Mysterious Power of a Fresh Approach (Case Study)

Fresh Approach to Nonprofit ContentI was thrilled to hear from Getting Attention reader Elizabeth (Betsey) Russell recently, with news of her just-released mystery, Other People’s Money. Betsey, who has written for foundations for more than 20 years, has parlayed that experience into a must-read tale set in the heart of the foundation world.

While fiction isn’t something we usually read in conjunction with philanthropy (or the nonprofit world), Betsey’s note provoked the question: Can fiction about foundations (or nonprofits) make readers think about them differently?

Nancy: Your thriller is so far from what we usually read about philanthropy. What inspired you to write it?
For two decades, I’ve helped foundations tell their stories in ways that resonate, but also stick to the tenants of good institutional communications. That’s worthwhile work, but as with any organization, the public face of foundations is never as intriguing as the real thing. I thought it would be fun to go behind the scenes, so to speak, and tell a story from an insider’s point of view—in this case a program officer.

I’m also fascinated with the ethics of philanthropy, so it was fun to create some ethical dilemmas and see how the characters moved through them.

Nancy: Betsey, can you share a synopsis with me?
Other People’s Money is the story of Katie Nelson, a program officer in Atlanta’s largest foundation. She’s pushing for the foundation to fund a Latina health clinic, but meets strong opposition from the board. Katie begins to work closely with one particular younger board member (yes, romantic interest..shhh) to help revamp the clinic’s proposal, but then a series of events unfolds that changes everything. You’ll have to read it to discover what happens next!

Nancy: Who inspired the creation of your protagonist, Katie Nelson?
I have worked with many program officers, and in early drafts Katie was an amalgamation of those. But as I revised and strengthened her character, I realized that she thinks about and responds to her role much as I would if I were a program officer, which is probably why I’m not one!

Nancy: What was it like to take a subject that you usually write about seriously and flip it into fiction?
Honestly, it was cathartic, because I could tell the story exactly as I wanted, without holding back. Also, I think many people learn best through stories.which are easier to process with an open mind because you’re not comparing yourself to a real foundation or person. Fiction also allows readers to spend some time in the realm of possibilities, which can inspire ideas in ways nonfiction may not.

For readers outside the field (including nonprofit folks), I hope that the book provides a better understanding of how foundations work and an appreciation for the fact that giving away money isn’t easy. Also, that those who do it are as individual and as human as everyone else.

Nancy: Is there a specific takeaway you hope readers will finish with?
Two of them, actually! First, that foundations are not infallible, and neither are the people who work in them. Also, that transparency ultimately makes for closer relationships with community, warts and all. I’m hoping this fictional account of foundation life and workings will open the door for more stories that reflect the reality of the philanthropic world.

Nancy: Will we get to read more about Katie in the future?
I planned Other People’s Money as the first of a three-part series, and hopefully the second book will find its way to market soon. Its working title is Donor Intent, and it digs into the tension that occurs when conflicting parties interpret a donor’s vision. And of course, there will be another murder and more personal drama for Katie as well!

Other People’s Money is a wonderful example of approaching a much-explored topic in a creative way. Consider how you can find a fresh take on your nonprofit content. It may engage your supporters in a memorable way. Worth a try!

How have you refreshed the style, format or focus of your nonprofit’s content? Please share your experiences here.

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Nancy Schwartz in Grants and Other Funding | 1 comment
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