The Organizer #26 | Communications Part I

How do I use writing in my organization? Every aspect of nonprofit work involves writing. From leadership to planning to fundraising to advocacy to service. Figure out how to write with your team, and you can change the world.

Writing to change the world

In part one of this two-part series on social impact writing, we’ll look at some of the major differences between what we think “writing” is, what it actually is, and why that matters for organizations. In the second part, we’ll do a deep-dive into the most important lesson: writing for robots.

If you lead, you write. If you fundraise, you write. If you speak, you write. If you exist on the web, you write. If you report, you write.

Whether you are the writer or you manage writers, it’s important to find a process that works for you.

Figure out how to handle the process well, and your organization can take off. Struggle with the process, and the work will always feel harder than it needs to be; your impact will always fall short of your potential.

Writing isn’t just putting words on paper. It’s structuring ideas. It’s translating knowledge into materials that can be shared, passed around, brought to life. That’s the foundation for social change.

Myths about social impact writing

Myth #1: Writing is art

Nonprofits and social benefit companies exist so they can create change in the world.

In this line of work, good writing that communicates the right information to the right people at a time when it motivates action. It doesn’t have to be the prettiest. It doesn’t have to be the most entertaining. It doesn’t have to be the most popular. It needs to work.

Understanding this changes the way you read, edit, and evaluate your work. Writing for impact isn’t about aesthetics, it’s about effectiveness. Which means you don’t get to decide what good writing looks like.

Myth #2: Writing is about words

Words are not the most important thing when it comes to nonprofit writing. The audience’s experience matters so much more.

In what context will people be consuming your information? What were they doing right before your information came along? What more do they have to do to dive into information (like click, scroll, sit still, watch, move somewhere private)? How do your words facilitate both the learning and the behaviour?

Writing isn’t just about the words you choose. It’s about structuring your information in a way that makes it accessible. It’s about using photos or video when they are more effective than text. It’s choosing between stories, statistics, and point form information. The structural choices you make are often more important than the precision of your prose.

Myth #3: Intelligent writers sound smart

Some of the world’s most beloved writers crafted their novels while practically etching “look at me, I’m writing!!!!” on every page. The longer, the better. The flowery-er, the better. The more words used, the better. You admire them as they flex like word-Olympians.

By contrast, social impact writers practice simplicity. They have to communicate complex information in the simplest forms possible. The better they are at their craft, the less likely you are to realize how hard they have worked.

Myth #4: Writing ends when the piece is written

At a minimum, the process consists of a writing phase and a publishing phase. You put words on paper. You send the paper out into the world.

Many organizations add an editing stage, which can be anything from “check for spelling mistakes” to a complete rewrite by a senior staff member.

When we expect a completed draft to be the end of the writing process, we set ourselves up for frustration. Editing takes time. There’s a reason that those writers in their garrets include acknowledgements in every book. Writing is more of a team effort than most people realize.

Once the text is ready, there’s another round of editing that takes place when you see how it looks in the wild. On a website, you need to adjust your titles and headlines. You need to ensure your sentences aren’t too long for a mobile phone screen. You need to see how the meaning changes when your text is paired with photos, captions, and colours, and surrounded by other content.

For a speech or workshop, you need to test it in front of groups of people.

Post-publication editing is when we start to figure out if our work is “good” and if it’s going to “work”. This stage deserves resources and attention, two things that many nonprofits have in short supply.

In other words, when you are only about half-way done when a piece is written.

Myth #5: You are writing for people

Everything that goes online needs to be indexed and catalogued by robots (aka, search engines). If the robots can’t find your work, or if they don’t think it’s very good, then the people you are trying to reach won’t find it either.

Writing for robots profoundly affects what and how we write, so we dive deeper into it in part two of this series.

Myth #6: You are creating something special

Okay, the “special” part is true. But you aren’t creating one thing, you’re creating many things. Gone are the days when an article is just an article or a speech is just a speech.

You may be creating one primary piece, but it will eventually be broken up into supporting content. You might need a series of social media posts. You might need search snippets and meta-data (words humans never see). You might need captions and alt-text. You might need executive summaries and a simplified slide-show. Your piece is the start of something, not the end.

Everything you write can live on in different forms. It’s not the one written product that’s special: it’s the message you develop, the ways you communicate it, and the change it has in the world.

How to edit your writing

  • Use a tool like Grammarly to improve your spelling, grammar, and style.

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