Passive voice or active voice in your donor communications: Which wins (and why you might be wrong)

A face in the grass

Credit: Photo by Oleg Hasanov on Unsplash

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. Because passive voice has its place. This article explains both – and includes 3 situations to favor passive voice 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 ages ago, author Katya Andresen provided the perfect example when she replaced “Our nonprofit is being helped by your efforts.” with “Your efforts help our nonprofit.” (Number two – in active voice – is far better, but we can all agree with Katya that neither are inspirational.  Still, you get the point.)

However when it comes to nonprofit storytelling and effective fundraising 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 can work better than active voice. I make use of 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 first-pass proofing in Word, I got the passive voice warning. (Hemingway Editor will alert you as well.)

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, and also compel me to immediately explain bunchers… which I wasn’t yet ready to do in this fundraising appeal.

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”:

If you do any amount of fundraising copywriting, you understand me when I say that creative briefs and background files are often… well… less-than-complete.  And in nonprofits, we deal with issues of confidentiality and protection.  Maybe the information’s missing, 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.  All can happen, and regularly.

Passive voice gives you an option. Continuing with the pet theft example, let’s say I don’t know who stole Fluffy, but I still want to mention it to resolve a question the donor might be forming in their head.

Here’s a (really rough) made-up example: “On that frigid February day, poor Fluffy was stolen!” By using passive voice, I avoid having to say who stole Fluffy.

Takeaways:

  1. Active voice is usually better because it’s clearer.  But that said, you shouldn’t fear the passive voice.  Armed with a little knowledge around the craft of fundraising copywriting, and a desire to give your donors the best stories and appeals around, the passive voice can be your ally when you need it. 
  2. When your nonprofit’s fundraising team is on the lookout for stories, knowing passive voice can help them navigate around sensitive topics can mean the difference between a powerful story for a fundraising appeal or donor newsletter, and no story at all. Brave and true content wins the day.

About Lisa Sargent

Lisa Sargent is an award-winning fundraising copywriter and story strategist on a mission to transform the way nonprofits communicate with their donors, for visibly better results and retention. Contributing author to acclaimed decision science book Change for Better and upcoming author of Thankology, Lisa’s free Donor Thank-You Clinics were named one of the world’s “top 10 gifts for fundraisers” by SOFII (Showcase of Fundraising Innovation and Inspiration) and remain the most-ever visited exhibit there. Follow Lisa’s no-holds-barred blog Sargent Writes and subscribe to her newsletter, The Loyalty Letter, for free insights on the art, heart, craft, and science of generous stories, fundraising writing, and donor communications.

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