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7 Nonprofits Win For Clear Communications

By The NonProfit Times - May 12, 2014

Seven nonprofits took home ClearMark awards for their clear, accurate communications. The Center for Plain Language, based in Washington, D.C., handed out nearly three-dozen awards.

The Washington, D.C.-based AARP won in two categories, nonprofit original documents for its Smart Driver Participant Guidebook, and nonprofit website for its Health Law Answers website. The organization also had two runners up. Other winning nonprofits were March of Dimes, The Nemours Foundation/KidsHealth, Health Care Service Corporation, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, Highmark, and the American Bankruptcy Institute.

“If there’s any (common) thread, it’s they keep in mind the needs of the reader,” said Annetta cheek, board chair for the Center for Plain Langauage. “I was a (federal employee) for 25 years, and most of the time the government didn’t even think about the end readers. The best writers are the ones who come with a concern for the end reader and has some understanding of the reader.”

About 20 judges evaluated 110 submissions. Cheek said a relatively small number of submissions came from nonprofits, about 20 percent. Judges come from all walks of life. “The best plain language writer I know has a forestry background,” said Cheek. “I’m an archaeologist.” Other judges have design backgrounds, are technical writers, or come from university English departments.

Beyond having the end reader in mind, Cheek said the winners and runners up share some commonalities. Documents must be suitable for the audience. Cheek recalled a well-designed document that nevertheless used vocabulary too advanced for its audience of 10 to 12-year-olds.

Winners avoid passive voice, jargon and abbreviations. They have all the information their audiences need. They use lists, and graphics contribute to the document as a whole. “Is the navigation good, so it’s easy not just to read it but to find the information you need?” said Cheek.

Documents that keep to those judging criteria will be clear, said Cheek. She offered other tips for nonprofits wishing to improve their communications. “Use pronouns,” she said. “Research shows that when you use pronouns, it pulls the reader in and they understand it’s written for them. It also makes the writer and the organization seem more personal or accessible when they use ‘I’ or ‘we.’”

Break up longer sentences, she said. The ideal length is 18 to 20 words. “Keep your sentences under control,” said Cheek. “Those first sentences you were taught in school, subject-verb-object, they’re still the best kinds of sentences to write. Those three elements should be close together. If you have to add phrases and clauses, and them at the end.”

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