Writing Nonfiction for a Nonprofit

We all know, or should know, the difference between nonfiction and fiction. The former is just-the-facts and the latter allows plenty of latitude to tinker with the truth. And the most obvious difference between for-profit writing and nonprofit writing is. . . the profit.

Of course, many nonprofits do pay their writers a salary. In my case, however, I volunteer at the Glendale-Crescenta Valley (California) Chapter of the American Red Cross (www.arcglendale.org), and I do it free of charge – which doesn’t mean there isn’t ample payback for my time and trouble.

Volunteer writing, aside from getting one published with a byline and providing opportunities to meet some really cool people, is a terrific training ground. Here are some things I’ve learned in my three years of producing an e-newsletter for the Red Cross.

  • Get used to no-frills working conditions. Forget the private office and state-of-the-art equipment. Forget instant IT support when your computer seizes up; in most cases you are the IT support. On the plus side, your hours are usually flexible and so is your work location; I’ve typed up more than one newsletter from my home office during a lull in my other activities, wearing my comfy sweats, and with a dog snoozing at my feet.

  • Develop your initiative skills. Nobody’s going to spoon-feed you information. This is a good lesson for any writer. Use the internet, one of the best friends a writer ever had. Before I interview someone for the newsletter, I put their name in the search engine to see what I find and help me prepare my questions. Keep your ears and eyes and mind open for story opportunities. Ask questions. Persist.

  • Producing a newsletter for a nonprofit is not hard journalism, but neither should it be a “puff piece” pretending everything is fine when it isn’t. For example, when interviewing a disaster volunteer for a profile, I don’t ask things like “What do you really hate about working for the Red Cross?” I do ask them, “What challenges do you face, and how do you deal with them?”

  • Stay humble. Your time is not as important as that of a Disaster Action Team Captain who just got back from the site of a residential fire, helping a family cope with the loss of everything near and dear to them. Respect others’ time and sensibilities. Cultivate a thick skin.

  • Stay objective. Temper the urge to tout the terrific work the nonprofit is doing with hyperbole and lavish praise. This is where you stick to the facts, which do the job more convincingly. One of my personal challenges is always to do justice to the people I write about – usually “average citizens” like the rest of us who give up their leisure time to teach CPR classes or fly off to the scene of a hurricane, usually at great personal inconvenience and cost. But at the same time I don’t want to come off like a simple-minded hero worshipper. Usually just telling their story, in their words, does the job.

  • Stay factual – and, as with any kind of journalism, do your fact-checking. Confirm spelling of names, phone numbers, web site addresses.

Being a volunteer nonfiction writer for a nonprofit organization won’t make you rich. It could make you famous – stranger things have happened. One thing’s for sure: you’ll meet some great people who are doing good work for the betterment of their organization/community/country/etc.

It can renew your faith in humanity and your hope for our future.

3 thoughts on “Writing Nonfiction for a Nonprofit”

  1. Bonnie,
    Our paths possibly crossed at the Glendale-Crescenta Valley Chapter of the Red Cross. For many years I was a sewing lady volunteer at the chapter. (We sewed blankets, wheel chair bags, walker bags, etc. for Veteran Hospitals.) Unfortunately, the chapter felt the economic crunch and had to lease out the sewing room in April 2009.
    Keep up the good work!


  2. For a writer, this is one of those win-win-win situations. Working for a non-profit group that gives aid during disasters, you get to alert people to the immediate needs of folks in the community.

    You also learn about things that you would probably never know about and share that knowledge with others.

    And finally, as a fiction writer, you can use some of that knowledge as a backdrop for your writing from the disaster itself to the real characters who are on both sides of that disaster.

    And Bonnie, I know how much time you have spent helping the Red Cross. Boy are they lucky to have you on board.



  3. Thanks, Alice — I remember the “Sewing Ladies” very well and was saddened when they disbanded. Some changes are tough, for sure.

    And Gayle, thanks for your kind words — and you brought up one point I forgot — there's a lot of material to be gleaned from these experiences!


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