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Blog | Trina Wallace

CharityComms articles

From making “sign off” less stressful to writing your elevator pitch, I have written articles for the CharityComms website since the organisation was set up in 2007.

I really enjoy sharing insights, tips and ideas on the website of the membership network for charity communications professionals.

Here are some links to my articles:

Four communications lessons from collaborative campaigns

Pooling your resources with other organisations can help you reach and inspire new audiences. What are the main lessons charity communicators can learn from recent prominent collaborative campaigns?

Ten top tips for online job interviews

Online job interviews are becoming the norm. Here are 10 things you can do to help you feel prepared, as calm as possible and ready to shine in an online interview.

How to make ‘sign off’ less stressful

How do you take the pain out of sign off? Here are five tips that aim to help you make sure your donors’ money is spent on communications projects that truly help your charity get closer to achieving its vision.

So, what do you do? A five-step plan to writing your elevator pitch

Here are some key steps to coming up with inspiring “boilerplate copy” that will help you build lasting relationships and motivate audiences to get involved.

Five ways charity communicators can emotionally protect themselves

Charity communicators need to prioritise their own, and colleagues, self-care. Then we’ll be better able to serve the people our charities support. Here are five ideas to help you better take take care of yourself as a charity communicator.

What not to include in your annual review

It could be your charity’s equivalent of a Christmas shop window display at Harrods or a summer blockbuster trailer. Your annual review could be brilliant. It can offer readers a snapshot of everything that you do that is amazing so that they feel excited about, and want to champion, your work.

Cutting through charity comms jargon to the essentials

With clarity, purpose and our audience in mind. That’s how we communicate in charity comms, right? Well, not always. And not speaking the same language can hinder the causes we work for. Your membership proposition, for example, might be my brand story. Another charity’s message matrix could be completely different to the content in yours

Read more of my CharityComms articles here.

Five unnecessary communications meetings

You have 10 projects on the go and deadlines coming out of your ears when your colleague utters those much-feared words. “I think it’s best we all meet to discuss it,” they say. “We’ll only need half an hour.”

But you know. You know that half an hour meeting will turn into a couple of hours. And that your boss will still expect you to deliver the report you’re working on by the end of the day, even if you’re meeting to discuss it.

Unnecessary meetings suck the hours out of your busy days, wasting your time and that of colleagues. Charity communicators are involved in far too many of them because we work across departments. I have found myself in a meeting with people from finance arguing about the merits of moving a comma. And a lengthy web analytics meeting with a digital team who presented no statistics at all.

I think it’s time charity communicators took a stand. At a time when our teams are being cut and workload increased, I think we should push back on unnecessary meetings.

I’m not advocating a “No meeting” policy. Good meetings ensure everyone is on board with your project, knows when and what input is expected of them and lead to concrete actions. They’re completely necessary and make good use of donors’ money. Unnecessary meetings waste it.

So, here are five meetings I think we shouldn’t be having and ideas for what might work instead.

1. A brainstorm that lasts longer than 20 minutes.

I was once in a three-hour brainstorm meeting. By the end, I think ideas that were rejected to begin with were welcomed with open arms. Really, meetings to brainstorm ideas should not last longer than 20 minutes because attendees will lose focus and inspiration. To avoid this, circulate proposed questions/topics ahead and ask attendees to bring three ideas with them.

2. Meetings about second drafts – when no one has read the first.

Always ensure that you give people enough time to read the first draft of anything you produce. Don’t meet if you haven’t received people’s comments in writing first. Discussion will be more helpful when you’ve had time to digest feedback and decide what you would like to clarify. If people haven’t read your first draft, delay the meeting. If you go ahead, they’ll only feedback later and it could create problems, wasting resources.

3. Meetings with external agencies that could be done on the phone.

Most agencies will charge for meetings, even if they don’t make it clear that they do. Check this by clarifying with suppliers if they’ll charge for a meeting you invite them to. Consider setting up a conference call or using Skype instead. Try using Google documents to share spreadsheets and presentations – you can update them as you’re on the call.

4. Agenda-less meetings.

No agenda means no focus. The meeting without an agenda is likely to meander from topic to topic. Attendees won’t have time to prepare and gather their thoughts because the aim of the meeting isn’t clear. People are more likely to resent being at these kinds of meetings and are therefore less likely to contribute to discussion.

5. Meetings about projects that won’t be happening for a few months.

It’s not a good idea to gather people together before you, or the person calling the meeting, has anything concrete to ask or delegate. An email, phone call or chat at a colleague’s desk could work instead. Often, this will end up being a meeting about a future meeting. Of course, it’s brilliant to plan far ahead and to get time in people’s diaries but you don’t need to meet until you know what you need from others.

Want to meet to chat about a charity communications project? I promise it will be a worthwhile meeting. Do contact me to talk your project through.

Seeing the story

Writer Robert McKee says it’s the most powerful way to put ideas into the world today. And after recently reading his influential book ‘Story’ about the art of storytelling, I’m inclined to agree.

“Stories are the creative conversion of life itself into a more powerful, clearer, more meaningful experience,” he says. “They are the currency of human contact.”

Charity communicators can share some of the world’s most moving and memorable stories. Yet, sometimes, when you’re bogged down in bureaucracy, key messages and a never-ending workload, there isn’t time for story crafting. It can be hard to see beyond what you are doing to the story that will get supporters, donors and funders connected.

I believe that you can better see your charity’s story by applying aspects of storytelling to your comms, whether you’re putting together a web page or writing a funding application. Here are five ideas for how to use storytelling techniques in your charity communications.

1. Take people on a journey.

All communications should have a beginning, middle and end. Say you’re putting together a case study about someone supported by your charity. It needs to show what their life was like before they got involved with your cause, what you did to help them and how this has changed their life now, and in the future. Use the same structure (problem, what support you provide, the impact this makes) in all of your writing, whether it’s a report or a policy statement, so it’s more dynamic and communicates your vision.

2. Show the problem you aim to solve.

In storytelling this is called “conflict”. So for example, a character might stop someone else achieving their goal. Similarly, in order to show the impact of your work, you need to clearly communicate what it is you are trying to change.

It’s the difference between…

We run 10 young carers projects across the country which support over 100 children and young people.


Young carers can be isolated, lonely and miss out on having an education. Our 10 projects support 100 young carers so that they can have a break – and a childhood.

3. Be people-focused.

Including people in stories is what makes them resonate with readers. It’s remarkable how many charities rely on stock images to tell their story on their website. Investing in one or two days of a professional photographer’s time will give you pictures that tell your charity’s story in a more authentic way. Many charities don’t include case studies in their more “formal” communication materials either. But if you’re moved by the story of X volunteer or Y service user, then your audience is likely to be too. So, do include it in your funding application or newsletter to commissioners.

4. Think empathy.

A useful question to ask each time you work on a new communications project is “Why should this audience care?” Stories only resonate with an audience if they can identify with them. This might translate to a carefully targeted pitch to a journalist rather than a blanket press release or a tweaked subject line in an email you’re sending out. Imagine you’re a charity that runs after-school clubs in disadvantaged areas. A story about the launch of your new project might tie into news of local authority cuts for a journalist audience. But if you’re explaining the service to mums, they’d want to know that it’s safe, free and local.

5. Focus on resolution.

Most stories have some kind of resolution. Make sure you communicate with supporters about “the end” of stories you have involved them in. So, if you’ve sent out a direct mail pack appealing for donations to fund a specific project, always update donors on what happened next. If you don’t, their story of your charity may end with you asking them for money, and not thanking them for donating. That might result in a cancelled direct debit. Or if you’re writing your annual report, use this idea about resolution to remind you to focus on outcomes.

Instead of…:

This year we launched a new website to provide support to people around the world living with cancer.

…you could have:

Since we launched our new website in January 2012, 20,000 people have downloaded our guide about living with cancer and membership has increased by 65%.

Contact me

If you need help seeing the story, give me a shout. I’d be happy to help.

How to keep your annual review on track

It’s like telling your family you’ve decided to go on holiday at Christmas for the first time. Or trying to run for a train at Euston.

When you’re writing your charity’s annual review, it can feel like people with competing aims are getting in the way of yours.

Whether it’s fundraising colleagues asking for a whole page for a detailed list of projects funded by major donors, when you have been told to produce a streamlined publication this year. Or policy insisting that their explanation of a complicated campaign cannot be changed, even if plain English is your plan.

Many charity communicators will be facing these challenges over the next few months as annual review season starts. It can be easy for your labour of love to become frustrating.

But remember, you are the expert. You are a charity communicator, whereas your colleagues’ expertise lies elsewhere. So, stand your ground and you will produce a publication that will communicate what you do in the best way. And, it should be a really enjoyable process.

Here are my six top tips for keeping your annual review on track.

1. Decide what you want your annual review to do – at the beginning.

If you want your annual review to win awards, including a 10-page financial summary probably won’t meet your aim. If you want it to meet Statement of Recommended Practice (SORP) guidelines but someone suggests a novelty calendar format, your aims won’t be met either. Meet with colleagues to discuss what you want your charity’s annual review to do and make sure that you keep this aim in mind whenever you discuss any content or design.

2. Stick to word count.

Extra detail means extra words – which means extra space. You only have a finite amount of space. Whenever you send out drafts of your annual review to colleagues, make sure they know what the word counts are. Make it a rule that that if they suggest adding more, they need to also think about what detail can be lost. Your designer will only ask for cuts later down the line which can cause more chaos.

3. Agree what the publication is not.

When you decide the aim of your publication, also make sure you get stakeholders to agree what your annual review is not. Then, for example, when someone from campaigns asks you to mention a specific project and there’s no room, you can remind them that you agreed that the review is not an A to Z of your charity’s 2010/11, but a summary of key achievements.

4. Get your content sorted before you start to write.

Case studies need to be agreed and interviewed before you start writing. Leaving space for them, as well as other content, like specific projects, is a recipe for disaster. What you know or find out about your case study, or project, will influence what you write, as well as how it is laid out on the page. Leaving space for things you can insert later might sound like a good idea at the time, but will only create more work in the end because you might have to revisit everything.

5. Don’t sacrifice impact.

Funders, commissioners and supporters all want to know how what you do makes a difference. And your annual review is the perfect place for you to explain just how you do this. But sometimes, with last minute editing, or the too many authors syndrome, impact is lost.

Instead of: “Our 111 befrienders support older people to live in their own homes for longer, decreasing isolation and improving their well-being.”

You might have: “We have 111 befrienders.”

Check every fact and statistic to ensure you have explained its impact.

6. Give everyone a chance to feedback – at the right time.

You spend most of the year trying to get people to write for your magazine or newsletter with no luck. Around annual review time, everyone seems to be interested in what you’re doing. It’s vital that your colleagues have a chance to comment on the annual review – but not at every stage. Draw up a flatplan and content structure and send it round as a PDF to all of the people you think should be involved. Decrease the number of people who see the first draft and only send the second to key heads of department. Only you, or your communications manager, should sign off the final draft.

For more top charity communications tips, sign up to my newsletter using the box to the right.

What not to include in your annual review

It could be your charity’s equivalent of a Christmas shop window display at Harrods or a summer blockbuster trailer.

Your annual review could be brilliant. It can offer readers a snapshot of everything that you do that is amazing so that they feel excited about, and want to champion, your work. Numerous departments can reuse the content that you include in your annual review – everything from case studies to statistics – so that the resources you invest in it benefit the whole organisation.

Yet, so often, this doesn’t happen. Come annual review time, there might be a mad dash to gather content from overworked colleagues. That means they often don’t have the time to really give you what you need or present their achievements in the best possible way. This can be frustrating for everyone and it’s a waste of money.

You do need to produce a trustees’ annual report and accounts for the Charity Commission but you don’t have to publish an annual review. Yet, done well, it really can be your Harrods’ shop window – inspiring people to donate, take action and support you.

I’ve written dozens of charity annual reviews and read many more – good and bad. Here are my top tips on five things to steer away from in your annual review to make sure you produce a showstopper of a shop window.

1. Internal politics

Restructures, a new creative communications department or merged social media team might have been a big part of the internal workings of your charity over the last year. But while this is big news for staff, it won’t be for people outside your organisation. What is crucial, and worthy of space in your annual review, is how these changes affect your cause. That might add up to joined up campaigns recruiting more volunteers, extra income or increased awareness.

2. Future plans

An annual review is a summary of a year in the life of your charity. By the time you come to put it together, it may seem like a long time ago. So it’s tempting to weight content more towards what you’re doing now or plan for next year. But really this would miss the fantastic opportunity to report back to people about the impact you have made. A good annual review story will show readers what that impact is, through stories, words and pictures, and connect it to your organisational strategy with a nod to future aims. That way people can see why you are focusing on this area of work to achieve your objectives.

3. Stark facts

Whether it’s the number of training sessions you ran for health professionals or a summary of your press cuttings, including figures on their own is a missed opportunity. Instead, concentrate on the consequences of those facts and how they relate to your overall organisational goals. So, for example, how 80% of the health professionals who came to your training days used what they learnt to improve a young person’s mental health. Or, how a mum in the Midlands read an article in her regional paper and called your helpline and got support.

4. Merged stories

It may have started out as a story about your latest research but you have been asked to squeeze in a message about a campaign or an unrelated quote from the CEO. Sound familiar? Stories with competing aims don’t work but are all too common in annual reviews. Agreeing a single aim for each of your annual review stories can help you to push back when colleagues ask you to include content with competing ones.

5. Your voice

It’s more powerful to show people what you have been up to in the last year through the eyes of those you support rather than including your narrative description of it. Perhaps you’ve opened a new centre for homeless people in Hull. Instead of describing how many rooms it has and what they are used for, include the story of someone who goes along to the centre. Their words about how this has changed their lives will be more authentic, memorable and engaging than yours.

Four simple ways to join up your comms

Doing more with less.

Thanks to budget cuts and lack of funding, that’s what charity communicators have to become expert in.

It’s because while comms teams in many charities are shrinking in size, the work they have to do is increasing. The online world of social media, for example, has opened up a whole new platform for charities to communicate from.

Choosing which aspect of your charity’s communications to focus on is crucial because, with limited resources, you can’t do everything.

Now, more than ever, it’s important to make sure your communications are consistent and that your work is joined up with what’s happening across your organisation. That way, you’re making the best use of your time, not doubling up with colleagues’ work or creating more for yourself. And, vitally, you’re making the best use of donors’ money.

Here are four simple ideas for joining up your comms that can have lasting impact.

1. Audit your website.

It’s essential that your online and offline comms match up. If not, they undermine your organisation and its cause. While a leaflet might have just been published, website copy covering the same issue could have been written a year ago, using a different tone of voice, language, facts and statistics. A biannual audit of your website will help make sure your comms are consistent.

2. Have gatekeepers.

Case studies and spokespeople must be well looked after. They’ll be annoyed if you phone to ask them to talk to the media about one thing, and two days later a colleague calls for quotes about the exact same issue for a fundraising mail out. To avoid this, no matter how big or small your organisation, assign a member(s) of your team to manage the relationship with them.

3. Use social media contacts.

It doesn’t matter how many “likes” your charity has on Facebook or followers you have on Twitter, if you’re not engaging with those people, the numbers are meaningless. One way to do so is to ask people if you can directly contact them to help you out with your comms work. Someone who tweets about a problem your charity has helped them overcome could become a media representative for your cause. A person who writes a post complaining about an issue on your Facebook wall could become your best online campaigner.

4. Know what’s happening in other teams.

There’s nothing more stressful than being given a last-minute deadline to deliver a communications project for an event your events/fundraising/policy team has known about for ages. Keep an up-to-date diary of major events your charity is involved in and ask colleagues to let you know well ahead of time if they need your help with anything. Or keep the diary in a shared folder and ask colleagues to update it.

For more top charity writing tips, sign up to my mailing list opposite.

Five things charity communicators can learn from Mad Men

“If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.”

Those are the words of Don Draper, top creative in the US drama Mad Men, set in a 1960s New York advertising agency.

I came to Mad Men, which first aired in 2007, quite late and I’m busy working my way through four seasons’ worth of box sets to catch up. I don’t feel entirely guilty for giving the show so much of my time. It seems to me that there are so many parallels between what we do as charity communicators and what the ad men and women at Sterling Cooper do in the show.

I’m a firm believer in learning lessons from popular culture and Mad Men is full of them.

Here are five things I think we can learn from the US show:

1. Tell a story.

Mad Men’s top ad man Don Draper knows how to tell a story. When his colleagues flail in meetings, he’ll stand up and make their ideas come to life by telling the story of the campaign they’ve come up with. Good charity writing should do the same, whether it’s a grant application or direct mail. Say you have to sell a campaign to a donor. Starting by telling them about what you want the campaign to achieve and going on to talk about the logistics of it won’t tell your story as well as it would if you began by saying why it is needed. That’s because you need to first show the change you want to achieve and gain your readers’ empathy.

So, instead of:

Our pancreatic cancer research centre will be the biggest in the world with 100 scientists and high tech laboratories that will help develop better treatments for the devastating disease.

You could have:

Sam Jones never touched cigarettes, ate his five a day – every day – and went to the gym before work. “I’ve always been health conscious,” says the 55 year old dad of two. “I never dreamed I’d get cancer – and I’d never heard of pancreatic cancer.”

Diagnosed with pancreatic cancer three months ago, doctors can’t tell Sam why he developed the disease because they don’t know exactly why people get it. We are launching a pancreatic cancer research centre to help change this – to save the lives of people like Sam.

2. Think outside your office.

Creative staff at Mad Men’s Sterling Cooper, especially main character Don Draper, are always scribbling on bits of paper, napkins and notebooks when they think of an idea. In the same way, let ideas for your charity’s communications digest, develop and come to mind when you’re away from your desk and the meeting room. An idea for a great slogan is likely to pop into your head when you allow yourself to stop thinking about it for a bit and, in my experience, the best headlines or introductions are rarely formed when you stare at a blank screen.

3. Beware of stereotypes.

Many episodes of Mad Men show us that when advertising campaigns are based on stereotypes, such as gender or race, they fail. Of course, Mad Men shows developing 1960s North American society and we’ve moved on a long way since then – thankfully. Though many charity causes battle against common stereotypes, often their communications can help perpetuate them. Are you still referring to a “chairman” rather than a “chair” or a “spokesman” rather than a “spokesperson”? Or, if you work for a children’s charity and are writing about a mentoring project, does your reader need to know that the mentee used to be in a “girl gang” rather than a “gang”? Does it matter if you say whether someone is married or single? Only include information like this if it is essential to your point, otherwise it’s a value judgement.

4. Discuss your ideas – and listen to everyone else’s.

There are a lot of meetings in Mad Men – from discussing ideas for campaigns to who’s going to work on them. And while sometimes organisations are guilty of having too many meetings about meetings, it can also be easy not to have them at all. I’m sure we’ve all sent an email to someone who we really should have phoned. It’s a good idea to organise regular meetings with departments you’d like to contribute to your communications to get more buy in from them. So, you could organise a meeting with your fundraising team to find out what support you could offer each other in the next month or with policy to get them to explain issues they want you to communicate to the wider world in plain English.

5. Challenge the status quo.

Mad Men shows how society has become less sexist, racist and elitist. By highlighting the fact that not everything has changed since the 1960s, though, it also shows how far we still have to go before everyone is equal. In every communication your charity produces you should show how far society has come in solving the problem you want to solve, and what else needs to be done. People need to know why you exist (what you do) and what concrete things you want to see happen in the future (why you do it). This might sound like an obvious thing to say but there are far too many charity websites, annual reviews and strategy documents which don’t explain either.

If you need help with a charity copywriting project, big or small, do contact me on trina@trinawllace.com or 07974 185 541.

What charity communicators can learn from Apple

Love them or hate them, there’s no denying the power of their brand. Apple is everywhere.

I was reminded of this when I had a recent meeting with a development charity client. They are in the process of gathering case studies of the people they support around the world – which can be a difficult task. And to encourage on the ground staff to help them do this, my client is offering a prize for the best case study. An iPhone or iPad.

This promise of an Apple prize has prompted lots of interest in the case study gathering exercise.
Of course, globally, Apple has become a hugely desirable brand.

And this conversation got me thinking about what charity communicators can learn from Apple in terms of how they represent themselves and get people to take action, whether that’s to donate, become a partner or volunteer.

Here are my five ideas of what charity communicators can apply from Apple marketing.

1. Work out what your product is – and create a communications strategy that sells it.

Apple is one of the biggest technology companies in the world, while charities run services, offer information or support; when it comes to marketing and communications, thinking of these as “products” can help us sell them better.

Often, we’re working with quite intangible things. For example, if you’re a children’s charity, one of your end products might be improved confidence amongst the children you work with. Knowing this can help your communications work be more focused and make this seemingly intangible benefit tangible.

So, you could create a bank of case studies that show how improved confidence changed someone’s life. Or run a campaign that gets young people to share their tips on how to improve confidence. Or create an online questionnaire to assess the confidence of visitors to your website.

2. Focus on benefits.

Connect to your office from home. Turn the TV off with your phone. Never forget your friends’ and family’s birthdays again. Apple sells its iPhone by concentrating on benefits like these, rather than its features such as how fast it can connect to the internet. Similarly, I think the majority of charity communications concentrate too much on features of services rather than explaining how they change lives.

So, instead of:

We run 25 supported housing projects.

You could have:

Our 25 housing projects give people with physical disabilities choice, control and skills to live independently.

3. Be predictable…

Hugely frustrating for some, a mark of genius for others, Apple brings out new versions of their products at regular intervals. This creates excitement, promotes interest in new products and makes Apple feel reliable. I think we can also be more predictable in our charity communications.

This could be as simple as having a regular flow of Tweets, rather than lots one day and none the next, or sending out your newsletter at the same time each month. That way you maintain people’s interest in your cause, appear more reliable and can take supporters on a journey or create a story.

4. ….but always improve on what came before.

Each new model Apple brings out is different, some in more ways than others. It might be smaller, faster or slimmer. In the same way, charity communications should always build on what has come before.

This might equate to an annual review that’s an improvement on the last one because it contains more of the human stories your supporters told you they enjoyed. Or a factsheet about one aspect of your work that breaks complicated language down even further than a previous one, into five key points perhaps.

Stale communications suggest that a charity is not as dynamic as it could be in responding to the problem it’s there to address.

5. Invest in looking good.

Apple products are slick and smart; they look cool. This is a major reason why people see the brand as desirable. I think we can be scared of making our communications look too good. “Supporters will think we have too much money,” is something I often hear from clients.

And while I’d agree with this in many instances – for example, sending out a shiny, glossy direct mail pack with four different inserts for a Christmas appeal about poverty – I would implore it in others.

Good design, concise, plain English copy and powerful photography should be a charity communications staple – they make you look good and don’t have to be expensive. And yet, they’re often overlooked in budgets and planning.

Contact me

Need any help refining your key messages or figuring out what your products are? Do get in touch. I’d be happy to help.

Embrace the editing process

The best charity communicators love the word “but”.

Their ears are not closed to it, they heed the words that follow it and they act on them to make their charity’s communications better.

“I love that new enewsletter you’ve put together; it will really engage our supporters, but…”

“That leaflet will definitely get people to take action, but I was thinking…”

“It’s our best annual review yet, but next time can we…”

The “but” can be hard to swallow and easy to dismiss, whether it comes from your chief executive or your service users.

When I was training to be a journalist, I remember that feeling of disappointment the first time I got red ink all over my work.


I’ve learned to embrace other people’s feedback because it’s a vital part of the creative process.

The writer’s best friend

Listening and responding to feedback is a crucial aspect of putting together any charity communication.

That means considering and not automatically clicking “ignore” on the tracked changes colleagues make on your carefully crafted copy.

Making time to edit your work after receiving people’s comments will improve it no end. Your charity’s communications will be more effective and more impactful because they’ll be better focused.

Copyediting is your opportunity to take your draft and refine it until it’s accurate, consistent and engaging.

As author Isaac Bashevis Singer said, “The waste basket is the writer’s best friend.”

With this in mind, here are four tips on good copyediting:

1.Don’t get too attached to your copy.

You may love a particular turn of phrase or paragraph, but be prepared to lose it if it doesn’t fit your argument. Get a colleague to offer their opinion on whether they think it works.

2.Get in order.

Is your copy in the most logical order? Have you started with your most important point? And followed up with supporting information and background material in descending order of importance? Copyediting is your opportunity to move things round – and make cuts if necessary.

3.Check for ambiguity.

Your audience should be able to understand what you have written after a single read. To avoid ambiguity (and unintentional humour) make sure your sentences are clear. If people can’t easily understand what you’re saying, they’ll switch off.

4.Remind yourself of what you’re trying to do.

Write what you want your document to achieve on a note and put it above your desk. Check over your work to make sure that each word, sentence and paragraph justifies its existence to meet this aim.

For more charity communications news, views and advice, sign up to my e-newsletter using the box opposite.

How to make your charity’s communications sound like Innocent

“We want to sound like Innocent.”

This is the brief I’m (still) often given when I ask charity clients to describe the tone of the writing they want me to produce.

It’s no wonder. Over the last 13 years, drinks and healthy eating company Innocent has grown from a three-person outfit to a multimillion pound business. A large part of the company’s success is thanks to the brand created through its tone of voice.

It’s distinctive, friendly and engaging. Of course, cracking jokes and being cheeky often isn’t appropriate for charities. But I certainly think that the third sector could benefit from putting the principles of Innocent’s informal tone of voice into practice across their communications.

Here are five tone of voice lessons that I think charity communicators can learn from Innocent.

1. Remember that you’re talking to someone.

Innocent’s language is warm. When you pick up an Innocent smoothie, you feel as if the people behind the brand are talking to you. There’s room to make your charity comms do the same. People are used to informal language and if you communicate in stuffy speak, your content will stand out for all the wrong reasons. You don’t need to overegg the colloquialisms but talking in a natural way, using plain English and avoiding jargon, should be your aim. Often, one of the most powerful words is “you”.

So instead of:

Looking forward, a key aspect of our management strategy is to work alongside service users to create impactful outcomes.

You could have:

We will support you to reach your potential.

2. Have conversations.

Social networks are the ideal place to inject some personality into your charity’s tone of voice. Instead of sharing links to your latest press releases, use tools like Twitter and Facebook to talk with your supporters and donors. Make it a rule that you communicate with someone at least every third tweet. If they raise concerns about an issue, respond. You never know, they could become your future star campaigner.

3. Make your writing reflect your values.

Innocent doesn’t have strict brand guidelines. Instead it focuses its brand on the business’ values. Charity communicators should also see their organisation’s values as a tone of voice guideline and ensure their writing reflects them. If your organisational values are to be “friendly”, “approachable” or “honest” but your external communications talk about “strategies”, “stakeholders” and “service users”, they might not be conveying the image you want them to. Your words need to fit your brand. Always think about why your audience needs to know what you are telling them.

So instead of:

The new supporter stakeholder panels are a key part of our organisation’s 10-year plan to empower people affected by mental health problems.

You could have:

Our local support groups bring people affected by mental health problems together to campaign and raise awareness of stigma and discrimination.

4. Get people doing things.

The number for Innocent’s banana phone is included on every one of their smoothie bottles and customers are encouraged to drop into their head office and have a chat. In the same way, all your charity comms should have a purpose. Most likely this will be to get new donors, supporters, volunteers or commissions. Make sure every web page on your charity’s site has a call to action and that each story in your newsletter is followed by a ‘find out more’. Social networks should be monitored regularly and guide people to further content.

5. Use words that describe the impact of your work.

For fresh inspiration, Innocent asks their customers to suggest witty words for the bottom of their drinks containers. Similarly, charity writing should use the words of the people supported by the organisation’s cause. Doing so will ensure your writing is more authentic and striking. In these difficult economic times, donors don’t want to read over-marketed copy that’s obviously only meant to make them part with their cash. Using the words of your service users, staff or volunteers in your writing is a much less obvious way to make the case for your cause.

So, instead of:

Health Care Lincoln chief executive Simon Smith was “delighted” to present a cheque for £1,000 to the charity’s oldest centre for adults with special needs.


“I’m over the moon because now I’ll be able to see my half-sister in Australia on Skype.”

That was the reaction of Sam Jones who attends Health Care Lincoln’s oldest centre for adults with special needs after hearing that the service will spend £1,000 on new computers….”

If you need help with a charity copywriting project, big or small, do contact me on trina@trinawallace.com or 07974 185 541.

Five ideas for communicating on Twitter

1. Tweet re-angled content.

We spend hours on some communications that only get a mention on Twitter once. You might tweet about your fantastic annual review when it’s being launched and never mention it again. Don’t be afraid to re-visit it when relevant. So, with your annual review it might be when there’s an article about transparency in the third sector in the press. Or for a press release about a new service, you could retweet to highlight the impact of funding cuts.

2. Contact organisations like yours.

Too often in the charity sector, charities doing similar things work in insolation. Twitter is a platform from which you can start making contacts with other organisations to make them aware of your organisation, learn about what they do and gain their support. Maybe you could congratulate them on a campaign win or retweet one of their blogs. Doing so might mean they understand more about what you have to offer and you could cross refer service users or volunteers.

3. Respond to negative feedback.

It’s not nice when someone slates your organisation, one of your services or what you do. But not responding to what they say is a mistake. It could start a stream of vitriol. Instead, thank them for their feedback and point them to somewhere on your website where they can find out more about what the issue you’re discussing. It might start a conversation which could see that person become your most fervent campaigner. For best practice in responding to negative feedback, follow big brands and companies to see how they handle it.

4. Join in the conversation.

Generic plugs for your online content are a charity staple on Twitter. And this is okay – sometimes. But Twitter is a conversation between people and not to get involved is missing a trick. Make it a rule that you communicate with someone at least every third tweet. You don’t have to wait until someone mentions you. Keep an eye on what the people you are following say and comment on it if it’s relevant to what you do, pointing them to content and services.

5. Be authentic.

If your organisational values are to be “friendly”, “approachable” or “honest” tweeting about strategies, stakeholders and service users might not convey the image you want it to. The Twitter audience is different. Followers are used to informal language and if you communicate in stuffy speak, your content will stand out for all the wrong reasons. You don’t need to overegg the colloquialisms but talking in a natural way, avoiding jargon and using plain English should be your aim. That way more people will understand what you do whether you’re a research-based charity or an animal welfare one.

If you need help with a charity copywriting project, big or small, do contact me on trina@trinawallace.com or 07974 185 541.

Making the most of your statistics

Like most politicians, in the current US presidential election campaign Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are twisting the same statistics to meet their very different agendas.

“Over 4 million jobs created in the last two years,” says Obama.

“He has not created jobs,” Romney retorts.

In fact, you could argue that both are true. It depends from what date you start counting from, as this New York Times article explains.

Making an impact

There are lessons here for charity communicators. It’s vital that we use statistics consistently, appropriately and honestly across communications. Otherwise, supporters, donors and commissioners will begin to lose faith in what we do.

Used well, statistics can be shocking or impressive, powerfully conveying the impact that you make. Used poorly, they can detract from the good work that you do and even put it at risk.

Here are some ideas for how to breathe life into your charity’s statistics and make the most of what you’ve got.

1. Ask for help to get the statistics you need

Clients often tell me that they don’t have a statistic because they “…have not got that kind of data”. Talking to the people who do the monitoring and evaluating is imperative. Discuss the kind of things they monitor that would make powerful communications statements. For example, you could find out how much it costs to run a project that supports vulnerable people for a month or year. Or how many people use your services every day.

2. Be creative

To make your audience visualise less interesting statistics, think about what example you can use to bring them to life. You could talk about area in terms of the size of London (1,570 km2), volume relative to how much liquid it takes to fill an Olympic swimming pool (2,500 m3) or population based on how many people the Millennium Stadium holds (74,500).

3. Translate stats so they mean more

“47% of people would like to volunteer more.” “84.5% would quit smoking tomorrow with support.” “10% of young people believe…” These figures are hard for your audience to take in. Think about how you can format them in more digestible and recognisable terms. So the stats mentioned could become: “half of people would like to volunteer more”, “nearly 90% of people would quit smoking…” and “one in 10 young people…” Try to make numbers tangible so they’re more powerful.

So instead of:

Sam got a job after he had been unemployed for one year and three months. He had used our support services for 13 days.

You could have:

After two weeks of using our support services, Sam got a job – he’d been looking for work for 449 days.

4. Create a crib sheet

You could be completely unaware of fantastic statistics that colleagues from the team that sit near you deal with every day. Or you might not know that they use your staple statistic in a different way which changes the tone of what you aim to say. For example, they could use “two out of five people fear homelessness”. But you could work with “nearly two thirds of people do not fear homelessness”.

To avoid this, create a statistics crib sheet for people from across your organisation to use. Suggest that if they want to add figures to the crib sheet they contact you, or a dedicated statistics gatekeeper, first. That way you can make sure everyone is using the same, up-to-date source. If you start using a new statistic, it can be changed across all of your comms. To make sure nothing slips through the net, it’s a good idea to audit your communications at least every 12 months.

5. Be selective

Listing your strongest statistics in succession devalues them and could confuse things. Rather, use one figure to back up your main point.

So instead of:

91% of people said their self-esteem increased after attending one of our day centres. 68% wanted to attend more regularly. Four out of five people had benefited from using our IT services. As a result, 82% of people got a job or returned to education.

You could have:

Our work helps improve people’s self-esteem so that they can fulfil their potential. With support from our day centre staff and services, eight out of 10 people get a job or return to education.

Choosing the right words

From “feral rats” to “protestors”, and “scum” to “opportunists”, language used to describe the UK rioters over the last few days has varied greatly.

“Everything depends on your point of view,” as the Guardian’s Jon Healey points out in his article about this issue.

Indeed, the words used in the media’s coverage of the riots have been shocking, fascinating and insightful. Journalists have lost all their objectivity. And, others argue, politicians’ language has been damaging.

“It is not helpful to stigmatise some parts of society as ‘sick’, like some sort of cancer,” said Hackney North and Stoke Newington MP Diane Abbott on Wednesday’s Newsnight. She was talking about prime minister David Cameron’s rhetoric.

Some language is certainly “unhelpful”, at the very least. I think there’s a lesson to be learned from this about the way we use words, and the way we employ language in our charity communications. So here are my five tips for using language positively in your charity comms.

1. Don’t let value judgements seep into your comms.

So, you’ve got a list of values that represent your organisation. Fantastic. But do your communications communicate those values? Are you still referring to a “chairman” rather than a “chair” or a “spokesman” rather than a “spokesperson”? Or, say you work for a children’s charity and are writing about a mentoring project, does your reader need to know that the mentee used to be in a girl gang rather than a “gang”? Does it matter if you say whether someone is married or single? Only include information like this if it is essential to your point, otherwise it’s a value judgement.

2. Create a style guide.

As a charity communicator, you will know the words to avoid when writing about your cause, but your colleagues in other departments might not. Having a style guide is not a sign that your charity has gone corporate; it’s simply an essential charity communications tool. Even better, create a one-page summary of language to use and avoid, which spokespeople can quickly read before they give interviews, or colleagues can scan before they write a blog post.

3. Let your “service users” speak.

Often when I’ve interviewed charity service users, project workers have insisted on being in the room at the same time. Then they have tried to answer my questions on behalf of the service users. Successfully protecting your charity’s case studies doesn’t mean telling their story on their behalf. It’s more empowering to let your service users tell their story in their own way, using their own language. Use your own, and the inauthenticity will be obvious, turning off potential supporters.

4. Use the language of your supporters, donors and commissioners.

How would a supporter describe what your charity does? What about a commissioner? The two audiences will probably use different language to talk about what you do. In your communications, you should adapt your words for these audiences. So, if you’re writing a web page aimed at commissioners, make sure you use these key words in the first few paragraphs. But you would use different words on a web page a supporter could be searching. Even if you’re talking about the same thing, you would want your reader to take different actions (commission your services v donating).

5. Avoid jargon.

Language you use every day could be alien to your audience. If they don’t know what you’re talking about, they’ll switch off, which means you won’t get that donation, volunteer or commission. Although words like “engagement” and “leverage” have become the norm in charity communications, often they are meaningless. For some potential alternative words, read this article I wrote for the Guardian’s Voluntary Sector Network.

For more of my top tips on charity comms, sign up to my e-newsletter in the column opposite.

How can you make people care about your cause?

Former Play School presenter Floella Benjamin summed up a Golden Rule for charity communicators this week.

“We just need the explosion, we need to get people talking about the importance of it,” she said in the Evening Standard.

She was talking about the newspaper’s literacy campaign which is raising money for Volunteer Reading Help (VRH), a charity that provides volunteers to help school children learn to read.

This week the London newspaper featured front page stories to convince readers why the campaign should matter to them. Londoners have read children’s and volunteers’ stories about how VRH has changed their lives and about celebrity supporters including comedian Dawn French and well, Floella Benjamin. They’ve also been updated on fundraising, with “Google backs our campaign with donation of £25,000,” making Wednesday’s front page.

Focusing on donations, rather than the impact that money will make, is something that I’d never advise my charity clients to do. But it worked for this campaign because they have, in essence, done what Floella intended and created an explosion. They’ve done this by creating a story for a well-targeted audience which convinces them to care about the cause.

So far, 1,172 readers have signed up to become volunteers for VRH and the campaign has raised £60,000 in two days.

Not every charity will be lucky enough to get such coverage. But our charity communications can all benefit from a reminder that their aim is to convince people our cause is important and worth caring about.

Here are five tips for creating communications that get people talking about the importance of your cause.

1. Ask your supporters why they care.

It’s easy to get tunnel-vision when we write, talk about and promote our charity’s cause every day. It’s why your supporters should be your very favourite colleague. They support your cause for various reasons, the common thread of which should influence every aspect of your charity communications. Ask them, via your social networking sites or your supporter magazine, to explain why they care. The dialogue itself will get people’s attention.

2. Be ready to go.

If a national newspaper called you tomorrow and said they’d like to feature your cause in a week-long campaign, would you have the case studies, statistics, experts and impact-based figures they’d need to create a compelling case for your work? Whatever the size of your communications team, concentrate on getting these things sorted first because they will help with everything you produce. And to get people talking about your cause you need to be able to answer calls for support from campaigners and volunteers with equal speed as media requests.

3. Create a story.

I had a weird dream last night. Do you care? Okay, did I mention that you were in my dream? Do you care a little more now? Actually, this is what happened to you in my dream… See, now you are listening (and hopefully not freaked out!). All good communications create a story that involves their audience, whether it’s a 40-page strategy document for trustees or a billboard poster for commuters. Always think about how your story fits in with your target audience’s life.

4. Paraphrase.

Nothing is ever simple, it’s true. And I’m sure your policy team will be able to tell you why this is the case for your cause. But, the majority of your supporters don’t have time for the detail. We live in a fast-paced, Twitter-obsessed, soundbite-consuming world and your communications need to feed into that. There’s a whole host of complicated policy behind ActionAid’s Bollocks to Poverty and Amnesty’s Control Arms campaigns but their communications get people talking by summarising the issues and forsaking the detail.

5. Be external.

Maybe your charity has always listed profiles of every member of your campaigns team in your quarterly supporter newsletter. But why have you? Being too internally-focused to please egos is a major turnoff for supporters. They care about how your work affects them, not about the politics behind how it happens. Remember that your supporters, donors and people who commission your services have a life outside your charity. It’s your job to show them how your work can impact on the life they know.

For more charity communications news, views and advice, sign up to my e-newsletter using the box opposite.

What charities can learn from Men’s Health magazine

“Strip away fat!” “100 simplest weight-loss cheats ever.” “Boost your brain power by watching the World Cup.”

Charity sector communicators can learn a lot from these headlines. They’re taken from the July issue of Men’s Health magazine.

Like any effective publication, pick up a copy of Men’s Health, read by a quarter of a million people every month, and you’ll know instantly what it’s all about.

You’ll get an idea of who the reader is, their hopes and desires and why they buy the magazine.

Now, I’m no Men’s Health reader myself, and this blog isn’t about critiquing its content. I take the magazine down from the newsagents’ shelves now and then and recall my old journalism tutor’s lesson about why their cover works so well: it sells the magazine’s content to its target audience so they buy it.

Here are five things to learn from a magazine cover, like Men’s Health, to help you improve your charity’s communications.

1. Know what your audience does in their free time.

Ask a Men’s Health journalist what their reader might do on the weekend and they’ll, sigh, and whittle off an answer: “Go for a half-hour jog they thought would be an hour’s run, plan their next week’s meals, watch the match at their mates BBQ, shop for the latest gadgets and have a few beers at the pub, but then feel guilty about them the next day.” Or something similar.

As a charity communicator, you need to be able to do the same thing for your target audiences. Know your audience well and you’ll be more easily able to persuade them to donate, or change their behaviour.

2. Use SMART to get your reader’s attention.

Men’s Health readers like SMART targets – as in, Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Timely. For example, “24-hour muscle: seven ways to pack on 5kg.” They know that their reader really wants to get fit but is so busy they want results fast. Your charity’s target audience, donors for example, are probably also looking for immediate results. So, to grab their attention, tell them how many lives their cash will save and in what timeframe – shopping lists are essential items for your communications so invest resources in getting them done properly.

3. Re-package what you do.

Every month, Men’s Health will have articles about losing weight, gaining weight, the right food to eat, how to improve intelligence without much effort etc. It’s just re-angled each time. You should apply the same creativity to your charity communications. It might be the third annual report you’ve written but you can approach it in a completely different way – use an unusual format, get your service users involved, or go for an online version. Some of the readers of the charity communication you are working on might not have heard your story before, so if it’s tired in your telling, they’ll notice and switch off.

4. Know how you want your audience to feel.

Men’s Health stories are generally about motivating readers to look after themselves, emotionally, physically and mentally. They are made to feel excited, enthusiastic and good about themselves. When you produce your communication, you need to think about how you want your audience to feel when they read it. It might be empathy for a case study, or shock at a hard-hitting campaign.

5. Hone and translate your key messages.

Like any good charity communication, a Men’s Health article is filled with key messages. “Keep fit, look good and you’ll achieve more,” is one. “Busy successful men like you can stay healthy with minimum effort,” is another. These key messages help shape the magazine’s content every month. If you tailor your key messages to your target audiences, your charity communications will be a whole lot easier to produce, not to mention more inspiring and effective.

For more charity communications news, views and advice, sign up to my e-newsletter using the box opposite.

Top tips for reporting your charity’s impact

My friend Jenny visits an older woman, Ethel, once a week for a local befriending charity.

Sometimes they talk about the weather, other times it’s what’s on TV or what Ethel has had for lunch.

That’s not a very exciting summary of my friend Jenny’s volunteering. It’s not a very exciting way to start a blog either. But stay with me. You see, the impact of my friend Jenny’s volunteering is much more interesting.

Sometimes Jenny is one of the only people Ethel sees all week. Talking to her, Ethel feels less isolated, less depressed and less alone. Jenny gets Ethel’s shopping, so she eats better too. Ethel is happier, she doesn’t need her carer to come as often and she can stay in her own home. The outcome of Jenny’s volunteering is that it saves money for the social care system and the NHS.

New Philanthropy Capital report

Reporting outcomes is crucial to good charity communications. Yet a recent report from New Philanthropy Capital, Talking About Results, says that charities are much better at talking about what they do than why they do it and what it achieves.

The report concludes that charities must improve the way they report the outcomes of their work. Surprisingly only 41 per cent of charities analysed by authors of the report clearly communicated what changes they achieved in people’s lives.

Tell your story

Reporting impact can seem like a daunting prospect for small and medium sized charities which don’t have the funds for expensive data collection measures or research. But impactful charity communications are achievable for any charity.

It’s about telling the story behind the statistics and the nuts and bolts of how you deliver the work – the difference you make to people’s lives.

Here are four tips for reporting impact in your charity communications.

1. Bring it back to why.

Whenever you write about what you do, make sure you explain why you do it. You might run a helpline that takes 20,000 calls a month from vulnerable children. That’s great. But make sure you tell your reader that those calls mean children that don’t have anyone else to talk to feel listened to, supported and happier. That might mean they stay in school, don’t get into trouble with the police or run away from home. This is why you run the helpline, not because it’s popular.

2. Use the voices of the people you support.

Case studies are excellent ways to report the impact of “softer” outcomes like improved confidence or well-being. But make sure the change you make is your angle in any case study. Structure them using three sections: what life was like for your case study before they became involved with your charity (Ethel, in the story above, was isolated and lonely), your charity’s involvement (Ethel’s local charity found her a befriender) and the outcome or change that took place (Ethel is happier, healthier and able to live independently in her own home).

3. Think about how you measure success.

You don’t need loads of data to demonstrate the success of your work. Dig out those tenders to commissioners and use the facts and statistics in your charity communications. Talk to other departments to see if they have information that could be used to demonstrate impact. Someone working in your accounts department might have a killer fact that shows your impact. For example, do you have figures for the number of people going through your services? Or details of what ex service users are doing now? And don’t forget to talk to your project workers. Ask them how they measure the success of what they do.

4. Be honest.

Supporters want honesty. They know that you might not have achieved everything you wanted to this year but if you haven’t, they want to know why. Be honest about the challenges you are facing and explain how your expertise will help you tackle them. Don’t shroud copy in jargon when talking about these challenges, be direct and show how overcoming them will help change lives.

For more charity communications news, views and advice, sign up to my e-newsletter using the box opposite.