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."
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.
The Root Problem With The Discourse of Philanthropy:
At its best, written fund-raising and marketing discourse should read like a conversation sounds—filled with personal views, concerns, stories and emotion. But my linguistics research reveals that these genres actually read more like doctoral dissertations than the lively banter of friends over a cup of coffee. Most discourse—especially the writing of fund raisers—creates little interpersonal involvement and contains less narrative than academic prose and official documents.
It was this problem that framed the mission of The Written Voice—to infuse the written text with the passion of speech. At institutions of higher education and among professional associations, the urgency of this mission is reflected in the virtual absence of research agendas, courses and seminars on the language of fund raising.
Philanthropy Fairies Don't Exist:
Hard-won progress by researchers in many areas has strengthened philanthropy and the nonprofit sector. Those who have labored so hard for so long are to be congratulated, appreciated, and encouraged to do even more. However, the vacuum of knowledge building on the language of fund raising would leave one to believe that some benevolent philanthropy fairy just tosses magic dust, waves her wand, and poof—perfect messages and money suddenly appears. But there is no magic dust, no wand, no fairy...only real people who raise money the old-fashioned way—they ask for it.
Those working on the front lines of the nonprofit sector deserve fund-raising courses and seminars based on validated theory spawned by cross-disciplinary communication research. However, in the polite society of academia fund raising is seldom the research topic of choice. Curricula and studies seem to focus on everything but the raising of money. And when fund-raising courses are offered, they seem to focus on technique and ignore the underlying structure of the language upon which technique depends.
And professional associations are no better. While they offer plenty of fund raising training, they almost never discuss the language that shapes the fund-raising message they train practitioners to deliver. This is shortsighted, given that effective fund raising is the nonprofit sector's conditio sine qua non. It is that without which not. Without effective writing, no money is raised, no programs are funded and nothing else really matters.
Peter Drucker's View—Problems Are Not Equally Problematic:
This view is consistent with the undemocratic priority Peter Drucker placed on certain key result areas that he believed were "the same for all businesses, for all businesses depend on the same factors for their survival." His eight domains included 1.) marketing, 2.) innovation, 3.) human organization, 4.) financial resources, 5.) physical resources, 6.) productivity, 7.) social responsibility, and 8.) profit requirements. But "marketing and innovation," Drucker asserted, "are the foundation areas in objective setting. It is in these two areas that a business obtains its results. In all other objective areas the purpose of doing is to make possible the attainment of the objectives in the areas of marketing and innovation."
Fund raising that builds mutually satisfying partnerships between donors and nonprofits is philanthropy's cognate of marketing. As such, it deserves the same level of academic scholarship that marketing has attracted in the commercial sector, producing new fields of inquiry like consumer behavior. I hope my study debunks the myth of fairy dust philanthropy and provokes additional studies across disciplines like linguistics, rhetoric, and neurolinguistics. Such scholarship can only strengthen the voice of philanthropy—the voice of the friend of man. As scholars better understand the substrates of communication theory at the foundation of fund raising, practitioners will be better equipped to carry out their important tasks.
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.