Is your writing about expression or impression?

Old vintage typewriter, close-up.

Recently, I asked if your writing made people dream or think? I advocated for a combo meal–sometimes writing to make people think and sometimes to make them dream. Depending, of course, on audience and context, and where someone was vis-a-vis the Engagement Cycle.

Now I want to ask you this: is your writing simply an expression or does it, in fact, make an impression?

Umair Haque–economist, author and super smart dude–thinks it’s only about expression.

Umair Haque, writing

[If you don’t know Umair, he’s da bomb. He’s thought-provoking and insightful and has a way of making you re-think your world that is both frightening and liberating.]

For certain types of writing, Umair may be spot on. But when it comes to nonprofits and writing, the goal should be to express so that you impress. Anything less is time wasted.

There’s an opportunity to cost to writing, i.e. if you’re writing, you’re not doing something else. Nonprofits are trying to do so much with so little that opportunity costs are even more pronounced.

  • If you’re the Executive Director of a small nonprofit and you’re writing a grant, you’re not spending time with donors or meeting with program staff to fine-tune your after-school program.

All of the above-mentioned activities are critical. So if you’re spending time writing–whether it’s a grant, or web copy, or a blog post, or notes from a recent donor meeting, or whatever–that writing should get you somewhere. It should be good enough to impress the people–donors, volunteers, elected officials, advocates, board members, staff–who matter most to your organization at a given point in time.

As with all other activities your nonprofit takes on, writing should be about impact. It should be about moving people along the Engagement Cycle. It should elevate and advance your mission and your work. Anything less is simply expression without impression. 

Some resources to help you write impressively:

  1. The Wordifier helps you amplify your words.
  2. This post gives you tips for error-free writing.
  3. And Claxon University’s Words on a Mission course will guide you to words that will definitely impress.


140 Characters of Pure Persona Bliss

In my last post, I fleetingly mentioned 140 character personas. These deserve more air time. They’re super cool. They have the power to transform your nonprofit’s messaging.

Meet Jia Zhang. He is a graduate student at MIT’s Social Computing Group and a visual journalist intern at FiveThirtyEight. Zhang noticed the following:

Census data is often seen at a large scale — atlases, research studies and interactive visualizations all offer the view from 10,000 feet. But there are people inside those top-line numbers. And when you start to look at the people in the data sets, you get a glimpse of their lives. Just a few descriptors — how much they work, whom they take care of, where they were born — can give us a sense of the people around us.

Called censusAmericans, it tweets short biographies of Americans based on data they provided to the U.S. Census Bureau between 2009 and 2013. Using a small Python program, the bot reconstitutes numbers and codes from the data into mini-narratives. Once an hour, it turns a row of data into a real person.

This clever Twitter bot mines census data and dishes up gems like these:

Personas, Twitter, census data















And–bam!–just like that you get a good sense for these people. Can’t you just see how their story might unfold? Can you see how what these three people care about might differ? How their day-to-day lives would look really different from person to person? Knowing that–and expanding on it to create a full persona–is the stuff of messaging magic.

If you don’t have the time, or feel overwhelmed at the prospect of, creating a full-blown persona, create a 140 character one. It’s a whole heckuva lot better than not having a persona at all! Zhang has made it easy–simply look through the censusAmericans Twitter stream for inspiration that auto-magically regenerates every hour!

Two Great Tools for Perfecting your Personas

Personas are a super important part of getting your messaging to resonate with different target audiences. That’s we’ve written so many posts on it on blogs. Like this one, and this one, and this one, for instance.

Refresher: Personas get you out of your head and into the heads–and ultimately hearts–of your donors, supporters, volunteers, board members, etc. They allow you to understand the motivations and behaviors of different types of people. This means you can optimize your messaging and the mechanisms in which you use that messaging, e.g. website, Twitter, appeal letters, etc.

In Claxon University’s Words on a Mission course, nonprofits create a persona in Lesson 7. In prepping the Study Guide for that lesson, we came across two suuuuuuuuuuper funective (fun + effective) tools for  building personas. They give you extremely useful info on people in different zip codes and couldn’t be easier to use.

1) ESRI’s Zip Lookup

They’ve created a series of different target audience groups. Clack in any zip code in the country and you get a quick n’ dirty sense of who is living in that area. I tried 98118, the most diverse zip code in the country as of a few years ago. Here’s what I learned:

ESRI Screen Shot 1


And when you click on one of the titles, you get info about that group:

ESRI Screen Shot 2


You can also quickly see info about income by zip code, county, state and the country as a whole. Super spiffy.

2) Nielson’s MyBestSegments Tool

You can also search by zip code using this tool. Their breakdowns are a little more granular. You get information like this:

Nielson Zip look up


And then you can click on segments for a description, like this one for the Big City Blues segment.

Again, super spiffiness abounds on this site.

These are both great jumping off points for nonprofits who are savvy enough to create personas. Yes, you’ll still have to do work to create a persona that makes sense for your marketing objectives. But these free tools mean you can get all sorts of really good data in about as long as it takes you to say, “Do I have to create a persona?!” (Answer: Only if you want fabulous messaging that helps you successfully achieve your goals…up to you.)

P.S. Need some quick inspiration to get you going? Behold–personas in a 140 characters or less, all based on census data. Short, sweet n’ geeky.

***Want to engage more people more deeply in your mission? Grab your seat at Claxon University!***

The REALLY Terrible Orchestra of Westchester has REALLY Terrific Messaging

Not a member of the Really Terrible Orchestra of Westchester...but he could be if he wanted to be!

Not a member of the Really Terrible Orchestra of Westchester…but he could be if he wanted to be!

Last week, I was on a bit of a doom and gloom streak regarding nonprofits and their websites…or lack thereof. (See posts here and here.)

So I thought a little ray of sunshine might be in order. And that little ray comes in the form of The Really Terrible Orchestra of Westchester.

We came across this little gem of an organization while gathering nonprofit websites for the Wordifier research.

So much goodness going on word-wise for this organization. Where to begin?!

Their tagline? Wait for it…

All you need is an instrument and a pulse!

Could it be any more fabulous? Could it ooze more personality? Could it bring a bigger smile to your face? No, no and no.

And their Mission Statement? Just as fab.

Our mission is to share a love of music and the desire to improve our playing while having FUN!

Unlike most nonprofit Mission Statements, which are technically incomprehensible, this one has a Reading Ease Score of 76.2 and the Grade Level clocks in a pitch perfect 7.3. Translation: When you read it, you get it. And that’s all good.

Do I wish the visuals on their website were as spunkarific as their words? Of course! But you know what? Their words are oh-so-good, I can totally let it go.

If you want to be an organization that wields words as well as the fine folks at the Really Terrible Orchestra of Westchester, check out Claxon University’s course, Words on a Mission. We’ll get you sorted out straight away!

Do you know many nonprofits in your state have a website?

In a post earlier this week, I shared a startling new finding from our Wordifier research: more than 50% of nonprofits don’t have a website.*

A state by state breakdown shows us how much this varies depending on geography. In Maine, for instance, 65% of nonprofits have a website. Whereas in New Mexico and Wyoming, a scant 29% do.

This map breaks it down state by state.

research, nonprofits, websites


The five states with the highest percentage of nonprofits with websites?

1. Maine: 65%

2. DC: 64%

3. Washington: 61%

4. Idaho & Puerto Rico: 60%

5. Vermont: 59%

And the five states with the lowest percentage of nonprofits with websites?

46. Alabama: 37%

47. Rhode Island: 36%

48. Arkansas: 33%

49 & 50. Wyoming & New Mexico: 29%

Makes you wonder: how easy/hard are nonprofits in your state making it for supporters to find them on-line? 

***If you want your nonprofit to stand out from the crowd–whether on-line, in-person, or in print–check out Claxon University.***


*Reminder about what we mean by “no website”: We mean when pulling our sample, we didn’t find an independent url for ~50+% of the nonprofits for which we were searching. Some might have had an online presence, e.g. Facebook pages or a webpage on a connected, but separate organization. For instance, it’s very common for Friends of the Library and PTAs/PTSAs to have a web presence as a page on the related organization’s site, but often not their very own site. Other organizations, businesses, social clubs, or even other nonprofits with a foundation or scholarship might have mentioned the 501c3 arm, or maybe just mention that they have a scholarship, but it is the parent organization that has the website, so that didn’t count.