Know your subject. Writers can’t fake it successfully. It may be true that entrepreneurs can fake it until they figure it out (I’m not an entrepreneur, but, for what it’s worth, I don’t think that’s a wise strategy). We’ve all read tings where we have reacted by thinking the writer didn’t do his or her homework; the sentence or the argument just seems implausible. When writing “Wounded Charity,” for example, I had to learn a lot about the byzantine world of the Department of Veterans Affairs. I read a lot and interviewed several people. When interviewing people, I asked questions that I might have thought would seem stupid to someone else, but because I needed to understand something better I swallowed my ego and asked.
As part of my interview series on the five things you need to know to become a great author, I had the pleasure of interviewing Doug White. Doug is a long-time leader in the nation’s philanthropic community. He is an author and an advisor to nonprofit organizations and philanthropists. He is the former director of Columbia University’s Master of Science in Fundraising Management program, where he also taught board governance, ethics and fundraising.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share a story about what brought you to this particular career path?
These days I consider my writing and my work in philanthropy to be intricately intertwined. Several years ago, I noticed how certain philanthropic gift techniques were being abused by financial advisors, as well as by some donors, and so I wrote my first book, “The Art of Planned Giving,” which emphasized the art of learning about donors’ philanthropic intent, as contrasted with only the tax and structural matters related to the giving process.
Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?
One prospective donor thought he needed to visit the development (fundraising) office before he visited the admissions office. He wanted his son to attend a certain private school in the United States and thought it would be a good idea to make a gift to help persuade the admissions officer. I had to tell him that wasn’t the way the school does things, that his son would have to be considered on his academic merit and other attributes, including his non-academic achievements and his character. After learning this, the man actually decided not to have his son apply. This was many years ago — over two decades ago — but it has a certain relevance today given the recent news about the college admissions scandal.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I was visiting a widow who lived in a trailer camp. She had called my office collect, to save money, but said she was interested in helping a certain charity. Of course I thought it would be a waste of time, but the people at the charity said I should make the visit, just so it didn’t look like they were ignoring her. It turned out that she was a millionaire and wanted to discuss plans to name that charity, along with others, as a beneficiary in her will. No one would have known that by outward appearances. (It’s sort of funny now, and brings laughter at parties, but it wasn’t so funny back then.) The lesson is this: not all wealthy or philanthropically minded people live the high life and many are not concerned how others may view them, at least in terms of their material messaging.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I’m working with a donor who wants to fund a major program at a university, but with all the news about donors who have become disappointed by the way their gifts have been used, she wants to be sure her money will do what she wants.
As I’ve just finished writing Wounded Charity, which is about the crisis at Wounded Warrior Project, the nation’s largest charity that serves veterans, I’m talking with several boards about how they can avoid the same problems. And the problem isn’t one you’d think: the media stories were wrong and there was no major issue with the way WWP was run; it was the board’s reaction that created most of the problems.
What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a great writer? (i.e. perseverance, discipline, play, craft study) Can you share a story or example?
Writing a book begins with an idea, usually an expansive and exciting idea. The writing process itself, however, is actually a process that requires discipline. So I’ve had to work to temper my enthusiasm while writing or else I’d write less and dream more. (A corollary to that is knowing you need to write even when you’re not feeling up to it.) A book, after all, is only as good as what is on the printed (or electronically transmitted) page; the author’s thrill and imagination must be channeled to that end.
Can you share the most interesting story that you shared in your book?
There are several, but the one that hits me most is this: I calculated that, because of the mismanagement of the crisis, Wounded Warrior Project lost more than $600 million in philanthropic support during the following three years. It’s painful to think of the veterans who could have been helped with that. I dedicated the book to our veterans because they sacrificed more than those of us who never served could ever imagine. My gratitude for what they endured is unqualified. Regardless of what I might think about a decision to take us to war or into an armed conflict, the first thing I say, when I realize someone is a vet, is thank you.
What is the main empowering lesson you want your readers to take away after finishing your book?
Public beware. There is no one-stop shopping to determine if a charity is worthy of your money. I write of charity scams a lot, and a few are mentioned in “Wounded Charity.” But it’s also true that the public needs to know that the news media don’t always get it right. The New York Times and CBS News are both highly respected, but they did a shoddy job on this story and much of the public lost confidence in the charity. Also, the state of evaluations is poor. At the moment, charity watchdogs generally don’t do a very good job.
What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming a bestselling author? How did you overcome it? Can you share a story about that that other aspiring writers can learn from?
I would love to be a bestselling author! At first, the challenge was balancing my day job with writing. For these last two books, however, the bigger challenge — as I have written critically of the way things have gone at two large, well-known organizations, Princeton University and Wounded Warrior Project — has been to ensure that the facrts are correct and that my argument to develop and submit a thesis, is fair. I don’t like polemical writing because it too often is unbalanced, and every story has two sides. I think writers have to be very careful when criticizing. If criticism is warranted, go for it, but do it with humility.
Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?
I like writing that challenges my preconceptions and teaches me more about people in the world and, actually, more about myself. I also enjoy good writing. Right now, I’m reading “Rules of Civility,” by Amor Towles; his writing is beautiful and insightful, and he can convey a thought like few others. It wouldn’t hurt for more nonfiction writers to take a lesson or two from good fiction writers. On the nonfiction side — in fact this is a book about philanthropy — “Just Giving” by Rob Reich asks some tough questions, as is foreshadowed by its subtitle: “Why Philanthropy Is Failing Democracy and How It Can Do Better.” Yes, government and the nonprofit — and for that matter, the business — worlds do intersect.
How do you think your writing makes an impact in the world?
For me — even though my publisher might not want to hear this — it’s not about selling books so much as it is conveying what I consider important issues. In my case, those issues are within the realm of the worlds of nonprofits and philanthropy. I would like to think of each book investigating larger and larger questions: What is the point of nonprofits? What does it mean to make the world a better place? For whom would it be better if a nonprofit declared victory? Has the way our society structured itlself to benefit donors actually hurt those they are meant to help?
What advice would you give to someone considering becoming an author like you?
Be disciplined. With so many distractions at your fingertips, this is more difficult than ever before. I’ve talked to many people who say they want to write a book but they can’t get past their first pages because they haven’t thought through the work and they don’t have the focus required to write a coherent 100,000 words, give or take. And, bear in mind, the 100,000 words that make up the finished product are, given what is edited or simply discarded, really the result of writing ten times that.
Also, begin with a clear and detailed outline but be ready to divert from it if the story takes you there. It’s not just in fiction where the characters can take over or the arc of a story is altered. Realize that when you are writing, you are learning.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
1. Allocate enough time for each writing session. For example, I have found that, for me, a half hour isn’t enough time to get into the process. If that’s all I have between other obligations I will look something up to confirm a fact or outline another section of the book, something I can comfortably, and relatively mindlessly, fit into that time. I like to research and write in uninterrupted segments of at least two hours.
2. Know your subject. Writers can’t fake it successfully. It may be true that entrepreneurs can fake it until they figure it out (I’m not an entrepreneur, but, for what it’s worth, I don’t think that’s a wise strategy). We’ve all read things where we have reacted by thinking the writer didn’t do his or her homework; the sentence or the argument just seems implausible. When writing “Wounded Charity,” for example, I had to learn a lot about the byzantine world of the Department of Veterans Affairs. I read a lot and interviewed several people. When interviewing people, I asked questions that I might have thought would seem stupid to someone else, but because I needed to understand something better I swallowed my ego and asked.
3. Pay attention to detail. In one of my books, I misspelled the name of a person. It was a minor misspelling, but it was important. The reader who caught the error kindly implied that the mistake could call into question all of my research. I feel the research was solid, but the error actually was not defensible — even though three major newspapers made the same mistake when writing about or referencing the person. It’s the author’s job to get it right. Some might say it’s the editor’s job, but it’s the author’s name on the cover of the book.
4. Write well. I will fret over the flow of a sentence for a long time if I feel the need. I will read aloud several passages to determine how it hits the ear. Even though everyone reads silently, the words need a logic and a flow, and — in my wildest dreams — an elegance. I want readers to be glad they have read my words. And, of course — of course! — avoid cliches like the plague. They are a sign of lazy thinking and lazy writing. Besides, nothing is like the plague except the plague.
5. Books do not sell themselves. The author has to be engaged in selling the book. Along with any paid-for publicity efforts, authors must write articles, respond to media inquiries and submit to interviews — and be grateful that someone is taking them seriously enough to ask for their opnions.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I actually generally describe this in the book. I’d like to see a unique organization established — not a government or a business enterprise, and not even a traditional foundation or charity; one with unique characteristics — to properly evaluate not only nonprofits, but their role and effectiveness in society. This is not just a goal for rich people — we’re all affected by the ills of the world, even though we might define those ills, and their remedies, differently.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
My web site is: dougwhite.net
My linkedIn page is: https://www.linkedin.com/in/doug-white-3a453b4/
My Facebook page is: https://www.facebook.com/doug.white.184007
My Twitter handle is: dwhitepg
Thank you so much for this. This was very inspiring!
About the author:
Chaya Weiner is the Director of branding and photography at Authority Magazine’s Thought Leader Incubator. TLI is a thought leadership program that helps leaders establish a brand as a trusted authority in their field. Please click HERE to learn more about Thought Leader Incubator.