Telegram To Nonprofits: The Telegraph Is Here To Stay

"WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT" -- The first message sent by Samuel Morse, the inventor of the telegraph.

My twin brother, Jeff, is the genealogist in our family and this year he discovered that our great-grandfather, Henry Joseph Waters, was a Western Union telegraph operator in St. Johnsbury, Vt., during the last century. Visitors to the train station can still see the telegraph he worked at.

The timing of my brother's discovery is fitting as this year marked the 150th anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental telegraph, which gave “manifest destiny” a voice and a pulse.

I feel a special connection to Henry J. beyond blood and name. (He and I were baptized Joseph Henry Waters. But I guess Henry was a cooler name to go by in the 19th century.) We both embraced new technologies. The telegraph changed communications in the United States almost as soon as it was introduced in the 1840's. The technology continued to evolve for several decades, even after the telephone was invented in 1876. Henry J. was an early adopter of the hot, new tech of his generation. The same can be said of the web in this century, which I've adopted as an important part of my cause marketing work with businesses and nonprofits.

Despite over a century of separation between the telegraph and the beginning of the World Wide Web, the former has as much a link to the latter as my great-great-grandfather does to me. Although I didn't know of him until this year, Henry J. and I share a common, inescapable DNA.

So do the telegraph and the web. But after all these years, a lot my friends and colleagues in the nonprofit world still aren't getting the message. You'd don't need to know Morse Code to understand it.

The long-form of communication is dead. The telegraph was kind of a 19th century Twitter. You weren't limited to 140 characters but there was no room for long-winded messages. Transmitting in dots and dashes on heavily trafficked telegraph lines meant that messages had to be short and to-the-point. Author Gary Wills has gone so far to say that Lincoln's Gettysburg Address was the first "telegraphic" speech. At just 246 words, which took Lincoln just over two minutes to speak, the president followed the main speaker at the ceremony who spoke for over two hours! Does anyone remember who he was? Still, nearly eights scores later, causes are droning on about their missions and work without the direct, compressed and telegraphic language that allowed Lincoln to define one of the greatest causes ever: saving the United States of America.

Use plain, powerful language. Read any telegram and two basic parts of speech rule: nouns and verbs. You'll also see a preference for simple, Anglo-Saxon words over their Latin counterparts. "Guts," Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "is a stronger work than intestines." But many causes pass over plain, active words for sterile, politically correct language that supposedly makes everyone feel better about themselves. The safety-net hospital at which I last worked described its patients as an "underserved population." You mean poor men, women and children without health insurance? Causes shouldn't shirk from using words that describe their work accurately and powerfully, even if some people don't approve. I can promise you they are not your donors or your potential supporters.

The only time is real time. One of the great gifts of the telegraph was instant communication. During the Civil War, Lincoln would spend hours at the War Department's telegraph office reading the latest dispatches from the front lines. Today, causes have more ways than ever to communicate with supporters in real-time but they're stuck at the printing press with their annual reports, letters and newsletters. No one cares about yesterday's news. Nonprofit communications should be timely and forward thinking lest they lose an audience that is drawn to the urgency of the moment and the prospect of tomorrow.

It will require work. A lot of work. Connecting the various states and the world on the telegraph was no easy task. Construction crews battled Indians, terrible, barren conditions and shortages of the thing they needed most: telegraph poles. The telegraph operators of today who tap away on their computers and smartphones have learned a new language, a new code that is driving their success. But it requires time, effort, courage and resources.

Some causes are indifferent to the task, and rely instead on a modern version of the Pony Express, which is inefficient, overly reliant on humans and beasts and woefully low-tech.

Even the owners of the Pony Express knew when the jig was up. It closed down two days after the transcontinental telegraph was completed in 1861. Nonprofits should have as much horse-sense.

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3 comments about "Telegram To Nonprofits: The Telegraph Is Here To Stay".
  1. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited , November 21, 2011 at 4:50 p.m.
    Non profits are exactly that...non profits which depend upon volunteers who may not have all the skills the non profits need. How much more money should non profits dedicate to raising money and slim resources to use for their non profit activities to pay for more salaries ? Maybe your article should be more directed at the talented professionals to volunteer their time.
  2. Tim Orr from Barnett Orr Marketing Group, Inc. , November 21, 2011 at 7:20 p.m.
    I would add to what Paula said that it is exactly your criticism, Joe, that is the reason non-profits so very much need the pro bono work of those who already have the skills you feel the non-profits lack. Pitch in and help them out. Write their annual report, letters and newsletters. "From each according to his ability ... " If each one with writing skills would help a non-profit, maybe the long form wouldn't need to die.
  3. Robyne Stevenson from Viable Third Community , November 22, 2011 at 12:57 p.m.
    Perfectly on point. Nonprofits will pay for a phone and printing, but not a website and media feed. It's a transition era, but one that needs to be made.