During a training in June, some members of YNPN LA and I explored how small nonprofits can become better publishers. Specifically, we looked at “house style” and how a “style guide” can help a nonprofit publish material that’s more correct, consistent, and coherent. However, although it is important that publications be professional, it is equally important that they are personal, so this blog post looks more closely at an element of house style that we briefly touched on at the training: the concept of voice.
What is “Voice” and Why Does It Matter?
Whose Facebook posts do you most enjoy reading? Which novelist occupies an entire shelf of your bookcase? Which broadcasters or satirists do you turn to for the latest news? The reason we seek out specific writers or commentators is that we love their style, and often our preference is based not on what they say but how they say it.
In a crowded fundraising landscape, small nonprofits need to be heard, and to be heard, their voices need to be distinctive. I’m not saying that everyone in your organization takes on a Rachel Maddow persona, but I am suggesting that your nonprofit may need a clearer way to communicate its mission—a unique worldview—that forces the reader to take notice … and then support you. And here are just a few ways you might develop a more distinctive voice.
Speak Your Reader’s Language
One way to define your nonprofit’s voice is to think about the people you’re trying to reach: your “ideal readers.” Don’t think generically; think about a specific individual—a particular client, perhaps. Who is he/she? What problem did they come to you with? What does he/she want more than anything? What impact did your nonprofit have on their life? How would they describe your nonprofit?
The best way to get these answers is to interview that client face-to-face, if possible, and listen closely to the words he or she uses and echo those words and terms in your publications. This isn’t about cynical mimicry; it’s simply about connecting with the communities you serve.
Nonprofits speak to many different constituencies—including funders, policymakers, and other movers-and-shakers—so this exercise applies to all the audiences, and the language you choose to communicate with will vary across the platforms you use. The aim is to end up with several “styles” in your communications toolbox, which will all be true to your mission and message.
Know the Lingo
To have authority and to inspire confidence and trust, a leader must have a command of language. A great nonprofit is a thought-leader and, as such, it must cultivate its image as an authority by demonstrating that it’s on top of the latest language developments. These changes often begin at the grassroots level (as discussed above), but other authorities, such as researchers or activists, can also instigate linguistic changes, so listen closely.
When you use up-to-date language, you are not only showing your expertise, you are leading through your use of language and mainstreaming new ways to talk about important issues. Nonprofits are often the bridge between the community and the people on the “outside” who need to understand how members of that community prefer to talk about what’s important to them. Therefore, make it a point to know how words and terms are being used and to help “spread the word.”
Your nonprofit doesn’t have to just respond to the language trends: it can create them! What better way to distinguish your nonprofit’s voice than to make some of the words it uses completely unique?
Coining a new word or phrase takes some serious thought and creativity, but it’s one way to get noticed. Smooshing together two words (making what we word nerds call a “portmanteau”) is the simplest way to invent a new word that you can claim as your own.
The words “internet” (international and network), “emoticon” (emotion and icon), and “podcast” (iPod and broadcast) are all portmanteau examples from the technology lexicon—or the “techlex,” which is a noun I just coined to prove to you how easy it is :)
I only ask that you don’t use this smooshing power for bad, like the inventor of the word “feminazi.”
Finally: Don’t Be a Snob
If you just winced at my use of a smiley emoticon, get over yourself! From cave paintings to hieroglyphics to wingdings, pictorial symbols have been a part of our language for a very long time. Love them or loathe them (I love ’em), emoticons are here to stay, and you can decide to use them, or not.
Rest assured, the emoticon revolution won’t be the last shift in the language in your lifetime, so get comfortable with the changes, however weird, because your nonprofit needs to stay relevant. And this brings us nicely back to where we began: speaking the language of your readers.
The subject of “voice” is vast, but I hope I’ve done enough, for now, to inspire you to begin thinking about the language your nonprofit uses more closely. I would love to hear some of your thoughts and ideas on the topic, so leave a comment on the blog! And if you ever need help developing your nonprofit’s house style, you can reach me at www.ideal-type.com.
About the author: Lorna Walsh spent 20 years working for nonprofits in the UK and US before setting up her writing and editing business, Ideal Type LLC (ideal-type.com). She also founded a FREE copyediting service for nonprofits called the Embark Editorial Agency. Find out more about this service at embark-editorial.weebly.com.
In the nonprofit community and beyond there are ample opportunities to invest in an organizational mission. However, when the tough gets going often many fall prey to burnout. Developing a strategy to address burnout for an organization can support nonprofits' efforts in reaching their end goal. To drive a mission forward it is important to remember three critical tactics:
- Small things matter
- Be open to defeat
- Be flexible
First, small things matter. Yes, I know we often hear, "Don’t sweat the small stuff," but when it comes to relationships, the small things are often the most important. Both internally and externally, small things matter. In my experience I have found success with less staff and partnership turnover. The thing I attribute this to is taking time to show gratitude and embracing, especially in my school-based setting. Each quarter I write thank you notes to teachers, staff, partners, and other stakeholders who have supported our work directly or indirectly.
Additionally, I buy small gifts for each of my subordinate staff each semester -- typically small gifts that can be used to reinvest people in their work, and work for my nonprofit budget. Last semester I gave each staff a small bag of snacks, school supplies, and the book, The Promise of a Pencil: How an Ordinary Person Can Create Extraordinary Change. These small gestures are far greater than monetary compensation when done with the right intentions: to let staff know that you also believe in the work you do and far more meaningful that you believe in them and you see all that they do to support the organization’s mission.
Next, being open to defeat is important. No one will succeed all the time. This fact makes it all the more important that there are systems in place to encourage staff, partners, and other stakeholders to continue their hard work even when combating even the most difficult environment. Whether a changing political climate, loss of funding, or a disconnect between organization and mission, defeat is certain in some capacity. One of my favorite quotes captures defeat in a light that can drive you forward. Charles R. Swindoll says, “Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it.” The non-profit world is an opportunity to be strategic about the worst and use the opportunity to rethink how success looks.
You are likely to encounter many individuals or entities that do not believe in your mission. This makes your plan or defeat ever more meaningful in reaching your organization’s mission. Whether you agree with someone or not, we must remember that everyone brings something to the table. Knowing your larger audience is a gateway to arming yourself against defeat. Understanding the position of your dissenters will help you solidify your work, while building the capacity of your personnel to address real-world complications of their work. If each staff member is provided a tool kit that clearly defines mission, finds personal connection to the mission, and believes in the capacity of a nonprofit to face adversity defeat will not come as tragedy, but an opportunity.
Finally, flexibility is essential to investing someone in an organizational mission. In the nonprofit world, change is not a foreign occurrence. Change is expected by both staff and clients, but how you communicate these changes can lead to greater flexibility from all stakeholders. One way to demonstrate flexibility is by setting realistic expectations. As a client, there is a certain expectation when you enter into a relationship with a nonprofit. Often you may be referred to an organization or seek out their services due to a need gap that you are facing. Where the need comes from may not be as relevant as how the need is addressed. If a mission is strict in the sense that there is no flexibility based on individual client need, clients will not be as willing to engage with the organization. On the other hand, if personnel is inflexible in their expectations of their work or the mission they will demonstrate greater unhappiness and disengage with their work. Nonprofits need individuals who are flexible and can adapt to an ever-changing environment.
Amanda is a Grant Program Coordinator for Youth Policy Institute, working in Pacoima in the San Fernando Valley. She studied Latin American Studies, Spanish, Multicultural Studies, and Business at the University of Missouri, Columbus. After serving with an AmeriCorps in New Mexico, she earned her Master's in Public Policy at the University of Missouri's Truman School of Public Affairs. When not working Amanda loves hiking, concerts, and spending time with family and friends. Connect with Amanda on LinkedIn.
If you work in nonprofits, you know from your own experience, the workforce in this sector tends to be made up of women. In fact, the White House Project posits that 73% of the nonprofit workforce is female, but men hold the majority of leadership positions, not dissimilar from the rest of the nation's economy. All this is to say that female led teams are not as common in nonprofits as one would think. I am lucky enough in my job to be part of one of those uncommon teams, and for my post today, I want to tell you about that experience.
My team’s leadership is entirely female, and each leader has a different background and story of how she came to work for our organization. These eclectic backgrounds have given me and the other young women I work with something of tremendous value: a wide array of examples of how to be a successful woman. Some women on the team have children, others do not; some are big picture idea thinkers, others are detail oriented, nitty gritty types; all lead and encourage in their own way. What I find most important is that these women show me there is no single way to be a success, which means that no road is closed to me.
These exemplary women not only show the way, they take an active role in building up the people who work for them. We are given opportunities to expand our portfolios and take on new challenges. If we go to our bosses with an idea, we are rarely met with negativity. Rather, we are met with constructive insight and brainstorming. There is a sense that a successful idea from one person leads to success for all.
In many work environments, leadership fosters competitiveness between employees, driving them to attempt to constantly one-up their colleagues, and this tactic breeds negativity. While no workplace is free of competition, our leaders have put it into a positive light. The success of the team does not depend on one person achieving; it depends on each member being her best. We celebrate each other because all of our successes are shared and are motivated to keep growing.
I recognize my luck in being part of a team like this one, what with the aforementioned statistics. I am grateful for our little piece of Themyscira. Not only is it an example of what women are capable of, it is overall an example of what a positive work environment can look like.
Emma Standring-Trueblood is one of YNPN LA's Guest Bloggers. Connect with her on LinkedIn and comment below and add your voice to the conversation.
Recently, we've gotten some emails from the community simply asking for advice -- folks in sticky situations at work or in their careers, looking for answers. Well, we don't have all the answers, but you do!
Ask the Village is our new crowdsourced advice initiative, where we solicit your nonprofit dilemmas and post them anonymously to social media for our online community of 7,000+ YNPN LA followers to provide their insights, feedback, and solutions.
No one person has all the solutions -- it takes a village to raise an answer!
Now, we need your problems. Click here to submit your dilemmas. Together, we'll help you get through it.
Thank you for participating!
Often in nonprofits there is a need for creative solutions. With professional experience working in projects with nonprofits, local governments, and businesses, one of the greatest lessons I have learned is that relationships and communication go a long way.
In fact, communication and relationships can impact three main areas for part-time staff; turnover rates, employee satisfaction, and investment in the work or mission of an organization.
I know that you’re probably thinking that sounds way too easy. Well, you are likely a determined individual if you work in nonprofits, so no need to fret. Part-time staff are an incredible asset when communication and relationships exist.
Keep reading for more about how to build investment with part-time staff.
Join us in welcoming our newest guest blogger, Amanda Herz! Amanda is a School Coordinator at Youth Policy Institute. Over the next year, we will be posting Amanda's thoughts and perspectives on the theme of investment -- investing in part-time staff, investing yourself in your mission, gaining investment from colleagues, and working with community partners.
See below for more information about Amanda's background and experience.