6 Keys to Writing A Non Profit Spotlight

As a publisher of an influential community magazine, I see a lot of non profit spotlights. Some are excellent. Some less so. While my content coordinator works directly with the content, I have learned quite a bit about what works and what doesn’t. Here are six crucial tips for making the most of your free media.

The tips below are intended to help you to keep your piece from being cut by the editor or ignored by the reader. Articles in a magazine reach a very different audience from a grant request or your web site. Your audience is sitting with a cup of coffee seeking some pleasant entertainment. This doesn’t mean that you can’t entice them to volunteer or donate, but it means that you must consider your audience if you want to reach them.

Some non profits I have encountered have difficulty writing great content because they leader feels the need to do everything. Writing is a great role to offer to a young, enthusiastic volunteer or new board member. They need to know the organization well enough to explain the mission and history, but they don’t need to have experience going back to day one. A team member may also have an unvarnished enthusiasm that is difficult for an exhausted leader to muster. Just something to consider.

1. Nobody Cares Until You Make Them

Nobody cares about your non profit until you make them care
It is your responsibility to get their attention, not theirs to care.
Photo by Kaboompics .com from Pexels

You care deeply for your cause, and you know that your organization is changing the world. Nobody else cares until you make them care. As a non profit leader, you are making sacrifices for your cause: your time, your money, your energy. It is your passion, and it can be difficult to understand why it isn’t everyone else’s. But that’s how every other non profit leader feels as well, and the public can be overwhelmed by so many causes, each of which is the “most important.”

What this means for you is that you must assume nothing. Even if you are literally saving the world, you need to accept that no one knows that. You must approach your writing from an attitude of humility. Editors will only run your article if you follow their guidelines and rules. People will only read you article if you make it interesting to them. Readers will only donate and volunteer if you capture their hearts and minds.

Simply dumping the facts on them will almost never inspire a reader to act. You must capture their imagination with compelling stories, engaging facts, and an inviting style.

Want to be sure that you are engaging your audience? Share your article with someone outside your organize who is not passionate about your cause to get their feedback. This will be give you a powerful understanding of your intended audience.

2. Facts Expire, Stories Inspire

Stories inspire in non profit writing.
Stories inspire in non profit writing.
Photo by rawpixel.com from Pexels

The best articles I’ve seen have been built around stories. Humans are hardwired to love stories. It’s how we passed down history and lessons for thousands of generations.

Joseph Stalin is quoted as saying, “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” A personal story grips the imagination, engages the heart, draws the reader. Statistics are math. 37% of statistics are made up on the spot, or they might as well be.

One of the most impactful non profit spotlights I’ve seen so far was a local horse rescue, Beech Brook Farm. They led with the heart wrenching story of an unwanted mare who was auctioned off twice, the second time while pregnant. Equine mother and child were cast into a cruel world, alone and unloved. Would they find a home? Would they even survive?

It was here that the article provided background about the rescue, what they do, and who they are. Only after that, was the story concluded with a happy ending.

Their article never asked for donations. They just shared what they did with a compelling story. Did they get donations? You bet they did!

3. Want Donations? Stop Begging.

A non profit should not come across as begging for donations.
When you talk about needing donations, this is how the reader thinks of you.

Everyone loves to buy, but nobody wants to be sold. One of the best ways to turn off your audience is to ask them for donations. They know you need donations. They know they can donate through your website. (If they can’t donate through your website, stop reading this and put a donation button on your site right now.)

When people see something about “to donate visit our web site” or “we’re looking for donations,” they feel sold to. They feel guilty that they are not helping, which makes them want to disengage.

If your article is good, they’ll want to help, and they’ll figure out how. Instead of talking about donations, try something like “for more information…” or even “to see how you can help…”

The exception to this is if you are seeking donations for a particular purpose or need a unique kind of help. For example, if you are looking for donations of gently used children’s toys or coats, that’s something to mention. If you need to raise money for the playground you are building this summer, then it’s got a purpose.

It also okay to mention fundraising events as long as they are about more than just raising funds. Polar plunge? Cocktail cruise? Bicycle race? Hot dog eating contest? These are events that a reader might want to attend even if it weren’t a fundraiser, and they’d love to learn about it.

4. Follow The Non Profit Guidelines

If you are getting an article published, the editor is your boss. If you are given a word count of 250 words, do not send in 252 words. For pity sake, do not send in 350 words.

I know that, to you, your cause is the greatest cause in the history of all space and time. To your editor, it is one of many articles vying for space in the publication. If there are four articles for three spaces, the one that violated the guidelines is most likely to get cut.

Community publications love publishing non profit spotlights. It is great, feel good content that people enjoy reading. However, for publishing purposes, one spotlight is as good as another. Actually, that’s not true. The one that has a story and isn’t begging for donations is better than one with no story that’s all about money.

Editors are very busy, and they do not have time to go back and forth with content contributors. That’s why there are guidelines. Many editors will simply discard submissions. After all, they are giving hundreds or thousands of dollars of free publicity. The least you can do it follow the guidelines.

Guidelines does not just mean word counts. The guidelines may also include key points that they want addressed, tone and format of the article, whether you should or should not mention donations, and more. Follow them all. This is your assignment and you will be graded on it.

5. Photography Rights and Wrongs

Right and quality are crucial in non profit article photos.
Always source your photographs.

Photos are hugely important in an article. An article with a photo is much more visible than one without. However, photography can also be one of the biggest headaches for an editor. There are two key issues: quality and rights.

Photo Quality
Publications are printed at 300-600 dpi (dots per inch). Internet standard is 72 dpi. This means that your photo from Facebook needs to be printed at one eighth the size to avoid being pixelated. High quality magazines need high quality photography. Fortunately, most modern smart phones have excellent resolution, but you must make sure you are sending an uncompressed version of the photo.

A 2 inch by 3 inch image must be at least 600 by 900 pixels. A Facebook cover photo is 312 by 820. Always use the original photos.

Photo Rights
Photo rights are even more important. In today’s litigious society publishers must be extremely careful about image rights. The easiest way to deal with this is to use photos you’ve taken yourself. If a photo is from a professional photographer, the editor may require a letter (or email) from the photographer declaring that they own the rights and granting permission to use them. Sometimes they will need the photographer to send an attachment so there is proof that they have rights to that particular photo.

Stock Photos
Don’t send in stock photos. Stock photo sites have peculiar rights, but publications have access to their own. Your permissions are not usually transferable. If there’s a stock photo you want to use, tell them and they can find it themselves, but they cannot use you photo.

Follow the Guidelines
Your editor will provide you photo guidelines for both quality and rights issues. Follow them to the letter. The photo from your friend’s Facebook page is not good enough, and there are no shortcuts.

6. More Ways to Help A Non Profit Thank Giving Money

Often people volunteer before they give. Photo Source

Every non profit accepts donations, which is why it is so superfluous to talk about it. Most non profit organizations, however, can benefit greatly from other types of help: volunteering, donations of specific items and services, and even something as simple as liking and sharing their social media content.

Many people want to help, but their financial resources are limited. If you can provide them other avenues to serve your mission, they will be receptive. They might not be able to write a check, but they could give a few hours a month, especially if it is something they could do as a family.

Businesses can often provide more value in kind than they could in cash. Would you rather have 10 hours of donated legal services or a check for $500? Well, with most attorneys charging upwards of $250/hour, the offer of services could be vastly more valuable than the check.

Then there is the fact that, especially for smaller organizations, many of the donations come from board members and volunteers. Once someone has invested their time and energy into an organization, their sense of loyalty drives them to find more and better ways that they can help. Them more people you can draw into the ranks of your active supporters, the easier it will be to raise funds.

Rather than asking for donations, suggest those easy starting points that one can be involved with. Invite people to help out a few hours at an event or suggest valuable but easy ways to volunteer. Such an invitation makes your reader feel welcome and appreciated.

Best Practices for Non Profits

As a non profit, you have access to hundreds of thousands of dollars of free media. Just because you don’t have to pay for it doesn’t mean you don’t have to work for it. Most publications have far more content being submitted than they have room for. As a publisher, I can tell you that I love being able to help non profits get their message out to the community. However, it is crucial to remember that, as a non profit, you need these publications more than they need you. They could fill their pages with any variety of uplifting content, but you need to get on those pages.

Follow the guidelines, use stories, don’t beg for money, and respect the editor, and you’ll find great things will happen. Following the rules and guidelines is the best way to get this article and the next one published.

To reach Michael Whitehouse with questions or to invite him to speak to your organization, contact us.

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