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

The Written Voice

From the Desk of

Frank C. Dickerson, Ph.D.

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. Click here for my critique of university-based curricula designed to equip nonprofit leaders to raise funds.

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.