One of the most important things I ever learned about writing for alumni and donors happened in a tiny basement bar called the Contented Cow.
I’d just gotten one of my first jobs out of college as an editor in Carleton College’s publications office, and I took it seriously. But I quickly noticed that some of the most important work didn’t actually happen at our desks. It happened at office’s semi-regular happy hour.
No one was a particularly big drinker, but something almost magical happened when we got together with a beer or a glass of wine: we came up with a lot of interesting ideas. We shared what we really thought about class notes. We were funnier, looser, and more honest.
In short, happy hours often made us a little more human than we were between 9 and 5. And that trust and vulnerability we shared actually carried over to the work we did with each other far beyond those events.
This is the start of an amazing happy hour or possibly a disastrous one.
Admittedly, this insight isn’t exactly earth-shattering. You’ve certainly experienced times when someone shared a genuine or vulnerable moment with you, and you found yourself liking and trusting them more, not less.
This idea applies to more than just the way we present ourselves in the world. You can also use this same approach to make sure that the things you write for your alumni and donors — from feature stories to development materials — are read, believed, and loved.
I call it the one beer principle: it’s the idea that when we write for our alumni and donors, we should find ways use humor, inject personality, and be willing to acknowledge the thing that everyone knows is true but nobody wants to admit.
The one beer principle isn’t about alcohol. It’s a way of thinking about all of the publications you produce, whether it’s a magazine, a campaign statement, or a thank-you letter to donors. It’s about finding ways to connect with your readers that recognizes that they’re more than just the clicks and likes and dollars they give you. They’re amazing and smart human beings who want less B.S. in their lives, not more.
Here’s are three ways make make the one beer principle work for you:
1. Loosen up (a little).
There’s probably a ton of amazing stuff happening at your school. (Research! Scholarships! Strategic initiatives!)
But sometimes we don’t convey how cool it is because we worry about including all 15 titles of the quoted faculty member. We’re worrying about whether to use the word “interdisciplinary” or “collaborative.” We’re double-checking to make sure we’re meeting the newly introduced brand standards.
No wonder the final result can feel forced and inauthentic.
What to do?
It can be helpful to steep yourself in great writing before you get started. Read tons of stories that sound like they were written by a real human, not a bot or a weird press release generator.
For example, here’s a travel story by one of my favorite writers, Taffy Brodesser-Akner. She’s got a clear, strong voice, a sense of humor, and smart insights. She feels like someone most of us might like to hang out with for an afternoon. This is probably a good goal for much of the writing your office produces.
I read a bunch of Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s stuff before I wrote a story about campus myths for my own alma mater. These are (mostly) ridiculous tales that students have been telling one another for decades, and I wanted to give it the sly, insider-y feel I’d remembered when I’d heard the stories for the first time.
Sometimes to make otherwise arcane subjects relevant, it helps to have sources who are willing to make some creative leaps with you. For Northwestern, a game faculty member let me take a few liberties when I wrote a piece about her book about recipes in 17th century England.
A word of warning
Now, to be fair, there are limits.
There’s the one beer principle, and then there’s the three-martini lunch.
For example, Dara Moskowitz is one of the best, most brilliant writers, but your publication probably can’t get away with lines like this one, which she wrote as part of a restaurant review:
“You haul open the front door and confront a small anteroom full of magazines: glamorous magazines, European magazines, the kind of magazines that supermodels hurl at their assistants, the kind of magazines that you’d read if only you had two years off, a MacArthur genius grant, and underlings to blame for things.”
On the flip side, you obviously don’t want to be crafting witty one-liners for brochures about creating a bequest or filling out a FAFSA. Context is everything.
But I digress. Let’s get back to the point.
Building your own archive of stories that remind you to get out of Institution Speak in favor of Things An Actual Human Might Say is important.
Remind yourself that the people who are picking up your magazine, your solicitation letters, or your campaign statement are more than donors or “engaged alumni.” They’re human beings. Give them something that delights them.
2. Tell the hard story honestly.
Sometimes it can feel like institutions don’t want to acknowledge what *actually* goes on at a college or with its alumni. But when you do — when you tell these stories honestly — you’ll build real trust with your audience.
Kenyon, for example, told the story of the rise and fall of one of its most epic parties (page 14). Let’s face it: the vast majority of alumni know what goes on at these parties, but acknowledging this with honesty in the alumni magazine is both brave and brilliant.
Penn State, of course, told the unflinching story of the Sandusky scandal in a mind-bending and award-winning cover story and package.
And in what was probably a too-risky move for me, I wrote a story about real failure for Grinnell’s alumni magazine (page 28). It was a story that talked about alumni who hadn’t just failed and come out the other side—they were still struggling with unemployment, defaulting on mortgages, or living with their parents into their 30s. Alumni not featured in the piece quietly told me that they were relieved to read that they weren’t alone, an emotion they’d often felt in the past when they picked up the magazine filled with stories of extremely successful alums.
The point is not to be controversial for controversy’s sake. It is to acknowledge the not-always-pristine truths of your institution head on, and talk about what that means.
3. Expect everyone you work with to be a little braver and bolder, too.
Plenty of people you talk to aren’t going to want to veer off script. They’ll ask for questions in advance, they’ll ask for email interviews instead of in-person ones, or they’ll insist they can’t talk about anything that goes beyond their narrow window of expertise.
But encourage them to share their big ideas, even if they seem like pipe dreams.
Ask them to tell you about their real mistakes, changes of heart, and the hard moments that proved most decisive in their lives (page 24).
These are not always easy stories to get your sources to tell. (I’ve written a few things about putting sources at ease here.) But they’re also a great way to remind people of the college experience that they remember, which is always about more than academics and school-sanctioned extracurriculars.
There are a million ways to think about the one beer principle, but the big idea behind it is just to tell the stories of your institution in honest and human ways.