Publishing and Editing for Nonprofits

Publishing and Editing for Nonprofits

Presentation by Cheryl Woodard and Lucia Hwang
September 17, 2007
Forum organized by Jude Berman and Karen Asbelle
Notes by Karen Asbelle

Cheryl Woodard and Lucia Hwang, co-authors of Every Nonprofit's Guide to Publishing: Creating Newsletters, Magazines & Web sites People Will Read have considerable experience working with nonprofit organizations. In their lively discussion of the various editing challenges and opportunities in the nonprofit sector, they shared the following thoughts.

Most nonprofits are necessarily focused on their cause or mission, working with limited funds and not enough staff. Understandably, publishing is not their first priority, and too many don't know their way around (what to expect, what questions to ask) when they must produce materials to increase community awareness, educate their audiences, communicate with their members, raise funds, and other key functions. They frequently don't know what they don't know, and they risk ending up with inferior products that don't serve them well. (Excluded are larger, more sophisticated nonprofits whose mission clearly is publishing, such as Mother Jones, National Geographic, Sierra Club, and AARP.)

Across the field of nonprofits, the level of professionalism can vary. Staff may be inexperienced, perhaps working with one or two lead individuals who have particular experience or background. Often, they may be largely a volunteer force. They can have unreasonable expectations for costs, timing, appropriate content, and what their published materials will accomplish. Due to staffing constraints, they may not be able to hire editorial staff, but many can hire freelancers.

For example, a civil rights group may know a lot about civil rights, but know nothing about publishing. Additionally, the role and value of a good editor may be under appreciated. A group may know they need to put out a high-quality publication, but they don't know quite how to do it. If you can arrange to visit, listen carefully, and help them to shape their stories so they look good; you can potentially make yourself indispensable.

Too many nonprofit publications talk about themselves in a way that may not interest their readers. They may have to answer to various constituencies within their organization who want to talk about their accomplishments and write letters essentially to themselves. Newsletters with too many obligatory "event photos" are not hard to find. For those staff who can't dictate content, editorial independence becomes a necessary negotiation between producing more interesting articles and satisfying the needs of various entities to include specific content.

As an editor, you should watch for red flags that could signal a potential problem getting the work done. And be aware of the group's culture before diving into a job. Does the hiring manager have control over content? Must it be written in certain ways that bless the organization? Are they chronically understaffed? Can they reliably pay you? Many hand-to-mouth nonprofits don't make it. Research the nonprofit: Do they produce fancy, slick pieces? Do they work with a lot of vendors? Before taking a job, learn from your gatekeeper contact how effective they are as an organization in accomplishing their goals, and generally understand their pressures. If the conditions are too unstable (or neurotic) for you, you may want to walk away and seek a more established nonprofit.

Bigger organizations have bigger budgets and outsource a lot of writing. However, when contracted articles are turned in badly written and require a massive rewrite or copyedit job, you can establish yourself as "the person they call." How? Don't just take an assignment. Listen. Get to know the nonprofit's struggles; understand their objectives so you can become an ally.

If you are interested in supporting a particular cause, look for nonprofit directories online or use the wonderful resources of a business library. Within a category--for example, ecology--you can determine where you might best direct your energies on the ladder between, say, a professional association of environmental engineers and the group of ecology activists operating on the street. You might even decide to split your efforts, perhaps balancing your work between a larger, more sophisticated nonprofit with enough work and budget to sustain your efforts, and a fledgling nonprofit that can use all the discounted or volunteer help that you can offer.

If you work or volunteer for a low-budget nonprofit, you can still arrange it to your benefit. Ask for a byline. Avoid the article about the black-tie dinner in favor of the article on a more substantial topic. Make sure the content is not proprietary so you can use the clipping to get work elsewhere. Are you willing to do a small job for less than you would normally charge? Can you negotiate a trade for free advertising?

Some nonprofits are professional organizations with insider publications that are automatically sent to members as their target audience, perhaps to support members to keep their skills honed or announce worthy activities. The size of their budget can depend on the size of their membership and related dues, and if they have only a small publishing staff, many of these groups must use freelancers. Learn to speak the language of the organization so articles will be easily consumed by the readership. That said, are the writers for the California Nurses' Association magazine all nurses? No, only one, says Lucia. You don't necessarily have to be a member of the profession to edit or write compelling articles for their professionals.

There is no reason why copyediting for a for-profit vs. a nonprofit should be different; it's the same work. You can always balance your workload between the two types to meet your needs for reliable income and social contribution.

At your discretion, you might offer to do a bit of work at no charge, just to show them what you can do--and how much they may need you. It may be worth your effort to cultivate an ongoing friendly relationship with some nonprofits: look for those organizations that produce frequently--for example, bi-weekly or monthly--who always need fresh content and more people to help with production. Also, keep an eye out for organizations that rely on public support and therefore need polished pieces. Have you checked your own mailbox to evaluate the professional quality, content, and appeal of your own nonprofit mail? Do you read them? Why, or why not?

If you want to work in the nonprofit sector, consider going to a "nonprofit boot camp" to network with attendees and make yourself known and available.

Cheryl and Lucia’s book includes a chapter about how a nonprofit can go about finding an editor. They also suggest that nonprofits can list themselves in the nonprofit section of Writer’s Market. Their book tries to elevate nonprofits' understanding of the publishing process, help them embrace advance planning, and implement quality control.

As an editor, consider offering your services to edit the many pieces that may be coming in from a nonprofit's volunteer writers; you might even find a niche coaching their volunteers to edit themselves, thereby reducing some of the front-end workload you may face.

A simple letter of agreement is often less threatening to a nonprofit than a contract. But regardless of what you use, you as an editor are encouraged to protect yourself by adopting the habit of "getting it down in writing" to avoid misunderstanding. Many nonprofits are governed by committees, and a range of stakeholders may deliver potentially conflicting directives for a job. Nonprofit projects can be demanding in the sense that a committee structure is frequently unorganized, which can result in work having to be revised or redone more times than initially anticipated. Written letters of agreement can help eliminate the complications of "mission creep." In a letter of agreement, you can include "work beyond that which is specified in this letter of agreement will be paid at x rate," or "will be renegotiated before proceeding" if you don't want to quote a rate.

Develop a checklist tool for your phone conversations. Follow up your emails with a phone call to restate and confirm the terms.

Many nonprofits are worse on the Web than in print. Some just dump their PDFs onto their site. Can you take their printed pages and edit them down appropriately for their Web site? Can you make their articles and white papers "search engine friendly" by breaking them up, adding links, titles, and subheads, to make them more easily scanned? Can you take out the winding phrases and prepositional trails in favor of direct language that reads quickly? Show the nonprofit how you can fix their site.

Another alternative for supporting nonprofit causes is to look into companies that serve nonprofits and seek to work with them.

Cheryl and Lucia recommend approaching your work with the intent of measuring your effectiveness. Did they raise more funds or increase their membership as a result of your editorial contributions? Are they getting requests for reprints or interviews since you've helped them polish their materials? Are they getting more hits to their site? Find ways to gauge the results of your improvements to make the case for the value of your editorial role.

Recognizing the positive impact an editor can make toward furthering the success of a nonprofit, do consider including a nonprofit in your client mix. As you cultivate nonprofit opportunities for freelance income, you can at the same time determine your capacity for donating your skills to a favored cause in a way that can stretch farther than your financial contribution. As worthy nonprofits continue to roll up their sleeves and struggle forward to communicate their mission and effect needed change, the editor can indeed help them change the world.

Cheryl Woodard, a publishing-business consultant, writes business plans for new publications, helps existing publications improve revenue or efficiency, and coaches individuals through the ups and downs of their publishing efforts. Her book, Starting and Running a Successful Newsletter or Magazine (Nolo), has received high praise. Cheryl co-founded PC Magazine, PC World, and Macworld.

Lucia Hwang, a magazine writer and editor, has worked for daily and weekly newspapers, for magazines, newsletters, and the Web. She has taught journalism, and, since 2004, has edited a magazine for a nonprofit, California Nurses’ Association.




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