Less is More

Half a lifetime ago, I found myself the newly appointed 27-year-old Executive Director of a small nonprofit. I had lots of energy and woefully little experience. I was particularly ignorant about fundraising, though my board chair expressed confidence that I could pick it up as I went along. She also made it clear that, given the organization’s financial straits, I had better do that picking-up rather quickly.

I knew enough to know that, well, I didn’t know very much. So I called up a friend of a friend who for twenty years had run the successful development office at an elite prep school. Richard, a man then in his fifties, proved to be very welcoming, and he took some pity on the skinny, bushy-haired, earnest kid before him. We spent an hour or so talking about how to engage donors, in person and on paper.

I asked him if he would mind reviewing my first-ever solicitation letter.

Richard read my letter. He smiled and said, “Really, it’s very good. Now just take out half the adjectives.”

My immediate response was, sure, that would shorten it and make it less flowery. And he shook his head. “No. It’s more than that. You want to use as few adjectives as possible, because with each adjective you run the risk of alienating a donor. Keep more things unsaid, and the readers will imagine the adjectives they prefer.”

This concept needed some explanation. Richard said, “Your organization works with kids. You say the children are 10- to 12-years old. No need. Potential donors might care more about younger kids, or older kids. You say they’re from disadvantaged backgrounds. ‘Disadvantaged’ is a loaded term, and some people may consciously or subconsciously react. They may not like ‘those families,’ thinking they get too much help and attention already. You say your kids are from single-parent families. Some people will hear that word and make moral judgments. You say they’re New Hampshire kids. Why even say where they’re from? People might want to help kids from Boston or New York. They might not be able to imagine that kids in bucolic New Hampshire need much of anything. The best thing to do is to say that you’re helping kids who need help. Every time you use an adjective, you run the risk of excluding a potential supporter.”

I’ve had very little contact with Richard in the years since, but his advice, which at the time felt jarring, and even cynical, stuck with me at some level. And his words sometimes come to mind when I read nonprofit promotional materials.

Inevitably, nonprofits are too detailed and encyclopedic in how they describe themselves. People seeking a general idea of the work of the organization face a wall of words, densely packed (not many pictures, and those few are usually small and blurry), with lots and lots of adjectives. When I ask why the layout of the brochure or website is so crowded, the answer is: we had so much we had to say. When I suggest to nonprofits that they remove the in-depth descriptions, or when I suggest greatly shortening a web page or letter or newsletter, the nonprofit staffer often responds, “But we’re working to be as transparent as possible!” It’s hard to argue against transparency. I’m all for transparency. But I think to myself, “Is it really transparent if nobody bothers to read it?”

It is this well-intentioned drive to lay everything on the table, to be totally transparent, to cover all the bases, that drives organizations to create overly wordy materials. The problem is, it’s not effective communications. Meanwhile, I can’t support the other extreme – the empty slogan with no detail. “Just do it” may work for selling athletic shoes, but it’s slick and unseemly for describing an agency providing health services to families. I suppose my advice is: Tell people what you do – but avoid the temptation to over-tell.

I’m hardly the first person to observe that nonprofits go on way too long in describing themselves. I think we can all agree, except when we’re editing our own material, of course, that shorter is better. But I will add the twist from my friend Richard. Adding superfluous adjectives does more than add words. Those adjectives may inadvertently give people a reason not to like you. And in this day and age, nonprofits can use all the friends they can get.

Copyright Alan Cantor 2013. All rights reserved.

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10 thoughts on “Less is More”

  1. This can be a conundrum as we try to describe our organization in a way that makes it stand out from all the rest. Good food for thought, Al, as always!

  2. When I was in college I got to hear Kurt Vonnegut speak. He gave a piece of writing advice that has always stuck with me. “Write. Just write anything. Then throw out the first three pages.” Your friend Richard’s advice is certainly more nuanced, but the point is the same: brutally edit out most of what you write.

  3. This is a critically salient and important statement about nonprofit fundraising from potentially generous individual donors and even philanthropic institutions. My sincere gratitude for the thought-provoking and useful post. 😉

    (But seriously, thanks! A useful and enjoyable read, as always.)

    1. Right back at you, my (adjective deleted) friend!

      (I’ve been in the nonprofit world so long that I actually got to the end of your first paragraph before I realized you were having fun. Thanks, Paul!

  4. It’s taken some of us longer than others to learn this lesson that you learned early in the game. The other salient point about writing copy is to remember, it’s not about the non-profit–it’s about the donor and what they can accomplish with that gift. It’s not we help kids. It’s you help kids with your gift.

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