A Super Easy Way for Nonprofits to Replicate the #IceBucketChallenge

ALS Association, #IceBucketChallengeThe success of the ALS Association’s Ice Bucket Challenge is a sight to behold. Everyone from Bill Gates (who has a much better sense of humor than he is given credit for) to Matt Damon (who uses toilet water cuz he’s the co-founder of water.org and a marketing genius) is getting in on the action. It has generated tons of buzz and so far raised $94 million. #Yowza

It’s obvious that part of what made the #IceBucketChallenge a success is its exceptionally high fun factor and that it was easy, i.e. people were instantly engaged. Who wouldn’t want to see Laura pour a bucket of ice cold water all over W, after all?!

The ALS Association are making it super easy for people to get in on the fun. So long as you have water, ice, a bucket-like container and a way to take a video, you’re set.

Put another way:

Fun + Easy = Successful Engagement

If we know this combo works, why oh why are nonprofits using boring, convoluted language to talk about their work? Doesn’t make sense.

Yes, I’m going to harsh on Mission Statements. Again. Remember this list of Mission Statements that were un-fun and technically incomprehensible? Mm-hm.  That list. The one that sparked our Worst Mission Statement contest.

But it’s not just nonprofit Mission Statements that make people nod off. We did a survey of 384 nonprofit websites and learned that, of the 250,000 words in the English language, nonprofits are only using about 1,000. Gimme a B-O-R-I-N-G.

Totally fine to try your hand at creating something as successful as the #IceBucketChallenge, but seeing if you can use language that’s fun and easy-to-understand would be a worthy challenge as well!

Want to win prizes for spunking up your Mission Statement? Enter to win our Worst Mission Statement contest by 8/31!

Really? Really.

This is the latest post from our word-nerd-erific inter, Vicki

Really? Green Road Sign Over Dramatic Sky, Clouds and Sunburst.

I have a love hate relationship with the word really. There are times when it is great.

Thank you very much.
Thank you, really.

Both sentences use an intensifier on “thank you” but the sentence with “really” feels more, well, real. I like that the thing it is highlighting is the authenticity of the sentence. There are many times when really is a fabulous word choice, but I have two issues it.

First, I over use it. Grossly. I annoy myself with how often I say “really.” To deal with this problem I search for every instance of the word really when editing and make sure it needs to be there. It’s at the top of my editing checklist.

The other issue I have is something I learned while editing it out. Really, like other intensifiers, often hides vagueness. As the term implies, we use intensifiers when we want to make a statement more (you guessed it) intense.  However, if the statement needs more intensity, it deserves more than just an extra word slapped on. In these instances, figure out why you need to make your words intense. Is there a more specific word or do you need to elaborate?  I’m all for parsimony, but sometimes you need a few more words to make your point.

Let’s revisit our example from above and look at the term “Thank you.” Imagine you’re thanking a new volunteer at your organization’s soup kitchen.

Thank you. We were able to feed fifty more people because you helped today. The kindness and patience you gave our clients show that you share the values that motivate us all in this work. I know Penny appreciated your help with that tray.  She hesitates to ask so it was sweet of you to jump in and offer assistance.

There are no intensifiers in that version, but it has a stronger impact because I’m showing the connection to the mission and core values as well as giving some personal detail.

Look for places where you are using intensifiers in your own writing. How many can you replace by being more specific?

Looking for more tips on “Thank you?” Erica has a few posts on the topic. This one is my favorite.

Thinking of creating your own list of things to check for when editing? You may enjoy Tessa’s post on editing checklists.

Never Say You’re Sorry

This is a post from our super smart intern, Vicki.

I am sorry

“I’m sorry.” Two words that seem powerful, but are really pretty lame.

To fail is human. The time comes when even the best of us have to own a failing, but promise me you’ll never say you’re sorry. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t own up to your mistakes. I am saying “I’m sorry” is a terrible way to do it.

Apologies are important. Let’s look at how to do them well.

In crafting your language, be clear on the type of failure you are addressing. There are two types of failures: routine failures and serious failures.

  • Routine failures should not be apologized for. You are amazing, but you don’t have superpowers. You can’t keep equipment from breaking down or keep key volunteers from moving away. Apologizing for things like this builds the expectation that everything should always be perfect. Don’t do that.The only way to avoid ever failing is to never try anything. Without trying things, you can’t find new and better ways of doing things. So trying is good and failing is to be expected. But don’t apologize simply because something you try doesn’t work out.
  •  In some cases, the failure is more serious. Situations of mismanagement or ethical breaches require genuine apologies. The more grave the need for an apology, the more reason to plan it carefully.

As you can see, in either case, a knee-jerk “I’m sorry” is vague and ineffective. So how can you address the issue (which is important to do) without saying you’re sorry since that’s vague and ineffective? By following these steps:

The building blocks of an effective apology:

  1. In any communication plan, the first step is to be clear on what your goal is. Each situation is different, but the core goal is restoration. You need to restore trust. In the immediate aftermath, many people simply want the painful repercussions of failure to stop. Not only is this goal shortsighted, it focuses you on the wrong person: yourself.
  2. That brings us to the second step. Focus on who you are speaking to and their needs. They don’t need to see you grovel and cry. They need to feel confident that the situation will get better.
  3. How can you give them hope? By sharing your plan. The third step of your messaging plan is where you get to shine. Tell them where things went wrong or at least how you are investigating the source of the problem. If the failure involves an ethical breach, identify the values that have been violated and express the organization’s recommitment to those values. Tell them what procedures you are putting in place to keep this from happening again. Tell them how great things are going to be when you are done. Be specific. Be positive.

Does the What, Who, How structure of this post look familiar? If so, pat yourself on the back. You’ve been paying attention! What, who, and how make up the core components of the Claxon Method and the 1, 2, 3 Marketing Tree. We usually talk about applying the Claxon Method to marketing action plans, but you can apply it to all sorts of things.

For a beautiful example of effective communication about failure, check out Splash’s fail log.They link to it from the front page of their website, and they are right to be proud of it. When I see an organization handle failure like a champ, I trust them all the more.

5 Very Bad Assumptions Nonprofits Make About Language

EricaMills2014 resized

Thanks for hosting, AFP Bellingham!

Last week, I spoke at the Washington State Nonprofit Conference and at a training up in Bellingham, WA hosted by AFP Washington (that’s about 90 min north of Seattle for you non-NW readers).

We talked about five very bad assumptions most nonprofit folks make about language and how to shift those assumptions to increase your impact. Here they are:

  1. You are the center of the universe: Whether or not that’s true, if you want to engage supporters in your mission, shift your language to make it about them. (Hint: Liberal use of ‘you’ and ‘your’ will do the trick.)
  2. Answers are more important than questions: Nope, questions are where it’s at. When you hear someone’s questions, you know what they’re interested in. So shift your approach so you proactively invite questions.
  3. You’re being strategic with your words: Unless you’re crystal clear on what success looks like, and who you’re trying to reach with your words, you’re not being strategic. Shift to a habit of always being clear on whose ears need to hear your message. The 1, 2, 3 Marketing Tree poster (which you can see in all its glory in the picture above) can help you make this shift.
  4. People can understand you: Um, not if you’re using jargon and fancy phrases. Knock that off! You want to shift so your language is free of jargon and fancy phrases. That makes it easy for people to understand you and repeat what you say.
  5. Nouns are more important than other parts of speech: Yeah…no. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again and again–verbs are where it’s at! You’ll do yourself and your organization a big favor by shifting to a verb-first approach to language.

There they are–the five assumptions and the shifts you should make if you want to use language to make the world a better place!


Better Verbs–Use Often [#WordsThatWow]

nonprofit, nonprofit marketing, fundraising, language, best practices[This is the latest installment in our#WordsThatWow series. You can read the others here and you can download the infographic here.]

Verbs are very important. They are action words. They are the superheroes of every sentence. They speak directly to the change you want to create in the world.

And yet most nonprofits focus so much energy on defining their nouns–people, places, and things–that by the time they get to picking a verb, they’re all out of energy. Enter the verb ‘provide’.

Provide is such a handy verb–so flexible, so malleable, so ubiquitous.

It is its ubiquity that will be its demise (I hope).

If you’re looking to use your words to stand out from the crowd, provide is not your best bet. In fact, it’s totally lame. Everyone is providing a bunch of stuff all over the place. Booooooring.

I wish I could tell you what the very best verbs are for you. But I can’t. I can’t because it’s not for me to say what verb represents the change you’re making in the world.

Having seen the difference changing verbs has had for thousands of organizations, I can assure you that using better verbs will make it easier for you to engage people in your work. And that’s what all this ‘using  words to make the world a better place stuff’  is all about, right? Right.