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Are you getting the basics right?

You can have the best impact statistics. Brilliant case studies. A fantastic structure for your publication.

But without applying the very basics of good writing, your charity communications won’t shine. Poor writing turns readers off, and weakens even the best content’s impact. Worse still, you might not be understood – and therefore ignored.

Use these five simple reminders to keep your writing on track.

1. Jargon free

You might talk about HJDs and JSPs and facilitating empowerment of your service users with your colleagues. But that language shouldn’t make it anywhere near your external publications.

We all tend to write in a charity bubble, where we assume our target audiences use the same terms and language as we do. They don’t.

Ask yourself, would your gran, or neighbour or bus driver get what you’re talking about – immediately?

There’s the obvious jargon like: “We facilitate improvements in health through the process of recruiting level three healthcare professionals and the construction of high quality healthcare environments.”

But look out for other charity sector speak such as: supporters, stakeholders, direct mail, statutory funding, best practice, public benefit, outcomes, impact, engagement, service users. None of these would be immediately understood by most of your readers.

Explain, or better get rid of, jargon and acronyms and use the simplest language, appropriate to your audience, if you want to create clear publications that make readers take notice.

2. Tight sentences

The best writing is often made up of short sentences. Every word should add meaning.

Every phrase in its shortest, simplest form. That way, your writing will be easy to digest.

After writing your piece, go through it again looking for opportunities to tighten, cut and simplify.

For example, “We spend more than £100,000 a year on running projects” is better than “Our gross expenditure on charitable activities is in excess of £100,000 per annum”.

Look out for phrases that add no meaning, such as “it was totally unique” (something is either unique or not) and “our office is located at” (no need for located). Never use a complicated word or phrase when there’s a simpler alternative (“use” instead of “utilise”, “enough” instead of “sufficient”, “because” instead of “due to the fact that”). Beware of useless phrases like “at the end of the day” and “at this moment in time”.

There are also very few instances where removing the word “that” would damage clarity in your sentences. Try a search-and-remove in your next big article, and you’ll see what I mean.

3. Active, not passive

Statements have more impact when you write them in the active voice.

“The Teenagers Trust improved the youth centre”, is active.

“The youth centre was improved by the Teenagers Trust”, is passive.

Remember: the cat sat on the mat (not: the mat was sat on by the cat).

One or two passive sentences are OK in a longer piece, but if you fill your article with them it will read like an essay. Your writing will always have a bigger impact if you’re not afraid to be direct.

4. Cut adjectives

Lots of adjectives weaken the impact of your writing. They force readers to wade through too flowery words and make your prose overblown:

“Leading doctors have issued a dire warning that the nation’s massive obesity crisis will have very serious consequences for essential medical services.”

Instead try the more impactful: “Doctors have warned that obesity will have serious consequences for medical services.”

Mark Twain rightly said: “When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them – then the rest will be valuable.”

5. Prefer verbs over nouns

“We aim to increase engagement with young people and foster crime reduction.”

Overuse of nouns can make your writing feel formal and crowded. Flipping your sentence to make them into verbs can give your writing more pace, while also making it clear.

“We aim to engage young people and reduce crime.”

Your guide to charity annual reviews: 6 ingredients

For some charity communicators, the very idea of creating this year’s annual review will send shivers down your spine. After all, didn’t you just sign the last one off a couple of months ago?

For others, it’ll be an opportunity to play with ideas, to create, and to get right under the skin of their organisation and show its best aspects to the world.

Most sit somewhere in between. And we all need a bit of inspiration from time to time.

To get you started, I’ve scoured the charity sector to uncover the 6 key ingredients that can make your annual review work.

1. Digital integration

Five years ago, the very idea of an online annual review meant being able to download a PDF of the printed document from the charity’s website.

Things have changed. Now, some kind of digital or online integration is a ‘must do’. In fact, some larger organisations have made annual review micro-sites their main review, with the printed version the minor addition.

And what’s not to like? Publishing online allows you to include videos and animations, making once static information come alive. It allows the reader to click around the annual report in the way that most suits them (while behind the scenes you can measure what information most interests your readers).

You can provide calls to action (donate, volunteer, leave your email) that can be completed right away. And you can use other social media to send viewers directly to content in your annual review that is directly relevant to them. With whizzy dynamic and colourful annual reviews, you can make your information – and your brand – look great.

Top examples:


  • Retrack – This overseas homelessness charity has taken the simple but effective option of creating a digitised, dynamic PDF for their annual review. It is a good looking document that you can download from the website, but it contains internal links. You can navigate around the PDF using the links, and it also links out of the annual review to YouTube videos and to areas of the main Retrack website. Simple and cheap, and a good starting strategy for any charity wanting to get started in this area.


  • Saferworld – This peace research and policy charity has also taken a simple approach to their online annual review. Readers begin at a dynamic online graphics-led contents page, which draws out further information into pop-up boxes. Behind it sits a very detailed and involved annual review, so this more accessible mini version is welcome.


  • British Heart Foundation – The layout of this online annual review is simple and clear, with very basic navigation. There’s a good mix of case studies with great photography, solid but short information and whizzy infographics keep you engaged. The end of the review offers you a number of places to go, including downloading PDF files of key statistics and achievements for UK countries, grants made, and inviting you to donate and share – as any good website should.


  • Livability – This faith-based disability organisation’s online annual review can’t help but attract because the video-content begins as soon as you arrive. There are great some great dynamic graphics, and good case studies. But what makes this website special is that it’s clearly designed to be accessible to people with learning difficulties: it’s written simply, with bold headlines and easy-to-understand signposting for what to do or where to go next. All charities have something to learn from that.

Read about the other 5 key ingredients

2. Good images

3. Highlights of the year

4. Case-study led

5. Reporting against aims or targets

6. Innovative ideas

Charities: how to write for your audience

First, the bad news.

In charity communications, there’s no such thing as the general public.

If you think your charity’s target audience is “everyone” you’ll be setting yourself an impossible task of communicating effectively with all of them.

Your copy will be so much more effective, engaging and compelling if you are really clear who you need to communicate with, before you start writing, and then write directly for that target audience.

Here are four top tips to help you:

1. Picture your reader

This may feel silly, but it really works. Find a catalogue or magazine and cut out a picture that most closely represents your ideal reader. They should be the same age, gender, ethnic background and, judging by clothes perhaps, same background or social status as your key target audience.

Stick the picture to a sheet of brightly coloured A4. Give your supporter a name, an occupation, family situation, hobbies and interests. The more information you can write down about your reader, the better.

Now, when you start writing, have your new friend on the desk in front of you. Write for them and them alone. Force yourself to write for this one person.

Writing and reading can be an intensely personal affair. Try to write as if you’re addressing one person. It just so happens that what you write could be read by thousands.

2. Tone

Write in a tone that works for your target audience. If you were speaking face-to-face with them, how and where might you be most likely to deliver the same message? Over a pint in the pub? At the school gates? As a tutor speaking to a student? In a caring or mentoring setting? Politely addressing a business leader in a suit? Feet up and fluffy slippers on at home, sharing a cocoa with a good friend?

Try to write in the same tone as you would use face-to-face. Perhaps polite and deferential to a business leader; more friendly and conspiratorial at the school gates; totally relaxed and friendly with a good friend; firm, wise and fair, like a teacher or mentor; a say-it-like-it-is honest mate, over a glass of wine.

3. Get the language right

Think carefully about the actual words you use. Check over your copy to ensure you’re only using language that your target audience would use themselves. The more your reader feels they’re hearing from someone like them, the better.  Don’t slip into the tendency to over-write, in flowery laborious language, just because you’re creating something.

In particular, look for your own organisation’s jargon. Not just the obvious stuff like “stakeholders” and “second-tier”, but also phrases and acronyms that have become so common among you and your colleagues that it might not occur to you that those outside your building, or the charity sector, might not have a clue.

If possible, get someone who is as close as possible to your target audience to read over the copy. Ask them to highlight anything that stopped the flow of reading, even for a second.

4. What do they need to know?

Your reader wants to know what your message has to do with them. Think about what your reader might get out of your writing. Why should they take your action? What is in it for them? Is it something concrete like a product, a new opportunity, improved skills or knowledge? Or something less tangible like feeling good about themselves or contributing to a concrete change?

Don’t assume an “opportunity to contribute” will be regarded as a good for itself. Why would your reader want that opportunity to contribute? How will it make them feel? How will it improve their life? That’s what you should highlight.

Need help with working out your audience and getting your messaging right? I can help. Contact me now!

Annual reviews: 10 questions charity writers should ask themselves

For most organisations, the annual review is your flagship publication. It has the biggest budget, takes the most time and involves the most people.

There’s a lot at stake, so it’s worth doing some important scoping work up front to save you time and anguish further down the line.

I’ve put together 10 difficult questions to ask yourself before you start work on your charity annual review this year.

1. What is our annual review for?

Just like any publication you produce, you should start by identifying what your annual review aims to do. Is it a fundraising document? Something to send when applying for grants or funding? A thank-you to members and supporters? A celebration? Or something else? Just one rule: it can’t be all of these things. To be effective, pick one or two key aims and write every word with those in mind.

2. Who is our target audience?

Pick two or three key target audiences maximum and write them down. Ask yourself: Why are they interested in your organisation? What information are they looking for? Ensure you write in language that resonates with your key target audiences and that your content meets their needs.

3. What do we want them to do as a result of reading?

Your annual review isn’t effective if your target audience reads it and then puts it down without doing anything. What feelings are you trying to generate? What actions will you ask for in the report? Make sure any actions you call for are ones your target audience is willing and able to take.

4. Annual review, annual report or combination?

The Charity Commission demands you publish an annual report, with finances, aims, objectives and other statutory information. Do you want to combine this with your annual review? Or do you want to publish two separate documents, with the formal one online and the reader-friendly one as a more “glossy” marketing document? Or ask yourself the most difficult question of all…

5. Do we actually need an annual review?

Charities don’t have to publish an annual review, only the formal annual report. Would your effort, time and budget be better spent creating a few more targeted and specific marketing materials than one-big, all-singing, all-dancing annual review. Annual reviews often try to do and be everything and can sometimes end up doing and being nothing. Don’t just publish an annual review because that’s what charities do.

6. How can we include people’s voices and stories this year?

Nothing will illustrate your organisation’s work better than including stories of people who are affected by your issues, who benefit from your work, or who are involved in actually doing the work. Instead of telling your reader what you achieve, show it through compelling case studies. Let people’s voices do the work for you. Start gathering case studies and carrying out interviews now. Even the odd quote is better than nothing.

7. How can we demonstrate impact and outcomes?

More than ever, donors and funders are demanding proof that your work is effective. Gather together statistics about what you do (deliver meals on wheels) and for every statistic, translate it into the impact you have (older people get healthy nutritious food once a day, and are less lonely and isolated). Look at your project evaluations and draw out not just the number of people who receive a service, but how they say they benefit and what changes they have experienced. Write about both.

8. Do we really need that chair/chief executive statement?

Your annual review is about getting people to read, understand and take action. It is not about ego. Often, your chair or chief executive’s welcome will do little more than say it has been a good year, we’re looking forward to the future and thanks to supporters – year after year after year. If it does nothing to further the aims of your report, rewrite or delete altogether. (And while we’re at it, do you really need to name check every donor and every trustee on that inside back page?)

9. Who is going to be involved, and at what stage?

Too many people demanding too big a say too many times is a recipe for going over deadline and producing a dog’s dinner that no-one is happy with. Consider holding a big “annual review lunch” at the beginning of the process and welcome all comers, but then tightly restrict who gets to see and change copy as the process develops. Don’t edit by committee. Never send round the designed review “just for any final thoughts” the day before it is due to print. You won’t make that deadline.

10. Isn’t it time we got started?

It’s never too early to start but it always seems to be too late when you do. Grab a piece of paper now and note down some key dates: information gathering, writing, design, signoff, print, distribution. See, already late aren’t you? In the long term, create an “annual review folder” to keep on your desk and throw in cuttings, press releases, statistics, reports and more throughout the year. When you do come to start, lots of your ideas and information will be all in one place.

I’d love to help with your annual review – get in touch today to discuss how we could work together.