Chronicle of Philanthropy: Keep Jargon Out of Fundraising Appeals

One recent morning a very interesting email came across my desk. It was from a reporter at the Chronicle of Philanthropy: Could I offer any words of wisdom about jargon in nonprofit fundraising appeals?

Hmm…where shall I begin?

My thoughts, combined with those of other experts in the field, came out in an article published earlier this month. While only subscribers can read the full text, you can start with this excerpt:

Stakeholder. Leverage. Consensus building. Paradigm shift. These are just a few of the words and phrases that drive some communications experts crazy when they pop up in fundraising appeals.

Such jargon tells potential donors next to nothing. And as people’s attention spans grow shorter, a direct-mail letter or an email littered with such phrases may fall flat with the people you want to reach.

Jargon often creeps into fundraising appeals because the authors become too comfortable with office parlance. They forget to think about whether people outside of the organization will understand the letter, email, tweet, or Facebook post.

To determine if your appeal is loaded with jargon or confusing phrases, ask a simple question: Are these words that most people use? “If the answer is ‘no,’ that’s a big red flag,” said Dalya Massachi, who advises nonprofits on writing and helps with grants, fundraising pitches, and other communications.

If you find that certain parts of your pitch are tongue twisters — or would make someone pause, even momentarily — you should plug in simpler words or phrases, Ms. Massachi said. She cited an acronym that sums up how nonprofits should write: KISSS — keep it short, simple, and skimmable. Most readers are not taking a hard look at direct mail or emails, she explained, so you need to get their attention fast.

Ms. Massachi also recommends flagging words with more than two syllables, to see if smaller words can be substituted. “Your writing is not to impress other people; it’s to engage other people,” she said.

[As a subscriber, you can read the full article HERE.]

By the way, I also put together some useful material that didn’t quite make it into the Chronicle article:




photo credit: Intersection of Faith and Jargon via photopin (license)




Ask Dalya: What’s the danger in misusing hyperbole?

(Creative Commons photo license)

Q: What’s the danger in misusing hyperbole?

A: While we all like to think that our work is unique, essential, and groundbreaking, that can’t always be the case. (I think of the phrase from A Prairie Home Companion, “where the children are all above average.”)

It behooves you as a socially responsible changemaker to get your facts straight and do your research; exaggeration has no place in your writing. You certainly don’t want your readers to doubt your integrity or knowledge of your field if they learn you’re not telling the whole truth.

Of course, If extensive research tells you that you are the only/best/least expensive/most effective/largest (etc.) organization doing your work in the way you are doing it, by all means tell the world about it. Just stay away from claims that seem too good to be true (what a turn-off!).

In all other cases, take the time to qualify your statements. Temper the temptation to go overboard. Look for the unique part of what you do and focus on that distinction — in an honest and clear way. For example, maybe you’re the only one in your geographic area making a specific community change. Perhaps you specialize in a particular population within your larger field. If you  are contributing a major piece of the puzzle in your field, but your partners also form part of the solution, take them into account and share the credit.

Keep it real and always be mindful of your credibility.



st patricks day clover

Celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with these Irish writers’ quotes

Ireland is known as a wonderful source of written inspiration for us in the Western world. I remember reading many Irish writers back in school (I bet you do, too).

So I thought St. Patrick’s Day would be a perfect time to pay homage by re-visiting some of my favorite writing quotes from the land of shamrocks. Won’t you join me?

“He wanted to cry quietly but not for himself: for the words, so beautiful and sad, like music.”  – James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

“If you have the words, then there’s always the chance that you’ll find the way.” – Seamus Heaney

“The words ran away from me.” – Edna O’Brien

“When you are old and gray and full of sleep
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;”

William Butler Yeats, “When You are Old”

“I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read on the train.” – Oscar Wilde, The Importance of being Earnest

‘Writing is learning to say nothing, more cleverly each day.’ – William Allingham

“I often quote myself. It adds spice to my conversations.” – George Bernard Shaw


National Proofreading Day This Week: Get Beyond Typos.

March 8 was National Proofreading Day. Wow! A whole day just for acknowledging the importance of proofreading and encouraging error-free writing.

While perfection is actually not humanly possible, striving for it is always a good idea. That is, especially when you are trying to project a polished, professional image. And I know that as a changemaker, you definitely are!

Detailed proofreading makes your work stand out from the crowd. If you think your computer’s spell-checker is all you need to catch your every error, think again. If only things were that simple!

Final proofreading is actually harder than it looks. You have to keep in mind dozens and dozens of grammar, spelling, and punctuation rules. And you are still bound to miss things on your first go-round.

Here are some of my favorite tips to make your proofing task less draining: Continue reading


Ask Dalya: Do funders hold all the cards in grant relationships?

Question: It seems that foundations and other funders hold all the cards in power relationships with grantseekers. Is that true?


At first glance, it definitely can appear that way. It may feel like you are “begging for money” with a virtual tin cup. You may even get nervous when you prepare to speak with a funder one-on-one.

That’s totally understandable. (FYI, many foundation program officers used to be in grantseekers’ shoes so they can empathize with your sweaty palms.)

But while grantmakers hold the purse strings, by no means are they the only ones in the relationship who should be confident, empowered professionals.

Look closely at the situation. Continue reading