What is nonprofit writing?
Writing for a good cause
I’m sure you’re familiar with nonprofit organizations. They're groups that are tax-exempt and provide services to communities. There are all sorts of nonprofits working with the homeless, with veterans, helping animals in shelters, working to protect the environment, and providing support to people with various diseases. Churches are also classified as non-profits. Well-known nonprofits you might have heard of include the American Red Cross, the American Cancer Society, the Humane Society, the Nature Conservancy, and the United Way.
Many people think that because of the name 'non-profit," the groups aren't allowed to make a profit. That's not accurate. They can make a profit--but their goal is not to make a profit like other types of businesses and profits must be directed back to support the nonprofit's programs. In fact, most successful nonprofits have well-staffed fundraising groups to go out and raise money. All of the money raised pays for salaries, programs, and activities related to the nonprofit.
Because so many people think nonprofits can't make a profit, they also think that nonprofits don't have enough money to hire staff. Again, nope. Nonprofits needs all of the types of professionals as for-profit businesses ... and that includes writers.
Larger nonprofits need writers for many different types of work. The most common is the marketing and fundraising department. Someone needs to write all of the content used to go out and try to raise money. A more specialized type of nonprofit writer is a grant writer. They research foundations that give money to nonprofits, local good matches for the nonprofit's program, and write detailed proposals to try to secure money from foundations (these types of donations are called grants).
Nonprofits with some technical programs might also need science or technical writers. This is common with biotech or medical nonprofits.
I've worked as an employee at a medium-sized nonprofit, and also served on the board of directors for a couple of nonprofits. It can be a rewarding writing job, but with some caveats. Let's dig in.
Thanks for reading Savvy Business Writing! Subscribe for free to receive new posts via email.
What types of documents do nonprofit writers create?
Nonprofit writing is similar in many ways to marketing writing (I blogged about that here). However, nonprofits need a different spin on marketing content, and also create some unique types of marketing materials.
Fundraising letters: A key tool for all nonprofits is the fundraising letter. This is a printed letter or an email geared toward raising money for a specific project or just for general funding. Many nonprofits send out fundraising letters at the end of the year. This is more than just asking for money. Writers need to understand how to make a connection with readers and tug at their hearts with compelling stories about the nonprofit's successes. There are entire books on how to write successful fundraising letters.
Annual reports: These are documents that showcase everything the nonprofit has done over the past year. The best ones are beautifully designed with lots of photos of the nonprofit's staff, volunteers, and beneficiaries. There are often interviews with people who benefitting from the program, volunteers, and staff. There are charts with annual donations and how they were used. Often, nonprofits time the release of an annual report to some large annual event to try to use it to generate more donations.
Program flyers: Nonprofits with lots of different programs needs marketing materials to use when meeting with potential donors. A flyer can cover a single program or the nonprofit as a whole. These are usually just a page. Sometimes larger nonprofits will create a suite of flyers, one for each program, and package them all up in a custom folder with a copy of the latest annual report.
Website text: Marketing writers usually make sure all of the website text is accurate, compelling, and up to date. This includes adding new programs and their descriptions.
Website content marketing: Just like with corporate marketing, nonprofits can benefit from content marketing. This is when a writer concentrates on high-level programs and goals to set up the nonprofit as a leader in its field. So for example, a no-kill animal shelter can blog about the benefits of funding foster networks. Environmental organizations can blog about setting up trusts to protect farmland. Healthcare nonprofits can blog about how to lobby Congress for meaningful healthcare reform. When people start finding blog posts about topics they care about on a nonprofit's website, they'll see the nonprofit as an expert in its field and a worthy recipient of a donation.
Newsletters: Nonprofits communicate with supporters through newsletters. Nonprofit writers will research story ideas, figure out stories that will not only keep readers up to date but excited about supporting the group, interview people for articles, take photos to go along with articles, and lay out the newsletter in an online program.
Magazine articles: Nonprofits sometimes try to get exposure in magazines. Nonprofit writers may write query letters to suggest story idea to magazine editors. If the story is accepted, the nonprofit writer may write the article and collaborate with nonprofit executives on revisions.
Social media: Social media is an important part of nonprofit marketing, and marketing writers often coordinate writing and scheduling posts for all relevant social media platforms.
Donor profiles: Supporters like to see who else in the community supports the organizations. Often, donor profiles are features on the nonprofit website, newsletter, and maybe the annual report. Nonprofit writers often plan these profiles, interview the donors, then write the articles.
Press releases: When the nonprofit receives a large donation or kicks off a new program, a press release can help draw attention to the nonprofit.
Grant applications: Grant writing is a specialized specialty of nonprofit writing and fundraising. It requires a lot of research to identify foundations that give money to your specific type of nonprofit. There are an incredible number of foundations that fund nonprofits, but many of them have extremely niche areas of interest (such as after school programs for a specific city, or music programs in a specific geographic area). After identifying appropriate foundations, grant writers find grant guidelines and applications and write a formal proposal for grant funding.
What makes nonprofit marketing writing unique
Writing for a nonprofit shares a lot with writing for corporations. In both cases, you are trying to persuade people to do something. Corporate marketing writers are trying to persuade people to buy a product or service. Nonprofit writers are also trying to persuade people to do something, but the end goal is very different. Nonprofit writers want to persuade people to become a paying member, to volunteer, or to make a large donation at the end of the year. They try to persuade wealthy members of the community to make huge donations in exchange for naming a project or a building after them. They try to persuade foundations to give the nonprofit a hefty grant award. To accomplish these things, nonprofit writers have to tweak the language they use. Corporate marketing writers focus on how the individual or company will benefit from buying a product or service. Nonprofit writers focus on how the individual will feel supporting an effort to benefit others. Nonprofit writing really focuses on storytelling, and making donors identify with the cause. There are lots of great books and resources to help nonprofit writers understand how to best make use of language to achieve the nonprofit's goals. Some of my favorite books about nonprofit communication are:
Writing for a Good Cause: The Complete Guide to Crafting Proposals and Other Persuasive Pieces for Nonprofits by Joseph Barbato and Danielle Furlich
Pros and Cons of working at a nonprofit
Working as a writer at a nonprofit can be an incredibly rewarding experience. Your skills will be helping fund projects that benefit communities, and it's really gratifying to work for an organization that is trying to make life better. However, my experience as an employee was not so great. I thought I'd share my experience so you can vet any nonprofit you're thinking of working for.
First, nonprofits will generally not pay the "market rate" for most employees. When I was hired at a biotech nonprofit, I thought it was my perfect dream job, so I rationalized it that I was going to be supporting a good cause when I was offered about $10,000 less than my previous job. HR specifically told me they can't pay the market rate because they're a nonprofit. That was fine ... until a few months later when I was researching the nonprofits finances for the annual report. I looked up the IRS form 990s on the website guidestar.org (this site is great to check out the finances for any nonprofit). The IRS requires nonprofits to disclose salaries of all employees making over $100,000 a year. I was surprised and pretty mad to discover that the CEO of the nonprofit made $800,000 a year, and the other top executives made well over $300,000. Now, I don't begrudge people making good salaries. But if you're a nonprofit and telling your lower level yet highly experienced employees "oh I'm sorry, we can't pay you market rate because we're a nonprofit" then turn around and pay executives incredibly high salaries, that just sucks.
Another thing is politics at nonprofits can be surprisingly bad. As I mentioned, I thought this was my dream job. But the political infighting and cattiness at this nonprofit was insane. I didn't last a year at that place, and that experience was the greatest disappointment of my professional career. So ... research the culture of nonprofits you're interested in. Use Guidestar to find out how much executives are paid to make sure your salary is fair. Use Glassdoor to try to find unbiased employee reviews. There are lots of amazing nonprofits out there that treat employees like valued assets--make sure you only apply to nonprofits that will treat you right.