Writing Differences Between the Non-Profit and For-Profit Worlds

Today’s post was suggested by my friend Susan, who asked, “What about the various differences or challenges of working public/private or profit/non-profit gigs?” Primarily, the two types of writing differ by process, collaboration, and style.

Process Differences

For-profit writing

Businesses are typically hierarchical and a technical writer has a set contract or chain of command that determines who has the authority to assign work. Depending on the organization, once I finished a piece of writing, I would hand it off to a designated editor or at least one other person to ensure content fidelity and editorial quality. While some documents would go through multiple revisions, others might only go through a single round of edits before being delivered to the appropriate audience.

Non-profit writing

Nonprofit organizations tend to have a much flatter hierarchy–if any–when it comes to writing. Depending on the size of the organization, I could get writing or editing requests from anywhere from one to a dozen people, from a volunteers to committee chairs or the Executive Director. Editing can be more fluid as well. Depending on who’s doing the asking and what the content is, multiple people might review a document; however, like the for-profit world, the doc might undergo one editorial cycle or several.

Collaboration Differences

For-profit writing

As a paid technical writer, I usually have first call on writing a first draft and primary responsibility for the original content. Collaboration can come in the form of written or spoken subject-matter-expert input on particular topics as well as from content reviews. Larger documents like proposals often have multiple writers providing inputs, with a single writer or editor getting the job of “making it sound like one person wrote it.”

Individual contributions are established up front to prevent duplicating work. Depending on the approval cycle, I could face the challenge of multiple people providing inputs, which got challenging when some managers wanted a paragraph written a particular way while another manager might want the paragraph deleted entirely. In that case, I’d have to wait for a meeting or run conflicting guidance up the chain for final approval.

In a corporate/business/government environment, my work was usually anonymous and written under the name of a specific manager or organization.

Non-profit writing

Perhaps the most important factor affecting writing in a non-profit organization is collaborative the work is. I might get assigned a doc just to get things started. However, after that, the person who made the request will add his/her additions as well. At Science Cheerleader, I was usually writing for and reporting to Darlene Cavalier, who founded the organization. Before SciCheer was a non-profit, Darlene started it as an LLC, so it was essentially her show, and she’d get the final say on how something should be worded.

The more people involved–this was especially true when I wrote for the National Space Society Policy Committee–the more diverse opinions and styles I had to integrate. Sometimes a document would get passed around the organization then come back to me for final editorial review. Non-profit work is a labor of love for others as well, after all, and all participants want to feel that their contributions are respected and valued; otherwise, why bother? My goal, after everyone had his or her say, was to make everything sound like one person wrote it, which was more of a stylistic challenge than anything. The person with the “final say” in that case was the committee chair, though some topics could get kicked upstairs to the Executive Director.

Non-profit writing could go out under my own name, the committee’s name, or the name of whoever requested the document.

Style Differences

Business writing can be more formal than non-profit writing. After all, businesses care more about looking professional, polished, etc. Some businesses are more friendly or casual than others, but non-profits are usually run by volunteers with personal investments in the cause. This isn’t to say non-profit writing is unprofessional–just more personal. If the cause is political, unvarnished political opinions are more likely. Businesses are more concerned about selling a product or service, not alienating any potential customers.

Bottom Line

As you can see, for-profit and non-profit writing do not differ that much. People can be just as insistent about including their inputs in a business setting as they are in a non-profit setting. Whether you’re paid or unpaid in your work, you owe it to your customer(s) to provide a quality product that accurately reflects the aims, values, and style of the organization.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
This entry was posted in business writing, clients, editing, peers, volunteering, workplace. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Writing Differences Between the Non-Profit and For-Profit Worlds

  1. Having done both kinds of writing myself, you are spot on! The only thing I’d add is that with for-profit writing, find out who is the tie-breaker when conflicts of reviewers occurs. I suppose that’s the same for non-profits, but my experience was like yours – I was essentially chained to one person.

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