Make Your Case, State Your Case: Tips for writing appealing, succinct, and powerful case statements

Lori Woehrle
Advancement & Campaigns

Writing is hard work. It takes practice, discipline, focus, and diligence—plus a very thick skin. If you’ve been asked to write your institution’s case for support, you have a tough assignment in front of you that can cause your head to spin. But fear not; I’ve got you. We will get through this together.

But, before we do, let’s talk about the fundamental elements of a case for support: an inspiring description of your institution’s fundraising priorities, why they are important, and what they will create, if funded. It should be beautifully designed with gorgeous photography, as you want donors to read it and reach for it repeatedly. It is typically at the center of a capital or comprehensive campaign, but not always.

I have worked with institutions not in campaign mode to create a general case for fundraising. In normal times, a case for support can be a leave-behind for a major gift meeting, although not lately, since almost no one has been meeting donors in person due to the coronavirus pandemic. A case also can be an element of a campaign event, especially a launch event, once we get back to doing in-person events.

My colleagues and I at Leapfrog Group have partnered on countless cases for support for a wide range of institutional types: universities, schools, hospitals, and other nonprofits. I have spent my entire career in communications and marketing and, in 2020, served as a judge for the CASE Circle of Excellence Awards in the Case Statements and General Cultivation Publications category.

Before you can win an award for your case for support, you should understand a few ground rules, which will help strengthen your work along the way:

Prepare to write multiple drafts. Your vision, and your expression of that vision, may be different from that of those charged with approving the text. But you have to start somewhere, and getting your vision on paper gives others something to respond to.

Understand the review process and who is participating. It’s far better to get this spelled out from the beginning than to have it created around you midway through or, worse, at (what you think is) the end.

Befriend deadlines. Counterintuitive, I know. But setting a reasonable schedule, allowing for reviewers and revisions, can help motivate you to sit down and get the work done, as well as provide you with a tool for managing the process. A schedule gives you authority to tell someone how many days they have for review, so your hard work doesn’t sit untouched beneath a pile for weeks on end.

Create an outline. Sorry, but without a road map, you can’t be sure where you will end up. In school I never saw the use of outlines, but now I’m a believer. Share your outline with the reviewers to get their buy-in on your plan from the beginning. This can save you a lot of time and wasted effort.

Now let’s dive in.

Know the Context

First, understand your audience(s). Whom are you trying to reach? Is it alumni, their parents, and the community surrounding your campus? Is it corporate donors and foundations, as well as individuals? Is it government agencies?

Second, what do you want them to do? Give to your institution, naturally, but is there more? Are you building a pipeline of donors and prospects where one doesn’t exist?

Third, what is the purpose of the piece? Is it a “quiet case” to be used in a feasibility study (see below)? Are you looking for prospect feedback and contribution of ideas? Or is this the finished, public case for support?

Several years ago, I wrote the public case for support for the American University of Beirut’s comprehensive campaign. The finished piece—beautifully designed to take full advantage of AUB’s stunning photography—was a takeaway for a campaign kickoff event. The text for this highly visual case was conceptual in nature, without many details, because its primary purpose was to provide a bird’s-eye view of the endeavor that both inspired and set the stage for more detailed information to follow.

The initial case was followed by a series of mini cases that outlined specific priorities of various schools. The mini cases were later coupled with naming-opportunity brochures.

In a perfect world, the campaign’s theme and key messages will have already been crafted before any writing begins. But, as you know, the world is not perfect. In some cases you may find yourself developing a theme and creating key messages as you go along, in a “reverse engineering” fashion.

If you find yourself in that boat, try working out a theme and key messages at the start, and run them by whoever is reviewing the text. Key messages—maybe three—are those critical, overarching statements that answer the question “Why?”

Hacks for Clearing Hurdles

Digging out the priorities can sometimes fall to the writer. On more than one occasion, I was brought in to write a case for support and learned that only vague philanthropic priorities had been identified. Or that there was an unwieldy list of funding needs, which also meant (you guessed it) no priorities.

When it comes to priorities, less is more. A short, focused list is less bewildering to prospects, and more compelling. Generally speaking, a case should have no more than five priorities.If the list is longer than five (and it almost always is), create “buckets” or categories to group priorities so that you have a tight list.

For capital campaigns, a common challenge is an over-emphasis on buildings. The beauty of buildings is that they have a lot of tangible facts: size, number of classrooms or labs, location, number of floors, and technology and equipment. But the story of a building is never about bricks. The real story is always the intangible: what happens in the building and how it will affect people. That’s where the inspiration lives.

I learned this lesson when drafting a case for an expanding medical facility. The new building would accommodate cutting-edge radiology equipment, allow for closer proximity between an emergency room entrance and an operating suite, and house private patient rooms. But what did these improvements mean to patients?

The radiology equipment meant better surgical outcomes because it cut the length of surgeries. The closer operating suite meant speedier treatment for trauma patients, and private rooms meant less exposure to bacteria from visitors. So that’s what we emphasized in the case statement.

Tapping into Emotions

Lean hard on your storytelling skills. We are hardwired to listen to stories about people, so tell your institution’s stories that way. These can be about students, faculty members, and the individuals who will be (or are) affected by their work, ideas, and innovations. We remember and relate to stories about people much better than we do to facts.

In How Customers Think: Essential Insights into the Mind of the Market, Harvard Business School professor Gerald Zaltman says that 95% of purchase decision making takes place subconsciously and that our rational mind plays only a minor role. For that reason, sharing emotional stories that pull at the heartstrings is a better approach than presenting a list of facts for inspiring prospects to support you.

And speaking of people, a highly detailed story about an individual is typically more memorable than a more abstract story about many people. Try to unearth one person’s experience, dreams, hopes, or vision and bring that individual story to life.

Children’s Hospital Colorado Foundation created a bank of stories representing each of its priorities. These were purposefully told repeatedly through multiple channels to make them familiar over time. A few of the people attached to the stories served as “ambassadors” and were invited to various campaign events and meetings to tell their stories to different audiences.

This brought their stories to life. And when an ambassador spoke to members of the governing board or campaign committee, those officials vividly recalled and retold the stories in turn when meeting with prospects. This struck me as a very strategic use of storytelling.

Make Reading Easy

Face it: None of us likes to work hard, including your reader. Better yet, assume your reader will not read the case at all. Assume they will skim it, at best. So, make it skimmable. Use these four steps to do that.

Keep it short. “Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences,” wrote the eminent authority William Strunk Jr., author of The Elements of Style (which you should read, by the way). “When a sentence is made stronger, it usually becomes shorter,” he said. Become friends with the declarative sentence.

Create multiple entry points. Make use of bulleted lists, brief sidebars, pull quotes, fact-filled cutlines, and other tools that allow readers to dip in and out of the material.

Write in modules. Build the case as a modular structure so that sections can standalone as web pages, brochures, or presentations.

Be efficient. Write section headers, headlines, and subheads that carry your water. If a prospect were to read only the headlines, will they understand why they should give?

Also, consider the tone. The tone of a piece is akin to its attitude. The tone needs to reflect your institution’s brand. Is the organization formal, folksy, intellectual, or humorous?

I read a great example of tone in “Brilliant Future” the case for support for the $2 billion comprehensive campaign of the University of California, Irvine. The introduction includes the following: “That’s why the world is learning to Zot! Zot! Zot!” Confusing tome, a UCI outsider, but perfectly understandable to insiders, as they would certainly know the odd word choice is a reference to the school’s mascot, Peter the Anteater. (“Zot,” the sound an anteater makes slurping ants, is the battlecry of UCI athletics.)

The phrase adds a touch of humor to the case and brings the reader closer, since they know the secret. The UCI case won a Bronze CASE Circle of Excellence Award among Case Statements and General Cultivation Publications in 2020.

And speaking of words, make them work. No lazy choices. Keep digging and pushing to find the one word that best conveys your meaning.

It’s a Wrap

On top of all the rules, tips, hacks, and tricks described above, remember to write poetically. You are communicating your institution’s most ambitious dreams, and you need to reach someone’s heart to realize those ambitions. A campaign is loaded with facts and figures, but it likewise rests on an audacious, inspired vision of a better tomorrow.

Tap into your inner William Wordsworth. Paint the vision through stories so that others envision the future through your institution’s eyes and are compelled to join you.

More Tips and Tricks

Craft a Compelling Theme

The theme for your campaign—and the case for support—must integrate seamlessly with your institution’s brand. For example, St. Joseph’s Preparatory School in Philadelphia is an independent Jesuit high school for boys that seeks to foster a deep sense of brotherhood among students and alumni. The school’s mission is to “develop the minds, hearts, souls and characters of young men in their pursuit of becoming men for and with others.” The campaign theme, “For Others Forever: The Prep Campaign for the Future,” highlights the purpose of the campaign: to benefit other young men who will have the opportunity to enjoy the same tradition of excellence as previous generations—while calling on the alumni’s shared identity of a brotherhood of “men for and with others.”

My colleagues and I at Leapfrog Group developed the theme with the school by conducting qualitative research among various constituencies to uncover ideas that resonated among most participants. We shaped the leading concepts into campaign messaging, which led to three themes, from which school leadership selected “For Others Forever.” Bringing in your close community for advice, ideas, and participation in this way can both help you get the messaging right and serve as a cultivation tool.

Q: Format, Print or Digital? A: Both

You still must print a case for support. You’ll need copies for campaign events, to hand out to visitors, and to bring to major gift meetings, when in-person activities resume in full. You may not need many, and today’s digital printing can ensure that a short run is not an overly expensive undertaking.

You also must have a digital presence. You need a campaign microsite, a space where you can send prospects and donors for general campaign information, updates, news, and stories about donors and giving. This site must include a secure online giving option.

Depending on the size of your institution, video may be in your budget. It should reinforce your campaign messaging and be of professional quality.

The Quiet Case

Some institutions create a “quiet case,” a draft case for support that is circulated only among its closest constituents. A quiet case is not ready for public consumption and is minimally designed: enough to be organized but not so polished that it appears to be finished.

This type of case may have a draft list of priorities and can be used to test potential campaign messaging and a theme. Having a quiet case can be a great way to get feedback on ideas as they are being developed, and before they hit the public stage.

Oftentimes a quiet case is used in a campaign feasibility study as part of gaining an understanding of what donors and prospects will respond to and at what level. It also can be used to solicit leadership-level gifts from the board and top donors.

I have also known institutions that use a quiet case as a means of enlisting campaign committee members. A quiet case can demonstrate clear plans and credibility for moving forward while allowing room for inclusion.

This article appears in the March-April 2021 issue of Currents magazine, published by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE).