Keeping Development Content Fresh at Johns Hopkins

By Kristin Hanson | May 16, 2017

Ask a group of alumni magazine editors how they handle development content, and you’ll often get curled lips, eye twitches, or other nervous tics in response. (Full disclosure: I used to be one of those editors.)

Stories about donors rank near the bottom of readership surveys. They follow tired formulas: “X institution is grateful for Y donor, whose gift of A will support B…”

It doesn’t have to be that way. As development communicators, we have some of our institutions’ best stories in our hands. But we need to change the way we tell them to focus not on the dollars, but the people; to celebrate not just the gift, but the impact.

In Johns Hopkins Development and Alumni Relations, we have adopted this philosophy in reporting on our $5 billion Rising to the Challenge campaign. Our audiences — current and prospective donors, and our internal sales force of gift officers — have indicated their appreciation. The primary promotion vehicle for these stories, a monthly newsletter called On the Rise, enjoys open and click rates that beat industry averages, and other offices across Hopkins have picked up our articles for reuse in their publications.

Here are some of the principles we follow in crafting philanthropy stories people will actually want to read.

Determine whether there’s a “there” there

Hooray, a gift came in! But we need to know a few other things before reporting on it. Is there a recipient of the gift? Has the recipient done something with the gift? If the answer to either question is “not sure” or “not yet,” we table the idea for future consideration. We’re able to avoid telling the skippable story that reads more like a news release and have sound reasoning for a gift officer who wants to immediately stewarding a donor with a story.

Ask permission

This sounds obvious, but don’t assume. Some donors want absolutely zero publicity, even if it’s possible to tell the story of their gift without naming them. Always check with a donor’s relationship manager before moving forward to ensure you don’t waste time on a no-go story.

Consider what YOU find most interesting 

Think about the content you read or watch for pleasure and cast your giving story in that mold. Here are a couple of hooks we used for recent philanthropy articles:

  • A doctor’s love for art was nurtured when he treated a matriarch whose home and collection later became Hopkins’ Evergreen Museum and Library. The doctor’s widow endowed Evergreen’s directorship in her husband’s memory, and our story focused on how the inaugural recipient’s work carries forward that spirit of mentorship for Hopkins students.
  • When a young woman suffered from what doctors thought was a rare gastrointestinal disease, a Hopkins psychiatrist intervened and identified an underlying, uncommon eating disorder. After the young woman recovered, her parents endowed a professorship for the doctor, whose research focuses on improving communication between medical professionals when eating disorders may be involved.
  • Support for an interdisciplinary seed grant fund enabled an engineering professor and an arts and sciences graduate student to create an algorithm that better identifies vacant properties before they can bring down the value of an entire block. The program is now being used by Baltimore City housing officials to help make strategic, early investments that can save homes and improve struggling neighborhoods.

Plan for and invest in quality photography 

Forgo the grip-and-grin or mug shot whenever possible. Well-staged action photos provide entryways for readers into a story and are even more valuable when shared via social media. Also: A framed print makes a nice present for the donor whose gift you’re highlighting (and it may help you make peace with the gift officer who wasn’t pleased with your delay in telling the story!).

Write well!

Nothing kills a giving story – or any story — quicker than bad writing. Craft an engaging lead. Run away from passive voice and jargon. Cut whatever doesn’t move the story forward. Enlist at least one staff member not directly involved in the story to review it, ensuring your article makes sense and doesn’t put him or her to sleep.

This is by no means the only approach to crafting development content that diverse audiences will consume. We love learning how others tackle this deceptively difficult task. Please reach out me at kristin.hanson@jhu.edu to continue the conversation!

About the Author

Kristin Simonetti Hanson is a senior associate director of communications for Johns Hopkins Development and Alumni Relations. Since trading in her childhood dream of becoming a sports broadcaster for a career in nonprofit communication, Kristin has served as the editor of The Magazine of Elon at her alma mater, Elon University; a senior editor for CASE Currents magazine; and an alumni engagement and communications manager at The Washington Center for Internships and Academic Seminars. Still a sports addict, however, she resists the urge to incorporate athletics cliches in the myriad articles and case statements she writes for the Rising to the Challenge Campaign at rising.jhu.edu.

Header image photo credit: JHU Homewood Photography

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