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."


From the Desk of

Frank C. Dickerson, Ph.D.

The Written Voice

Infusing the Written Text...With the Passion of Speech

At Claremont Graduate University, Peter Drucker’s advice focused my research on the language of fund raising. That research was shaped by his intentionally undemocratic, imbalanced perspective about which were the most important goals a leader must plan for and achieve. Peter was quite provocative, writing:

“Marketing and innovation 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.  Because its purpose is to create a customer, the business enterprise has two—and only these two—basic functions: marketing and innovation.  Marketing and innovation produce results, all the rest are costs.”

Drucker had just finished his book on nonprofit management when I was his student in the early 1990s.  He helped me to see that as marketing is critical to the success of any business, so too fund raising is critical to the success of any nonprofit.  And for commercial and nonprofit organizations alike, I came to see that the effective use of language is the critical factor in crafting a successful marketing or fund-raising message.  My research profiled the broken discourse of fund raising.  And now, The Narrative FundRaising Seminar shows how, by fixing the way you write, you can raise more (visit www.NarrativeFundRaising.org to learn more).

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 What Apollo 13 Astronaut Jack Swigert Said: "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 improve the three dimensions of your discourse:

The Three Dimensions of Discourse: How to write better and raise more money for your cause

Rhetorical Superstructure (purpose) decide what rhetorical aim you want your text to achieve

Linguistic Substructure (means) make word, grammar, and syntax choices in line with what you want to achieve

Artistic infrastructure (style) win/keep attention with vivid imagery, dialogue, repetition, and clarity that plots scenes on a narrative arc portraying people, tension, and resolution

Writing that motivates greater giving connects with readers at an emotional level. Unfortunately, most of us have been programmed by higher education to avoid appeals to human emotion. However, effective fund raising requires that you . . .

Convince the doubting mind,

Touch the apathetic heart, and

Movethe reluctant will to give.

The best way to achieve these three aims is to tell a story that allows a donor to picture how he or she, by giving, can become the hero of the story told.

However, a word of caution. A fund-raising story must be bridled so it doesn't gallop off on its own like a wild horse. It must achieve the objective of raising funds.  Both implicitly and explicitly you need to portray how, by giving, a donor can move the story toward resolution (whether the gift helps to feed a hungry person, puts healthcare within reach, provides an opportunity for education, or helps meet another specific need).  As a fund raiser, you must not allow the story told to camouflage the cause or suffocate the ask.

Three Resources Available To Help Improve Your Communication So You Can Raise More Funds:

Research: For An Analysis Of How Effective Your Organization's Copy Is:

Email Frank@TheWrittenVoice.org for more information or click here for a pdf on

Education: 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.

Service: For Help Getting Your Next Project Written, Produced, and Sent:
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.

Click the Image Below to Learn What Thought Leaders & Practitioners Say About This Research: