We use them to understand our world.
But do the same stories work in any time? For any person? No.
You need to understand your SMIT story – ‘Single Most Important Thing’ – at this moment in time.
And that SMIT will change, depending on the environment in which you’re operating.
You need to know your audience. Today. The story you told last year may not work as well this year.
- The story must be relevant to the donor – which will depend on what is top of mind for them.
- And the need to give the story a happy ending must feel urgent.
1. Begin with Your Website
Too often nonprofits neglect this most valuable piece of real estate. It should be where your story lives – 24/7.
Often when you send an appeal, via mail or email, your donor will go to your website for additional information
The donor must feel needed.
Does your website make it clear your organization relies on donations to survive? Or do you essentially look like a for profit venture, with “donate” hidden somewhere off to the side?
The donor must feel their gift makes a difference.
This year’s stories will likely be different.
- What can’t you do you usually are able to do?
- What new conflicts have arisen?
- What emerging obstacles are ones that must be overcome?
You want to tell a story that highlights the challenges your organization, and those who rely on you, face right now.
There is an overarching compelling story (your mission), and there are specific stories (people, animals, places and things that must be rescued, saved, cured or bettered).
The website is a place for both.
The stories told on your website should mirror and support the stories told in your fundraising appeals.
2. Create a Storytelling Culture
Where do you find absorbing, emotional stories?
Sometimes development staff are cut off from the day-to-day work of the organization. So it’s important to develop a systematic plan for collecting stories you can tell.
Here are some ideas:
- Get out in the field more often and visit your programs.
- Interview program staff about their daily work.
- Be a role model and tell stories whenever, wherever you can.
- Kick off your meetings with stories.
- Institute a weekly storytelling time for staff to share highs and lows (I used to do this on Friday afternoons over wine and cheese, but for now you might try a Zoom cocktail party?)
- Interview volunteers about their work with clients.
- Ask board members for stories about why they got, and stay, involved.
Create a ‘Story Bank’ as a repository for holding these stories.
3. Think about the Stories Your Donors Want to Hear
I’ll bet your mind jumps to immediate outcomes.
- A homeless person given shelter.
- A hungry child getting a meal.
- A shelter dog adopted.
- A polluted river cleaned up.
- A break-through cancer drug.
These are good, but these are band-aid solutions. Or, if not exactly band-aids, they’re merely a step along the way to an outcome that makes an appreciable difference.
The goal is to help your donors truly appreciate the difference they can make; then show them how to do it.
If you tell donors the stories they want to hear, they’re more likely to pay attention.
Not everyone likes romance novels. Or detective mysteries. Or historical fiction. They’re all good, but some are better than others – depending on your target audience.
Survey your donors to find out what they’re most interested in hearing.
Many donors want the happy ending, not just the immediate intervention. They need to hear stories about what happened after.
- After the homeless person got a home, how did that change their life for the better?
- What happened after the child got fed? Did their performance in school improve? Did they begin making more friends?
- After the dog was adopted, what type of life did it – and its owner – lead? Did it bring joy to an isolated senior? Did it give an anxious child a new, positive focus?
- After the river was cleaned, how was it appreciated by people? Was it used for recreation? Farming? Clean drinking water?
- After the scientific breakthrough, how would people’s lives be improved?
4. Take Donors on an Emotional Journey
Every story has an arc that goes from beginning… to middle… to end.
Spoiler alert: You don’t want to give away the ending if you want your fundraising appeal to be successful.
Hopefully, that makes sense. Why would someone read all the way to the end of your story if you tell them in advance what the outcome was?
If there’s no intrigue, no struggle, no obstacles to overcome, there’s no engagement.
A good story is filled with conflict.
That’s where the emotion comes in.
That’s what gets the potential donor to sit up, pay attention, and perch on the edge of their seat wanting to know how it all works out.
The best story for fundraising purposes is an incomplete one. It needs the donor to complete the narrative.
First grab attention with a compelling problem statement.
- There is absolutely nothing worse than watching your three-year-old child die.
- Could you picture, for a moment, a woman on the brink of making the hardest decision of her life?
- We do not know how old Raymond is.
Then keep folks engaged with a story of visualizable trials and tribulations.
- And there’s nothing better than stealing her back from heaven.
- She’s holding the number of our National Freephone Hotline in her hand. Behind her are four years of abuse and fear.
- This little boy has no parents to mark each passing year — to buy him a present or make him feel special on his birthday.
If you read the complete letters I’ve excerpted above (all on the SOFII blog) you’ll see how expertly they take the reader on an emotional journey. And they have one other important element in common.
A good appeal story describes an unsolved problem.
While it feels good to brag about your accomplishments, this doesn’t inspire folks in the same way that feeling needed does. The goal of your fundraising appeal is to offer donors the opportunity to solve the problem. To become the hero who gives the story a happy ending.
Too often nonprofits make the mistake of describing how they helped someone (past tense) by solving their problem. They talk about Mary being the first in her family to graduate from college. Or Timmy being adopted. Or Brenda getting a loan to start a new business. Or Joe being rescued from eviction. Or an amazing medical breakthrough that’s already occurred.
You can still tell completed stories, but they belong in your thank you letters, newsletters, annual reports and website. Such ‘before and after’ stories can be very powerful in your donor cultivation and stewardship communications. But not your fundraising appeals.
Your goal is not to evoke an “oh, that’s nice.” Rather, you must strive to evoke an “oh my, that’s absolutely terrible – what can I do to help?”
When you describe something your organization already accomplished, the donor doesn’t feel they’re needed.
By telling completed stories, replete with all your accomplishments, you hide your need for funding under a bushel. To the prospective donor, it appears you have everything under control. The situation you’ve described is a static one. The work is done. The donor doesn’t feel needed.
Where’s the emotion in not feeling needed? Where’s the emotion in not being able to visualize how the donor can contribute to positive change?
5. Show and Tell
Your story becomes an emotional one when the reader/listener can visualize the action.
So don’t just tell. Show.
Pictures truly are worth 1000 words.
But not just any pictures.
Photos are best when they’re of one person, ideally their face. With eyes looking right at you.
Two people works well too if they’re relating and showing emotion.
And one of the reasons sad photos work better than happy photos in appeals is they convey a sense of unmet need and urgency. People want to bring a smile to this person’s (or animal’s) face.
Shy away from numbers.
Statistics are not going to be emotionally persuasive.
They’re something you can use after the donor has made an emotional decision to give. In an appeal letter, they tend to stop people dead in their tracks. Why? They make people think too much. It’s a left-brain, right-brain thing. You want to stick with the feeling side.
Why? We make decisions based on feelings. It’s how we put ourselves in other people’s shoes. Numbers don’t accomplish that. In fact, numbers get in the way. They’re useful in a thank you letter to help folks rationalize their decision to give after the fact.
6. Five Practical Tips
1. Grab attention with something provocative.
Here are some suggested strategies:
- Begin with a simple, memorable, easy-to-digest question (“Can you imagine being ripped from your child at gunpoint?”)
- Begin with a soulful photo (use stock photos or a silhouette if you can’t share your own photos)
- Begin with a shocking statement or fact (“Mary was sold into slavery at the age of 12.”)
- Begin in the middle of the story with descriptive details that quickly draw the reader in (“Let me tell you about Aviva who was found sitting alone on the street corner rocking back and forth.”)
- Tell the first half of the story; then stop at the cliffhanger. This is a way to illustrate a compelling need, one you see over and over again in the folks who bring their stories to your nonprofit. You can then suggest the types of solutions that will give this story a happy ending.
- Use “you” liberally. People pay attention when the story seems to be about them. Maybe not as the protagonist of the story, but certainly as a participant. Someone who empathizes with the protagonist’s plight. Someone who ultimately wants to jump into the narrative and be the hero.
2. Keep attention by using vivid details and conflict.
Here are some suggested strategies:
- Lead with a central character with whom the reader can empathize. They may not have a child with autism, but they’re a parent and can imagine having a child needing special love and care.
- Describe obstacles to be overcome. Include some colorful specifics that make the story non-generic.
- Include memorable moments to which readers can relate. Perhaps it’s about the first day of school. Or what it’s like to master a new skill. Or what it feels like to be reunited with family. Or being pain-free for the first time in years. Consider what these relatable moments are for your organization, and share them.
3. Tell the reader what their gift will specifically accomplish.
Here are some suggested strategies:
- Describe one solvable problem using brief sentences, active verbs and easy-to-read language at about a 6th-grade reading level. Bloomerang.co/ahernaudit will give you a score on readability.
- Suggest a specific, attainable solution. Don’t make it so vague the donor can’t picture how it will really matter (e.g., a solution that “restores hope” is pretty ambiguous). Also, don’t make it so large the donor feels their gift will be a mere drop in the bucket.
- Describe the difference the solution will make. Buying a meal sounds good. Giving a child energy so they can focus in school, develop friendships and build a strong body and mind sounds better.
4. Carefully make the donor the hero.
How this year may be a little different:
- While I firmly believe in the power of putting your donor into the story as a very important character – the hero! — this year you may want to consider whether you’re inadvertently perpetuating white supremacy or saviorism.
- I recently read an article on the Big Duck blog which discusses a push for international humanitarian organizations to move away from featuring exploitative images and stories in fundraising appeals: “Regardless of where your organization works or what your mission may be, are you reinforcing some of these harmful storytelling practices in your appeals?”
- One of the best ways to avoid offensive practices is to assure you aren’t framing things as “us” vs. “them.”
5. If you’re not a good fundraising writer, hire someone!
Fundraising copywriting is not the same as any other type of writing. It’s casual, personal, urgent and… repetitive. Your E.D. doesn’t know how to write this way. They refuse to write this way. And they may not listen to you. You need a writer who understands how to think like a donor. Hiring one – a good one! — will be well worth the investment. You’ll raise more money and you’ll also learn a lot.
If you absolutely can’t find any budget to hire a writer, you can borrow from terrific examples you’ll find online. There are a bunch, created by direct mail experts, which you’ll find on SOFII.org.
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Photos: All around the neighborhood.