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The Loyalty Letter

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February 2012
Published by Lisa Sargent

Welcome, Nonprofit Professionals:

Recently at one of my wonderful foundation clients, J.T. was trying to settle an argument. She emailed me:

Which is better, active voice or passive voice?

Her team, it seems, were die-hard active voicers. You, too, may be rolling your eyes at this very moment, saying, "Well, of course. Everyone knows active voice is better."

Not so fast.

Before you switch your copy (or your copywriter's copy) to active voice, read this month's article.

To the ever-savvy J.T., bravo for asking!

And to you, the galaxy's greatest readers and subscribers, thank you for joining me this month. I'm happy you're here.

Lisa Sargent
Sargent Communications

P.S. For the charity that recently mailed me, asking on the back of its BRE, "Did you include your reply device?", I have a message: fundraisers and creatives call it a reply "device." Your donors do not. Reply coupon...reply coupon, yes. Reply device, no.

Active Voice or Passive Voice: The Meaning of Each, and When Passive Voice Wins in Donor Communications

Every time I read another fundraising blog or book that admonishes me to abandon passive voice and use only active voice in my copywriting, I cringe. Why?

Because passive voice has its place. This article explains both -- and includes 3 situations to favor passive over active in your donor communications.

Let's start with definitions.

When you use active voice, the subject of your sentence carries out the action of your verb.

Active Voice Example: John bounces the ball.
The subject, John, performs the action: that is, he bounces the ball.

But in passive voice, the subject is acted upon (hat tip to Purdue's Online Writing Lab for phrasing). The object, instead, is featured.

Passive Voice Example: The ball is being bounced by John.
So in this case, John is acted upon: the ball is being bounced by him.

See the difference? Good.

Now, most of us were taught that passive voice writing is a subpar way to get your point across.

And Katya's blog provides a good example when she replaces "Our nonprofit is being helped by your efforts." with "Your efforts help our nonprofit." (Number two is far better, but I agree with her that neither are inspirational. Still, you get the point.)

But when it comes to storytelling and persuasive writing -- both of which you are keenly interested in doing (and doing well) if you communicate with donors -- there is a time and place for the passive voice.

In fact, there are a bunch of times and places where passive voice packs a punch. I use them, and I hope you will too.

Use passive voice when you want to:

1.) Create suspense or delay for effect:

Here's a greatly stripped-down version of one I wrote recently. "These pet thefts are often carried out by criminals called 'bunchers.'"

Of course, when I did my proofing (for first round, I use Word's spell & grammar check), Word gave me its passive voice warning.

I overrode it.

First because I wanted to continue the conversation I'd started with the reader about pet theft, and second because I wanted to delay the mention of bunchers until the end, for suspense and effect.

If I had swapped the sentence to active voice, it wouldn't have suited my purpose, as you can see here: "Criminals called 'bunchers' often carry out these pet thefts." Suspense and effect vanish.

2.) Focus on something other than the subject for impact:

See example one above. I want to continue to keep the focus on pet thefts for a bit longer, and so use the passive voice to avoid placing 'criminals' first.

3.) Write your way around an "unknown subject":

As many of you know, creative briefs and background files are often less-than-complete. And in nonprofits, we deal with issues of confidentiality. Maybe we know the subject but can't say, or maybe the charity doesn't want to talk about it for one reason or another.

Passive voice gives you an option. Continuing with the pet theft example, let's say we don't know who stole Fluffy, but want to mention it.

Here's a made-up example: "On that frigid February day, Fluffy was stolen!" By using passive voice, I avoid having to say who stole Fluffy.

The moral of the story is, you don't need to fear the passive voice. Armed with a little knowledge and a desire to give your donors the best stories and appeals around, the passive voice can be your ally.


P.S. Subscribing to The Loyalty Letter is easy:
scroll up for handy sign-up form at the top of this page. 

And lastly, if ever you have a question on donor communications,
send it along to The Loyalty Letter. All you have to do is:

Email me.

Or call: +001 (860) 881-7009.

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Resources on use of active voice and passive voice:

1. Grammar Girl

2. Purdue's Online Writing Lab, great comparison of active and passive pros and cons

3. Test your skills! Active or Passive Quiz on English Club


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