What Noam Chomsky taught me about colorless green fundraising

Nearly 60 years ago, American linguist Noam Chomsky wrote one of the most famous sentences in the English language:

Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.

It’s a real, grammatically correct sentence. But it has no obvious understandable meaning.

Colorlessgreen

The point is that syntax (grammar and usage rules) and semantics (meaning) are completely different things. You can be flawless in the first area but complete mush in the second.

A lot of fundraising writing suffers from this problem. It’s grammatically flawless. Carefully created, edited, and proofed. Completely clean. But utter nonsense to the donors it’s aimed at.

Because its creators are talking among themselves. Not to the donors. Using their internal jargon and priorities instead of using the language of their non-expert donors.

Are you writing colorless green fundraising?

If you’re talking about “stakeholder engagement,” “food insecurity,” “marginalized individuals” … if you’re trying to sell abstractions like hope or wholeness instead of realities like food, shelter, or medicine … if you focus on thousands or millions of people rather than one at a time … your fundraising might as well be “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” Your fundraising might as well be an example in a linguistics lecture.

And it’s not going to work the way it should.

Syntactically perfect writing is a good thing. But it’s nothing compared to writing that connects with people and motivates them to action. That’s your real job.

(This post first appeared on April 18, 2016.)


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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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Jeff BrooksJeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 35 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com. More.


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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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Jeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 30 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com.

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