The Ins and Outs of Writing Profiles
Compelling profiles — of constituents, volunteers or donors — are powerful tools that a nonprofit can use to motivate donors and other supporters by illuminating its mission, demonstrating success and providing public recognition.
Unfortunately, a lot of these profiles — which appear in newsletters, on Web sites, and in PR/marketing materials and annual reports, among other places — are just boring and fall victim to what Kivi Leroux Miller calls the "tedious bio syndrome."
Leroux Miller is president of EcoScribe Communications and keeper of the Nonprofit Marketing Guide Web site and the Nonprofit Communications Blog. In her early June webinar, "How to Write Moving Personal Profiles About Clients, Donors and Other Supporters," she recommended steps organizations can take to create powerful profiles that go to work for their causes.
A good profile is a story that has a beginning, middle and end; it’s focused on the most interesting elements about the person being profiled; and it's relevant, i.e., the reader understands why you’re telling him about this person in your communications and gets the point of the story.
When selecting people to profile, ask yourself the following questions:
- Why this person?
- Why now?
- What's the point from a marketing perspective? What are you trying to achieve by telling this story about this person?
Remember, a profile by your organization is not “journalism.” In an ideal world, a journalistic approach to profile writing involves interviews with several people, shadowing and research. The nonprofit reality is more like a 20-minute phone call or sending questions via e-mail. You don't need to be objective, so some leading questions are fine, and the subject should be able to review a draft and provide comments.
Miller recommended the following five steps to the profile process:
1. Schedule the interview
Decide who to profile. Will it be in person, via phone or via e-mail? Then convince the sometimes reluctant participant. Offer her the ability to review the story. Tell her that by sharing her story you'll be able to let people know how to access your services and support your organization.
2. Gather your facts
What facts do you already know, and what else can you gather on your own?
3. Get your questions together
Good questions are open-ended, ask how and why, trigger emotions, and follow up on things already noted. Some sample questions Miller suggested for clients include:
- What's it like to be a client?
- If you weren't here, what would you be doing instead, or what would your life be like?
- What's the best/worst thing to happen since …?
- When people find out you come here, what do they say or ask you?
- Tell me about someone who has influenced you in some way since you've been here.
Good questions for donors include:
- What's your first memory of [your organization]...
- What has surprised you most about …
- What do you wish other people knew about ...
- Why are you supporting us as opposed to other groups?
- What might (someone) be surprised to know about you?
Questions for volunteers might be:
- What was your first impression of the organization?
- What do you find most challenging about volunteering here?
- Tell me about some of the people you've met while volunteering.
- What would you tell someone who is thinking about volunteering?
- How would (someone) describe you?
Examples of follow-up questions include:
- What else can you tell me?
- What makes you say that?
- How do you know that?
- Why do you feel that way?
- Can you give me an example?
- Has that ever happened before (or since)?
- How would you respond to someone who disagrees with you about that?
All-out bad questions to ask are those that can be answered in one or two words, delve into too much personal history, or focus on facts about the cause rather than the person and how she feels about the cause.
4. Find the “nut,” i.e., the heart of the story
The true heart of the story most likely won’t be apparent at first but rather will emerge during the interview. Don’t conduct the interview like the interviewee is in the "hot seat." Start with some small talk, and listen.
"If you're doing an in-person interview," Miller said, "use your powers of observation. Look for interesting details. Rely on all of your senses. What stands out? What's on their desk, in their kitchen, in their living room? What stands out to you when you meet them? What about being in their presence really stands out to you?"
If you're discussing sensitive topics (especially when dealing with clients) give the interviewee the questions in advance to make her more comfortable; ask, but don't press; and ensure she realizes that she has control over the final copy.
If you do the interview and it turns out awful, all is not lost, Miller said. You could always use the content in a roundup, follow up with the interviewee to get more information or have someone else do a new interview.
5. Write the profile
To determine how the story should develop, look to the nut, the central element of the story.
There are three ways to structure the story:
- The obituary model, where the most important information appears in the first paragraph.
- The post-hole digger approach, where you pick a very narrow segment of someone's life and go very deep into detail on that segment. It could be a particular year or hobby or event, for example.
- The three-act play approach, where Act 1 introduces the character, his situation and his goal; Act 2 shows the character facing obstacles as tension mounts; and Act 3 is where the action peaks, the character triumphs and gets his/her payoff. Miller said Act 3 is usually the part in the profile where the nonprofit will come into play to help the person get over a barrier.)
Think about the reader. What does he or she want to know? For most, it boils down to two questions: What makes this person so special (not like me)? And how is this person one of us (just like me)?
Some formats you can use to position the profile include:
- Different/typical (or vice versa). The reader can see how the person is different but yet typical.
- Insightful anecdote or quote. The profile starts with a quote that tells you that something interesting is about to come.
- Fall back/spring forward. Pick two periods of time in a person's life and focus on those two periods and how they're connected.
- Action and reaction. The idea is that something happens and then there's an immediate reaction to it. In the end, it can be used as a call to action.
- Paint the scene. Draw a picture with your words. This type of profile doesn't introduce the person at first but paints a picture of the scene and then introduces the person. This is a good way to do a board profile, Miller said.
- Straight Q-and-A style. You can edit responses down to the core of the answer. It's a nice, short way of getting to know people.
Once you figure out what the nut is and which format you're going to use, Miller suggested getting rid of everything else. And be selective about which quotes you use. Do they say something you can't say yourself? Are they revealing? Do they sound too predictable?
Be sure to write a big finish to your profile, as Miller stressed that "your profile's ending is as important as the beginning." Epiphanies, wrap-up quotes and action steps are all good ending elements.
But beware of too much chronology, as it's boring; too many generalities; and stalling questions. What's often missing from profiles is conflict (the three-act structure) and success stories (the person's role in your organization's success).
And be sure to have a good photo, great caption, great headline and maybe even a pull quote alongside your profile.
Click here for information on other Nonprofit Marketing Guide webinars.