Good fundraising writing: It’s not about avoiding your peeves

Years ago, I worked at a company where one of the best ways to get ahead was to talk. A lot.

Being able to filibuster at a meeting or write staggeringly long emails marked you as a winner.

The content of what you had to say wasn’t as important as word count. It was the best path to a vice presidency (and this company had a lot of VPs).

When you incentivize something, people tend to pursue it. So there were a lot of people at this company who could really keep up a stream of words. Some of them knew what they were talking about, but not all of them. Having something meaningful to say was secondary to saying a lot.

If you need to keep a monolog going, a very helpful technique is to have a bank of buzzwords and phrases you can draw on while you mentally take a breath.

That’s a time-honored technique, and you can see how it was used even in ancient times when you read classic literature that started out as oral performance, like Homer’s Odyssey, or Beowulf — where the ocean is described with phrases like wine-dark sea and the whale-road.

Back at my former workplace, if you were trying to figure out what you wanted to say next, you didn’t have to pause. You could dip into your word hoard and grab something like…

  • Low-hanging fruit
  • Synergy
  • It is what it is
  • All hands (there’s a hilarious story about this one, but I can’t tell it here)
  • Secret sauce
  • Rock star
  • Verbiage (meaning written words?)

Just mix and match these near-meaningless phrases. That way you didn’t lose the floor to some other motor-mouth who might be able to grab that vice presidency that you’re after.

So for me, those jargon phrases are odious reminders of crappy meetings where empty suited babblers did their corporate maneuvering.

That’s why I hate those phrases.

Your reason for hating phrases like that is probably similar.

And there’s a problem with that. We hate a phrase because the people we associate with it are annoying.

That’s not a good enough.

I mean, it’s not a good enough reason to forbid a word or phrase. It’s okay to cringe at a phrase or to complain about it with your friends or coworkers, the way almost everybody dislikes the word moist.

But as a writer working to motivate other people, you should not let your peeves guide your writing.

Feeling okay about the words you use is not your job.

Your job as a fundraiser is 100% to reach and influence others. And 0% to make yourself feel good about your writing.

Now I’m not saying you should start sprinkling your fundraising with business jargon. Please — don’t! There are reasons not to do so that have nothing to do with your peeves:

  • They are mostly jargon that your donors are unlikely to understand.
  • Most are completely abstract.
  • Many of them have no actual meaning.

The fact that they remind you of that insufferable boor with the shiny suit and less than half an idea bouncing around in his brain is not a reason to avoid those phrases.

Example: One of my biggest peeves is the word partner used as a verb. Will you partner with us to help the children?

I hate that! It makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up and quiver! I think it should be tied in a burlap bag and thrown into the river!

But that doesn’t count. Nobody cares what words I hate. And when I’m writing to get a job done, I shouldn’t care either.

There’s a good argument for staying away from partner-as-verb: It’s abstract. It’s a verb you can’t actually picture happening.

But there’s also an argument for using it in fundraising: Almost every church lady I’ve ever known or listened to uses it a lot. And those church ladies (of all types of houses of worship including “none”) are the main body of donors for nearly every organization on Earth. It means something to her!

Should you use partner-as-verb in your fundraising? That’s your call. But if you hate it like I do, that’s not enough reason to go against it!

When I see those lists that pop up on blogs now and then of words you must never use in fundraising, I get wary. Sometimes they are useful lists of jargon phrases that we might not even recognize as jargon because we use them so often. But more typically, it’s someone’s list of peeves. That is of no use to a serious writer of fundraising.

Writing fundraising is an innately humbling activity. It forces you outside of your own mind and feelings. Which is not easy, and sometimes doesn’t feel good at all!

But here’s the good feeling you’re actually seeking: Raising tons of money for a worthy and needful cause! Yes, you can stand using your peeve words and phrases in the service of that! If you can’t, you aren’t really a fundraiser … yet.

(This post first appeared on July 9, 2018.)


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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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