesses is selling. Writing for non-profits is storytelling.

When writing for a non-profit, you have to craft a story that makes the potential donor’s heart grow three sizes in one day and cracks the Grinch’s face and sends him sledding down to Whoville with Max. That’s your job. It is a little easier than the Grinch, because your potential donors are good-hearted folk already and they aren’t green and they don’t have weird evil-shaped eyes, but you have competitors out there, competitors who will try to make their warm fuzzies seem warmer and fuzzier than that damned Snuggle bear, so you better craft a good story.

Good storytellers get the investments, because they can explain things without the listener being aware of the explanation. If the guy at the bank could craft a really compelling story about the CDs, I would sit there all rapt and attentive and he would probably get my money. They do this occasionally. They tell this wonderful story about a woman who started a twenty-dollar CD when she was fifteen and then retired at the age of thirty and went off to live in the Bahamas with an actor. A cool actor, not a creepy Hollywood type. A Johnny Depp type actor.

Although, I have to say, even then, I go: that sounds great, but do I HAVE to invest now? If I don’t invest now, I could use that money to buy cheese instead. And the immediate satisfaction of cheese is so much more real than the eventual satisfaction of financial stability. I don’t believe in financial stability anyway. I think financial stability hangs out with the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus and none of them are ever coming to my house again, because I’m a grown-up now.

I don’t feel this way about non-profits though. If you tell me I can save a small child from AIDS with my quarter, you have got my quarter, no problem. I’ll buy cheese some other time.

The Small Matter of Hero Creation

The donor is making an investment in someone else’s life. That is good and noble, but he needs to know why he is doing that. Tell him a story. Tell him a story about illiteracy if you’re writing for a library, tell him a story about poverty if you’re writing for a non-profit business loans company, tell him a story about disease if you’re writing for a health-care facility.

Then make the donor the hero of the story. Give him the power to rectify the situation, right the wrong, save the world. No one can resist being a hero.

Here’s what’s really fun: it’s true. You just told a true story, and you made a real hero. Which makes you the guy who makes heroes. It makes you Zeus. Zeus got all the lightning bolts and women and those cool arm-band things. Zeus is a good guy to be.

Yeah, yeah, real heroes make themselves, I know. I just want to be Zeus.

If I were Zeus, someone would bring me some cheese right now. I’ll bet you Zeus never had to buy his own cheese.

More cheese obsessions later. Subscribe so’s you don’t miss them.



  1. Excellent post, and a fantastic analogy. Thanks for all the effort 🙂

    Comment by Trudi Topham — April 29, 2008 @ 11:36 am | Reply

  2. Yep…yep…yep.

    I’ve been in a Non-for Profit Theater group for 36 years. You nailed it. We give away thousands and it feels good. It makes others feel good when they get to help.

    Personally I like it. A lot.

    Comment by wendikelly — April 29, 2008 @ 1:33 pm | Reply

  3. If I had to be a hero, I’d be Iron Man. Mostly, because each day when I’m getting ready for work, I *am* Iron Man… hate wrinkles.

    Iron Man will bring you some cheese, Zeus.

    Comment by Brett Legree — April 29, 2008 @ 2:39 pm | Reply

  4. Not only was the post funny, it really captured the essence of non-profit writing. I’ve worked with non-profits before, and I had to explain the value of storytelling when writing donation letters. Few people got it. I’m e-mailing my old co-workers this post now.

    Comment by Meg Roberts — April 29, 2008 @ 5:30 pm | Reply

  5. I thoroughly enjoyed that. Anyone who can write about non-profits and investments and keep me interested is definitely a top-notch writer in my book. Particularly loved the part about CD’s and mp3’s. 🙂

    Comment by Michael Henreckson — April 29, 2008 @ 6:38 pm | Reply

  6. Well hello to all the new people. Welcome to Rogueville.

    Trudi: Thankee muchly.

    Wendi: I know. Aren’t we selfish, selfish bastards. I always wind up arguing with some Ayn Rand enthusiast about this one.

    Iron Man: Would you? Would you really? All the way from Canada?

    Meg: Hey, funny is what I do. I try to be useful just for kicks. Thanks for the high praise!

    Michael: Glad you enjoyed it. Didn’t you get all pissed about the CD thing? It confused me forever. Even now, I kind of think my money is burned onto a reflective disc.

    Comment by Tei — April 29, 2008 @ 7:15 pm | Reply

  7. Storytelling is a great way of summing up writing for a non-profit. I used to work for an environmental non-profit and let me tell you we got very good at selling native plants and GRANT writing, so we could all make a living.

    You make a good Zeus. Wracking ’em out with those lightening bolts.

    Comment by Ellen — April 29, 2008 @ 10:58 pm | Reply

  8. Thank you for this article. This helps me sift my writing and business identity another level.

    Comment by Deb — April 30, 2008 @ 12:16 pm | Reply

  9. Ellen: Thanks so much.

    Deb: No problem. Come back again soon. I’m sure to be useful again sometime.

    Comment by Tei — May 3, 2008 @ 12:22 am | Reply

  10. […] Ink. Here at the pub we mostly tell jokes about weevil sex and make fun of bad grammar. Sometimes we touch on copywriting, but it is bounded by jokes about being broke and frosted with rants about cheese, and I am pretty […]

    Pingback by Cussing, or Why Rogue Ink is Not a Business Blog « Rogue Ink — May 8, 2008 @ 5:41 am | Reply

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