From the Desk of
Frank C. Dickerson, Ph.D.
Infusing the Written Text...With the Passion of Speech
A Call for Additional Organizations to Conduct Discourse Audits:
I'm interested in analyzing the written fund-raising discourse of additional nonprofit organizations. The linguistics study reported in my dissertation profiled the writing of 880 U.S. nonprofits. Among these were all 735 that raise at least $20 million annually. My research was actually motivated by a desire to refute an earlier study by Indiana University's Ulla Connor and Thomas Upton. They had painted a bleak picture of fund-raising discourse, based on a profile of 316 direct mail letters written by 108 Indianapolis-area nonprofits. Connor and Upton characterized the linguistic substructure of the typical fund appeal as closer to academic prose than a conversation or personal letter. And the texts they studied were virtually devoid of narrative.
Well, I didn't buy it. As an Ohio State grad, and having studied at Purdue one summer, I knew the Indiana area well. Rather arrogantly I surmised that their findings were skewed. I reasoned that the texts they studied had been written by less-skilled writers who worked for small nonprofits parked amid the cornfields of Central Indiana. "Surely," I thought, "the writing of my elite nonprofits, produced by seasoned professionals, would be superior to the work product of nonprofits in a 'fly-over state' like Indiana."
The Written Voice
This site was developed as a vehicle for sharing doctoral research I conducted at Claremont Graduate University's Peter F. Drucker School of Management and with faculty in its School of Educational Studies. My dissertation builds on the seminal work of Indiana University's Dr. Ulla Connor and Dr. Thomas Upton. Their study analyzed linguistic dimensions of fund-raising discourse among nonprofits located near Indianapolis. I extend their work by profiling the written fund-raising discourse of America's 735 elite nonprofit organizations that raise at least $20 million annually.
Special thanks is owed Dr. Douglas Biber of Northern Arizona State University, whose assistance was instrumental in analyzing what is the largest sample of fund-raising discourse studied to date—1.5 million words of text in 2,412 online and printed documents. And my dissertation committee—Dr. Charles Kerchner, Dr. David Drew, and Dr. John Regan—offered insightful criticism that sharpened results.
In addition to posting articles summarizing my corpus linguistics study, called The Voice of Philanthropy Project, this site offers information about my company, High Touch Communication, which applies research discussed in my paper on the impact of paratextual factors on direct mail results. My research group, The Written Voice, also seeks to help fix what my research identifies as the broken discourse of fund raising by conducting Discourse Audits. Leaders in fund raising ignore the problems I describe at the nonprofit sector's peril!
However, in addition to being terribly arrogant in these assumptions, I was dead wrong. Like the Connor and Upton corpus (body) of texts, the writing of my supposedly "more sophisticated" nonprofits also contained few of the linguistic features that create interpersonal connections with readers. What's more, the texts written by nonprofits in my study population contained even less narrative than their Indiana counterparts. In fact, they had less story content than the genre of official documents!
To paraphrase the famous words of Apollo 13 astronaut Jack Swigert: "Fund raisers, we have a problem!"
From a representative sample of your organization's fund-raising texts, we can profile your discourse—determining whether it's warm and personal or cold and detached . . . whether it's filled with narrative or uses the abstract language of mission statement-speak. However, a linguistics profile on its own is no better than a mirror. Statistics only reflect reality. Numbers alone are powerless to change anything. But based on the profile that emerges, we can suggest ways to change the rhetorical superstructure and linguistic substructure of your writing so it connects with readers and puts a human face on your organization's work with narrative. Download the research prospectus below for more details . . .
Click Here for our Prospectus -- How A Discourse Audit Can Improve Your Fund-Raising Texts.
For Practical Help in Improving Your Writing:
A day-long fund-raising writing seminar has been developed to help leaders in the nonprofit sector improve their ability to communicate their organization's cause with prospects and donors. To learn more, go to www.NarrativeFundRaising.org.
For Help in Writing & Producing Fund-raising Communication:
Go to my production company's web site, www.HighTouchCommunication.com, to browse projects we have produced. And for help in writing or producing fund appeals, you can reach me on my direct line, (909) 864-2798 or email HighTouchDirect@msn.com.