ImageNot feeling my rock-star approach to nonprofit communications? That's okay. After all, even Mick Jagger was once Michael Jagger, son of Basil Fanshawe "Joe" Jagger and Eva Ensley Mary Scutts Jagger and older brother of Chris Jagger. And who knows? There may have been a Christmas when Eva sent season's greetings to family and friends with such news as, "Michael's doing well at Wentworth Primary School and continues to enjoy singing in the church choir."

Perhaps we're not all cut out to be rock stars, but we ARE all members of families and frequently children of mothers who like to report on our goings-on in annual holiday letters. Which brings us to the question "What can nonprofits learn from Christmas letters?"

I got exactly one Christmas letter in 2009, but it was a really good one. It came from a friend of a friend, a lovely redhead I hardly know but have always liked. I was surprised to find it in my mailbox. That didn't stop me from immediately sitting down to read it, however.

There was a travelogue section — Red and her husband had recently visited Lebanon, Syria and Jordan (making them perhaps the only people I know who've been to these exotic locales). There was reminiscing about snowshoeing in T-shirts at Sequoia National Park. I discovered that they'd moved into a new downtown apartment to save on rent (but had not sacrificed charm, as the "beautiful red-brick walls" attested). My correspondent related that they'd seen Leonard Cohen but missed Morrissey (arrived at the show oh so late). They'd gotten engaged — in a doorless helicopter night-flying over the SoCal coast — and married six days later (seaside at Point Dume). They'd both survived layoffs. She'd written a mystery novel. They'd forgone holiday gifts and instead made donations to Homeboy Industries and Heifer International. They were planning to spend Christmas in Tampa with his mom, stepdad, sister, niece and two younger brothers.

Red's year-end outpouring was unmistakably an expression of family. It made me care about her in a way I hadn't before.
Red doesn't have kids of her own (at least not yet), but her year-end outpouring was unmistakably an expression of family. As such, it made me care about this woman in a way I hadn't before. With that one piece of paper, she went from being an acquaintance to a friend. There was an intimacy in her letter that drew me in. Indeed, the tone of this missive — authentic, sincere, accessible, hopeful — was more important than the content (though the content was genuinely engaging and memorable). The very sending of the letter was more important than the content; without saying it, she was saying, "Let's stay connected."

Connection is, of course, critical to successful nonprofit messaging. Without it, no one donates or volunteers or Facebook-fans your organization because no one cares about it. The voice of effective nonprofit communications is like that of a family member, someone who speaks, for one thing, the way people actually speak.

Regrettably, a lot of nonprofits speak with a voice that could be construed as THE OPPOSITE of that "family voice"; it's the institutional voice, the voice of a thing, not a person. It's formal, academic, bogged down in abstractions (statistics, anyone?) and frequently hard to understand. Not surprisingly, that voice has a mixed record of connection.

ImageMany successful writers find it helpful to imagine they're actually writing to a family member or close friend. In the nonprofit sector, that trick can prevent you from getting stuck in the gears of your organization's machinery and enhance your ability to tell the story of your latest accomplishments.

Red's letter was fundamentally a collection of tiny stories, snapshots that, paired with concrete details — the lack of doors on the helicopter, the red-brick walls of her new apartment — added up to a rich portrait of her life in 2009. Even the most basic elements of storytelling can make a proposal, appeal or newsletter a compelling read and thus a powerful tool for gaining and maintaining support.

Christmas letters are much maligned, and it's true that what's in them varies widely in appeal (not to mention familiarity with grammar, usage and spelling). But for the most part, they speak plainly and from the heart, and in this way, they're a model for any messaging that seeks to persuade.

My holiday pen pal closed her letter thus:

"All in all, it's been a great year. We're so grateful to have survived the economic crisis relatively unscathed when so many people have been hit so hard. It's made us focus on the things that truly matter. We can't wait to see what 2010 has in store — and we hope it includes substantial time with all of you."

Consider me sold.


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