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Charity publications | Trina Wallace

Charity publications

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.

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.

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.