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Nonprofits Need Technical Communicators, Too

By Allen Brown | STC Member

Nonprofits champion many causes, including hunger, healthcare, education, public policy, legal aid, and the performing and fine arts. I work as Managing Director of Operations for the Bridges from School to Work program of the Marriott Foundation for People with Disabilities (MFPD), a family foundation established in 1989. The mission of this organization is to transform the lives of young adults with disabilities through the power of the job, and it has been succeeding in this endeavor for 27 years; the program has served more than 22,000 participants.

Our organization specializes in something known as school-to-work transition. MFPD’s Bridges program employs approximately 70 staff members who help young adults in ten major U.S. cities prepare for, interview for, obtain, and retain real jobs that pay real wages.

Although my role is more that of a manager than a practicing technical communicator, I look for any chance I can to apply what I’ve learned from my technical communication studies. I design, write, and edit job descriptions, policies, procedures, job aids, reports, decision trees, flow charts, communiqués, and marketing collateral, including content for blogs, social media channels, and our website.

In the past two years, I have learned about a genre new to me, the case statement, which is a form of marketing communication that nonprofit organizations produce to promote the value of their work—and to interest potential funders in awarding grants. Drafting and fine-tuning a case statement can take months of effort and revisions before the message is on target. A well-crafted case statement tells compelling stories and underscores the value and brand promise of a nonprofit organization and its mission.

I never received formal training to write grants or proposals; I learned on the job. Before I joined MFPD, I worked for Marriott’s welfare-to-work training program, Pathways to Independence. I was one of the authors of a $3.5 million Department of Labor grant that we won, and once we got it, I was its project director, administering the grant in cities across the country. And once you win a grant, particularly one awarded with public monies, complying with its bureaucracy can be even more onerous than the process of applying for it.

Those with an aptitude for effective technical communication can apply their skill to writing grants and proposals. Technical communicators are organized, inquisitive, detailed, analytical, diplomatic, perceptive, and adept at simplifying complex information and presenting it elegantly and persuasively. Furthermore, technical communicators are often masters of managing projects and of marshalling the efforts and expertise of SMEs and other contributors.

If you’re interested in the convergence of nonprofits, grant writing, and technology, a couple of good resources include the Foundation Center (foundationcenter.org) and the Nonprofit Technology Network (nten.org). Some of the resources on these websites are free, but some require a paid membership or subscription. When it comes to websites, there’s no shortage of blogs about grant writing and nonprofits, many of which are informative, although some mask themselves as blogs while actually peddling fee-based grant-writing services. You can also learn about grant and proposal writing through any number of university courses, including those that confer academic credit, continuing education credit, or certificates.

Nonprofit organizations, whether doing grassroots work on tight budgets or reaching thousands with recognized brand names, remain vital to communities. Nonprofit organizations produce both tangible and intangible benefits that improve the human condition, including advocating for social change, shaping public policy, enlightening or entertaining subscribers, or providing daily living essentials for those in impoverished communities. Whatever their mission, nonprofit organizations can benefit as much from the specialized skills of technical communicators as can for-profit enterprises in business and industry.

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