“Amateurs imitate, professionals steal” has been attributed to Pablo Picasso, arguably one of the most original artists of all time. What is he trying to say here? It is not about the outright theft of ideas but rather, it’s about taking elements from the language and ideas that are already out there and using them in your own work.
If you scan the discussion topics about nonprofits on Linked In, you will find many requests for a free sample of a template for board assessments, donor and thank you letters and even grant application language. While reinventing the wheel is rarely a good business practice, is the wholesale co-opting of someone else’s work the right thing for you?
As a new or younger nonprofit organization, there are many things you will need to write that you may not know enough about to do well; or you may have a need for something new and different that you haven’t tried before. It is great to get ideas and inspiration from others and there really is so much out there, creating your own new stuff may seem like a waste of time.
Some Stuff is OK to Copy
There are samples of just about everything on the internet. This can include contracts, proposals, job descriptions, program plans, inbound and outbound correspondence, you name it. In this cut-and-paste world, you can find pretty much anything you seek. But that is only half of your work.
Two Essential Things
To make a cut-and-paste document work for your organization, two essential things need to happen:
- CUSTOMIZE the piece for your organization. Take the time to read each word of the document(s) you are using, and be sure to go through them carefully to make sure the language and wording reflect what you need your document to say. While it is smart to use a sample that is well done, assuring that each and every word applies to your organization and message is critical. If you don’t read every word, someone else will; make sure this document becomes YOUR document.
- The key is IMPLEMENTATION. All the pretty words and phrases in the world are meaningless or worse, if you don’t actually use and apply the essence of whatever pages you are customizing.
Furthermore, an obviously cut-and-pasted effort makes you look sloppy and lazy, hardly confidence-inspiring for the new board member, donor or possible partner.
- The board chair uploaded all the sample board docs from her class on nonprofit management, then asked each board member to customize their own. The documents called for 6 board committees, her board consisted of 4 people.The confusion and chaos resulted in 2 of those 4 leaving the org.
- The thank you letter the E. D. used contained language that didn’t apply to his organization about how the gift would be recognized, leading to confusion and some doubt from the recipients.
- The document was a good fit for the organization, but in transcribing it, the original names of the writer and her organization were left in the body of the text. The contract was then technically not written for the new org and was unenforceable.
With so much to do, always, it is a good idea to use tried and true examples of someone else’s work. But the wholesale application of another’s work to your needs without careful editing will end up being useless and have to be redone.*
The smart approach includes:
- Knowing what kind of document what you need, and finding good matches for what you want to say.
- Reviewing other examples from organizations that are similar to you in mission, size or area.
- Finally, tailor the language to make it your own using the best elements and wording you have seen.
In this day and age, it is OK to steal without too much shame**, but make the work yours. Until you are confident you can produce an original version, go ahead and copy.
But, don’t let the copy be a pale imitation; make it part of you, make if reflect your organization and its style. Put your personality and organizational stamp on the work you finally publish as your own.
Need some help in writing, or finding good examples for your organization? We would love to help, do call now. 310 828 6979
*See John Wooden’s comment: If you don’t have time to do it right the first time, when will you find the time to do it right the second time?
**Unless something is copyright protected, then it is totally uncool to steal.