Sunday, December 9, 2007

Writing a good press release

This post from Tactical Philanthropy caught my eye today.

Writing a good press release is always a challenge. This is the one case, though, where non-profit organizations actually have it easier than most. The best releases are centered around a compelling human story - which non-profits tend to have in abundance.

Finding a human story can be challenging when you're selling a product, but when you're highlighting the work of an organization that's doing great work each and every day it's much easier. The challenge is to resist the urge to make your release sound "more professional" or "more corporate" - instead, focus on being as authentic as possible - and telling your story in plain language, with humanity, and with dignity.

I'm reprinting the post here in it's entirety to save you the click:

How to Write a Press Release

I get a lot of press releases. I hate them because usually the sender is blasting out a mass email and the content is only vaguely related to the topics we discuss here. Far better is when someone emails me personally and writes a brief note explaining why their topic relates to my blog.

But I just ran across a great press release. It wasn’t even sent to me, but I’m going to post the whole thing below because it is the best press release I’ve ever seen.

It’s from Holden Karnofsky of GiveWell.

The press release is so good because it is written in readable English, not the pained formal script of most releases and because rather than just touting GiveWell, it actually cites someone who doesn’t like their model (FYI: controversy creates conversation, 100% glowing commentary just looks fake).

The release quotes me (although I had nothing to do with the release and just ran across it online). You can find my original blog post that the release quotes here.

Now, before we get to the release, I’d like to point out that on Tuesday, December 11 at noon eastern time, the Chronicle of Philanthropy will be hosting Holden in a live online chat. Holden says in a recent blog post that he wants tough questions, not softballs. Well I got one for him. It’s a question I would never ask almost anyone else in a public forum. Most people would think I was being rude. But Holden likes tough questions.

On to the best press release I’ve ever read:


New York, NY — December 6, 2007 — GiveWell, a research group started by two 26-year-old former hedge fund professionals, released its report on saving lives in Africa today. The report, available at , evaluates more than 50 major charities and finds that the top-ranked one – Population Services International – saves a human life for every $250-$1,000 it spends, roughly 3-4 times as good as other strong charities. GiveWell also questions whether many of the charities reviewed are accomplishing any good at all.

The group started a year ago when Holden Karnofsky (Harvard ’03) and Elie Hassenfeld (Columbia ’04) couldn’t get help with a simple question: “Where should I donate?” The two of them left the finance industry, raised over $300,000 from their former coworkers, and created what the Chronicle of Philanthropy calls a “new, more open kind of charity” and philanthropy consultant Sean Stannard Stockton calls the “pissed-off donor model.”

Their research draws heavily on charities’ internal reports of program execution and outcomes – reports GiveWell gained access to by inviting charities to apply for its $25,000-40,000 grants. GiveWell is the first organization to publicly publish charities’ internal reports, as well as the first to rank charities based on their activities and outcomes; Mr. Karnofsky and Mr. Hassenfeld have been highly critical of Charity Navigator and similar donor resources, which they say look only at “how good a charity’s accounting department is – completely ignoring what the charity does and whether it works.”

“Rating a charity by how much it spends on administration is like rating a movie by how much it spends on actors,” says Mr. Hassenfeld. “There isn’t any other kind of business we expect to do great work while skimping on administrative costs – administrative costs mean people, planning, technology, and all the things you need to crack tough problems.”

GiveWell has drawn its own fair share of criticism, for its skeptical approach to charity – which some fear will discourage giving – and the tone of its blog, which criticizes charities, foundations, and donors alike. Holly Ross, Executive Director of the Nonprofit Technology Network, has accused GiveWell of “misrepresenting organizations … who are just trying to do good”; fundraiser Jeff Brooks maintains that “giving is overwhelmingly an emotional decision,” and thinks donors won’t be interested in GiveWell’s analysis – “not unless they figure out how to re-wire the human brain.”

Mr. Karnofsky argues that individual donors – who give 6 times as much to charity as all charitable foundations combined – will never even have the option to make informed decisions, unless major funders start openly sharing the reasoning, opinions, and facts behind their decisions. “If that means admitting that not all charities are wonderful, then that’s what we have to do,” he says. Others agree, including Stannard-Stockton, who asks, “Why are the young members of the GiveWell project doing more to improve our shared knowledge base than The Ford Foundation?”

Karnofsky and Hassenfeld maintain that it’s precisely their lack of age, wealth, and security that makes them innovators. In a blog post titled “Spending the better half,” Karnofsky writes that “All the great foundations today are following the orders of people who’ve made their fortune doing something else, and who no longer have to consider any criticism they don’t care for.” He concludes, “The first half of life is where people do great things or fall by the wayside. I want to spend that half ‘giving it away.”

Holden Karnofsky
T: 646-217-4256 F: 866-436-2061


1 comment:

Leyla Farah said...

An update to this story for my readers. Givewell, the organization referenced in this post, has just admitted to fraud - for more details see the givewell blog here:

Thank you to the anonymous reader who alerted me to this development.

That said, I'd argue that Sean Stannard-Stockton's original observations about what separates good press releases from bad still make a lot of sense.