Infusing the Written Text...With the Passion of Speech
From the Desk of
Frank C. Dickerson, Ph.D.
The Written Voice
Most of us know a good story when we read, hear or see one. What's more, my data indicated that the executives I surveyed preferred narrative over expository texts by a whopping ratio of 9:1! However, my Ph.D. research revealed that few fund raisers know what makes a good story good. I profiled the writing of 880 U.S. nonprofits. Among these were all 735 that raise at least $20 million annually. I had originally set out to refute an earlier study by Indiana University professors 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 University grad, and having studied at Purdue one summer, I knew the neighboring state of Indiana 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 'flyover 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 an interpersonal connection 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!"
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 reviews doctoral research I conducted at Claremont Graduate University's Peter F. Drucker School of Management and 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 had raised $20 million-plus annually, half of all charitable donations contributed in the period the study reviewed.
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 philanthropy ignore the problems I describe at the nonprofit sector's peril! I offer a practical writing workshop designed to fix the problems my research uncovered. Click here to learn more about The NarrativeFundRaising Seminar.
Are you curious about how your writing compares to the norm? If so, click here to learn how your writing can be audited.
Finally, being keenly interested in the state of graduate education programs that prepare women and men for leadership roles in the nonprofit sector, I surveyed more than 300 such Nonprofit Leadership and Management Programs (NLMPs) offered by universities across North America. There were a few good ones but the vast majority focused on theory and did little-to-nothing to equip leaders for the job of communicating (which is fundamentally what the task of fund raising is all about). To read my critical report,click here.
This doctoral study has led to three initiatives:
Like a reflection in a mirror, data only reflects reality and is powerless to change it. So, to help fund raisers write better, raise more, and serve more I have developed three initiatives:
Research: Click here or on the Articles, Papers, & Presentations tab above to review my research and other resources by guest authors.
Service: For help getting your next project written, produced, and sent: visit my production company's web site, www.HighTouchCommunication.com, to browse available services. You can also connect with me by emailing me at HighTouchDirect@msn.com or calling my direct line: (909) 556-9997
Education: To learn how to Do It Yourself . . . attend one my practice-oriented Narrative FundRaising Seminars and you'll learn how to maximize year-end giving now. To learn more, visit www.NarrativeFundRaising.org or to learn more, download a seminar brochure, or to register now click here. At this workshop you will learn about the three dimensions of writing narrative fund appeals:
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 people, tension, and resolution in scenes of a dramatic narrative arc
Writing that motivates greater giving connects with readers at an emotional level with a story. A good fund-raising story allows the reader to envision how he or she can be the hero in the story told. Unfortunately, most of us have been programmed by higher education to avoid appeals to human emotion. However, effective fund raising requires that you . . .
Not only Convince the doubting mind,
But also Touch the apathetic heart,
So you can Movethe reluctant will to give.
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 it must 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.
Click the Image Below to Learn What Thought Leaders & Practitioners Say About This Research: