What Teaching First-Year College Writing Taught Me About Major Donor Communications

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Overhead cartoon depiction of teacher at a chalkboard in front of 5 students at desks.

Writing is a social act. Sometimes, we get so bogged down in the solitary process of writing that we forget that we are, essentially, communicating. Even if I’m just journaling, I’m communicating with myself and trying to make sense or meaning of an issue. Many of the lessons that I’ve learned about what makes writing effective also apply to effectively engaging people in conversation, including major donor communications. 

I’ve spent over eight years teaching first-year composition in higher education. Though the topics students wrote about were all over the place—from the impact of the proposed Pebble Mine in Alaska on local salmon habitat to the lack of affordable low-income housing in Milwaukee—the core insights about good writing stayed the same. These four insights can help advancement professionals better communicate with major donors and prospects. To inspire them to make transformative gifts, you first need to learn how to listen to their story. 

What is at stake?

One of the first things I tell my students is that 1) you want to figure out (and communicate) what is at stake. I always ask them to address the “so what?” question. Say your audience reads (or listens to) everything you’re written (or said). Say it even makes sense to them. Awesome! But so what? Why does it matter? More specifically, why should it matter to them? If you, the writer or speaker, are detached from or neutral about the cause or issue you’re talking about, why would the potential donor feel differently?

Close-reading is deep listening.

2) Close-reading is everything. So often we respond not to what someone has written or said, but what we think they’re written or said, or (worse yet!) what we think they should have written or said. (You probably made assumptions about this blog post before you started reading it, right?) As Jane Gallup, theorist and professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, explains*, “Ultimately, close reading is not just a way of reading but a way of listening.” When you’re engaging people, you’re trying to really understand what they’re saying, paying attention to the details, and holding space for them, not reading between the lines, pre-empting their point, or pushing your own goals.

Research so you can excel at major donor communications.

3) Do your research. This is one of the most fascinating aspects about being alive in our current time—if you develop a discerning eye, know how to use Google, and can identify experts to talk to, you can gain a working knowledge of almost any subject.

Research, or due diligence, is a way to become knowledgeable about both about your donor and what you’re really asking of them. I tell my students (who often come to my class with ardent opinions on many topics): opinions should form after you’ve considered the history and context of an issue and heard the main perspectives on that issue, not before.

As students, writers, and professionals in higher education, it’s helpful to be constantly critical and always open to revising our positions or purposes based on new information. For example, you may approach an alum with a specific request in mind for how they can contribute to the institution but find they’re better suited for a different initiative entirely.

You want to be open to that change, because people are unpredictable and their stories are complex. To really engage people in conversation, try not to decide the outcome beforehand.

Form and content are inextricably bound.

Finally, the most important thing I’ve learned about engaging people is that 4) the way you say something always influences how it is taken. There is no escaping this. The way a message is presented (the form) is inherently part of the message (the content). We’re always making choices in communication, whether we realize it or not, and whether we acknowledge it or not. In the context of writing, I’m talking about things like arrangement and tone decisions, word choice and syntax, as well as how claims are supported or how the writer transitions between subtopics, etc.

All this still applies to engaging prospects in a conversation—eye contact, when we choose to ask a question versus give advice, our inflections, how we move from one topic to the next, when we make space for silence, and add value to the interaction. In his Forbes article on ways to have more meaningful conversations, John Hall explains that it’s “important to always ask people how you can add value for them. You may think you know what will help them, but they know better than anyone what they value. You’ll be surprised how many opportunities come up to connect people when you know what they actually prioritize.”

Every choice, even to be passive or ambivalent, has an impact. The point is to take responsibility for your role in a conversation and make the best choices based on your audience, context, and purpose.

At ALUMinate, we design and implement major gift strategies for institutions of higher education. Part of that strategy is building consistent and relevant communications in the regions where alumni and supporters live. If you’d like to hear more about what we do, please send me an email!

*“The Ethics of Reading: Close Encounters” by Jane Gallup

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