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Nonprofit Communications: Finding Your Nonprofit’s Voice

Nonprofit communications is all about voice.

When you post on social media, write a fundraising letter, or create a PSA, how do you sound different from other organizations?

Your voice.

“Voice” is a rhetorical device that conveys the personality and uniqueness of the writer to the reader. It’s made up of a patchwork of elements, including grammar, vocabulary, style, and emphasis. Simply put, it’s what makes you sound like you.

Invoking “rhetorical devices” might seem a little lofty when we’re talking about fundraising, but stick with me. Rhetoric is just persuasive writing and speaking, which is what most fundraising writing is. What your organization sounds like is part of what makes people give.

What Are We Talking About, Exactly?

“Voice” is one of those squishy things about writing. Unlike grammar or structure, which have clear guidelines, voice, and its even more elusive partner, tone, involve just as much emotion as they do logic. It’s something we recognize on a gut level, but often don’t consciously notice.

Since voice is something we know when we hear it, let’s look at some examples.

Each company or organization below has a clear, identifiable voice.

1. Geico: A Quirky Voice

Is your nonprofit voice quirky like Geico?You could probably identify Geico’s goofy humor, beloved gecko, and straight-forward sales pitch without even looking at their logo. They use casual language, outrageous examples, and clear calls to action to create their voice.

2. The Humane Society: Seriously Compassionate

I promise I’m not going to make you watch one of those Sarah McLaughlin commercials again.

Is your nonprofit voice compassionate like the Humane Society?
You can still hear “In the Arms of the Angel” anyway, can’t you? Dang it. Sorry.

The Humane Society uses emotional language and is generally a bit more serious in tone. This is probably because it’s hard/wrong to make jokes about sad animals. Instead, their humor runs more along the line of a cute twist on a cliche and it never veers into anything wacky.

3. Nike

Athletic shoe and apparel company Nike, instantly recognizable just by their swish logo, has a no-nonsense voice. They use short words and phrases (“Just Do It”), and often use sports-focused and performance-oriented language.

How To Craft Your Nonprofit Communication Voice

Advertisers devote a lot of time and energy to developing the “voice of the brand.” This isn’t just a thought exercise; an identifiable voice has a dollar value for corporations. Nonprofits may not be able to conduct focus groups and bring in psychologists to advise us on our voice, but it’s still worth thinking about, crafting, and then articulating your organization’s voice. Why?

    1. They way you talk to your supporters will influence how they feel about your organization. It’s part of what makes them think you’re trustworthy, which is an important factor in deciding to give.
    2. There are a lot of good causes and organizations. A clear voice helps your organization stand out from the crowd.
    3. Discussing and defining your organization’s voice helps it stay consistent across channels, throughout the organization, and through staff transitions.

In this video, World Bicycle Relief’s impact is told in the voices of girls whose lives have been changed by their bicycles. Their voices are authentic, enthusiastic, and unforgettable.

Personality

Who is your organization? As a nonprofit, your first thought may be to turn to your mission statement but hold off on that for a second. Your mission is what you’re trying to do, not who you are. Many organizations may essentially share your mission, but what makes you the only you?

Occasionally, breaking the rules and starting with a negative works better than trying to invent the positive from thin air. We often have a clearer idea of what we don’t want to sound like, than what we do. Think about what isn’t you, the thing you’d say, “Nope!” to immediately.  Does any particular language or style strike you as “off?”

Once you’ve determined some of the characteristics that aren’t part of your personality, you can consider what the opposite, or alternatives might be. If you know snarky and cynical isn’t for you, are you warm? Earnest? Welcoming? If you hesitate to get too serious, are you irreverent, silly, or funny?

Vocabulary

The words you choose are how you communicate your voice. They’re the things the reader actually interacts with, so choose them carefully. To see if your words reflect your personality, consider:

1) Cause-Related Language

There are several ways to talk about a cause, and chances are, you’re already pretty specific. You know if you say “conservation,” instead of “environmental protection,” or “contemporary” instead of “modern” art.If you’ve got a mix of terminology floating around your organization, it’s time to standardize to clarify your voice. If a term requires a bunch of explanation, it probably shouldn’t feature heavily in your fundraising writing. Stay away from jargon and technical definitions, which can confuse and distract your audience.

2) Emotion

How, and how much you engage emotions is part of your voice. Obviously, The Humane Society doesn’t care if they make us cry, in fact, they’re probably trying to. Other organizations don’t go straight for your heart, but appeal to your sense of justice, or provoke your rage.Some words have a more emotional impact than others. Think of:
“sad,” vs. “devastated”
“let down” vs. “disappointed”
“pleased” vs. “overjoyed” Aim for vocabulary with the most emotional impact possible, while keeping a watch on good taste. It’s possible to lean too hard into the emotional vocabulary and either exaggerate or start to seem manipulative. People like being emotionally affected, not tricked. A good test is to simply ask yourself if an adjective is accurate.

3) Connotation

Language is tricky. Some words are technically perfectly fine, and yet, still have the power to mean something different, give us a weird feeling, or make us sound like jerks. We call this linguistic phenomenon “connotation,” and it can seriously mess up your voice.Cause-related vocabulary is a bit of a connotation minefield, especially related to how you talk about the people you help. Do you say, “homeless person,” “person experiencing homelessness,” “our homeless neighbors,” or “vagrants?” (I know you don’t say “vagrants,” but see how it changes how you sound?)A word doesn’t need to be offensive or outdated to wreck your voice via connotation. “Cheap,” “frugal,” and “affordable,” all have the same literal meaning, but if you told me you were building cheap housing for single moms, I’d suspect you were a would-be slumlord. If you said you were building affordable housing, I’d think you were thoughtful and mission-driven.

Sometimes, we’re not aware of all the connotations (or even, eek, innuendo) that words have. When in doubt, have someone else take a look.

Style

Style isn’t who you are (that’s your substance), but it’s how you present yourself. Think about the culture of your organization. If someone comes in the door, are they greeted by a receptionist behind a desk, or does someone yell, “Hey there!” from somewhere in the back? Are you a fancy gala type organization, or a backyard barbeque kind of organization?

We often use “style” in the context of personal style. This is kind of silly, but I think it works: What kind of shoes would your organization wear? Steel-toed work boots? Sandals made from recycled tires? A nice classic pair of pumps? This is a clue to your organizational style.

Outdoor gear company YETI is definitely wearing hiking boots or waders. They cultivate an authentic voice by directly featuring people who use their products. Check out this video about an Alaskan fishing guide.

(Also, can we give them some kind of award for marketing to women by taking them seriously, instead of making their products pink?)

Style influences your voice by determining how casual or formal your communications are. For some organizations, starting a letter with, “Dear Mr. and Mrs. Smith” would be stuffy and inappropriate, for others, it would be absolutely correct.

Your grammar is part of your formality level, too. Do you care if you end sentences with prepositions? And what about starting sentences with conjunctions? The more formal you are, the more traditional your grammar should be.

And…swearing. This could have been a vocabulary item, but since swearing is just as much a question of etiquette as it is word choice, I think it’s more of a style question. Colorful language is not most nonprofits’ style. However, for the right organization, it may be authentic and help connect with donors, like proclaiming, “F* cancer!”

Humor

Nobody goes through all the work of establishing and running a nonprofit dedicated to a frivolous cause. A lot of us are working on causes that don’t immediately offer much to laugh at, and some of us are fighting things that are tragic. Still, humor is part of voice, and there’s a big difference between sounding serious and sounding humorless.

Humor is more than jokes. It also includes plays on words, absurdity, talking animals, and the whole realm of stuff that makes you say, “Oh, that was cute!” Dark humor, weird humor, kid humor, sweet humor, the list goes on.

Humor is a connector. It draws people in, and helps them engage with information. It’s more memorable, and can provoke an emotional response. Since humor relies on surprise and reversing expectations, it’s a great way to communicate new information and even change someone’s mind.

Humor is all about contrast.
The contrast between the life-threatening and the mundane is the key to this ad.
Is your nonprofit voice nerdy?
This is cute and nerdy.
Is your nonprofit voice fun?
Look at their wigs. Look at them.
Do you reference pop culture in your nonprofit communications?
Drunk-driving is serious, and this darkly funny use of pop culture zombies brings the message home.

Use Your Voice

Your organization’s personality, vocabulary, style, and humor combine to create your voice. The more specific you are about each of these elements, the clearer your voice will be. Your supporters will receive your messages, and more importantly, know they’re from you.

What do you sound like?

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