The Real Secret for Fundraising Success … It’s All About the Story!

January 30, 2009

Have you seen the Sarah McLachlan television appeal for the BC SPCA End Animal Cruelty campaign?It begins with footage of one animal after another, their pained eyes gazing out into the world as if to say “Whatever did I do to you?Why would you hurt me?” with Sarah’s song, “Angel” playing in the background.If your eyes aren’t welling over with tears by the time Sarah comes on with her plea for funding for the BC SPCA, you’re not human.

The face of every animal tells a story.A story of abuse and neglect.

What’s your organization’s story?

If you’re working in nonprofit development, whether writing a grant proposal or developing an annual appeal campaign, or even planning an event, it all boils down to that one simple question.

The best marketers have always known – it’s all about the story!

And Terry Axelrod, founder of the Benevon method of building lifelong donors, notes that an organization’s “emotional hook” is critical to fundraising success.What is an emotional hook?

Let’s take just a minute to review the following two annual appeal letters I received in the mail recently.The first came from an Ivy League university, soliciting funds for one of their schools.The second letter is for a regional arts organization for underprivileged youth.

“Dear University School Alumni & Friends:

The University School began this academic year with 576 new students – all promising, all enthusiastic, and most willing to shoulder tremendous debt in pursuit of a University graduate education. Costs for one year of study at University School now total $56,850, including tuition, fees, and expenses.

The financial aid we offer is frequently the deciding factor in whether these students come to University School or choose another institution. We must remain competitive with our peers- schools with much larger endowments who can offer more generous financial aid packages.

Giving to the Annual Fund at University School really makes a difference. The Annual Fund helped the School to provide a landmark amount of $4.2 million in fellowships for 86% of the best and brightest students this year. With your support we can provide even more next year.”

Blah, blah, blah.

Not terribly inspiring, is it?

And now the second letter:

“Dear Pamela (personalized):

Somewhere along the way Robyn lost her voice. She had it when she was born. She cried and laughed, and when she started talking, you could hardly get her to stop. She had a voice when she was jumping rope or playing hide ‘n seek.

Then it was gone. Too much feeling like a “have not.” Too much nothing to do. Too much nobody home. Too much empty lots. Too much waiting for failure. Too much and too little.

Too often, people without money feel like they are nobodies, with nothing to say, and it won’t make a difference even if they did. Some people look for their voice with fists. Some look for their voice with guns. Some look in bottles.

We help people rediscover their voice in art. Their art. And with their voice comes power.”

Do you see the difference?

Yet, letter #1 is certainly the more traditional appeal letter you’re likely to receive. Statistics, not stories. And no doubt it gets donors – in large part because of their database and who they are. But there is no “emotional hook,” there’s nothing to make you care.

I’m betting that you wanted to read on in letter #2. You wanted to find out more about this organization. Frankly I wanted to find out about Robyn and how this organization changed her life. If letter #2 had provided a story about a real individual, rather than a composite, it would have been even more effective.   Even better, a photograph of that person would add to the appeal.

Imagine the kind of story the University could have told!

How can you find your organization’s story?

Stories are all around you. They are in the thank you cards your program receives, the messages on the machine in your office, in emails, conversations, and in speeches at recognition events. If your program isn’t in the habit of collecting stories, you need to make it a top priority. Actively seek them out by sending surveys to your clients and donors. Get in the habit of keeping a tape recorder handy, and set up a comment page on your website, encouraging visitors to tell you how your organization has changed their life.

What makes a good story? A good story tells a story and presents a slice of life – it’s specific and real, alive and full of voice. Consider the following story:

“The XYZ organization is truly wonderful. Their program really helped me get my family back on the right track.” — Mary Harper

The enthusiasm is clear here, but how did the XYZ organization help, and who is Mary Harper? See the difference here:

“XYZ’s after school science program gave my son a safe place to go when I started my new job, and it gave me some valuable peace of mind.” – Mary Harper, single mother of three, was a pilot member of the XYZ program.

Even this brief, one sentence story tells a story, and the byline adds to the story by providing useful context.

You can recruit stronger stories by asking specific questions in your surveys. Instead of asking questions like, “How was your experience in the program?” (- “It was great!”), ask: “What aspects of the program were most valuable to you? And why?” If you don’t get the specific response you’re looking for in a story, don’t hesitate to contact your client, colleague, donor or board member. Thank them for their response and tell them that you have a few follow up questions. Ask permission to record their response and share their story. You will find most people enthusiastic to lend their voices, but it’s a good idea to combine a thank you note with a simple permission form as well.

Lastly, don’t ever try to polish the language in your stories. Outside of basic spelling and punctuation corrections, let your subject’s voice remain authentic, true, and distinct.

Create a story inventory. Make story gathering an active, ongoing process, and encourage other members of your organization to keep an eye out for story opportunities. Keeping a centralized inventory of stories will make each grant proposal process easier – and will allow you to use specific examples of your program’s work to match the goals and missions of foundations.

But why stop there? Use your stories to recruit individual donors and new staff, and to spread the word about the good work of your program.

Like this post?  Hate it?  Let me know!  And, please be kind, retweet!

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Andi April 11, 2009 at 11:06 am

Wow! That’s an amazing post.

Tracy August 10, 2009 at 7:04 am

Great post! Those of us who work on changing government policies find this extra challenging, since there are few personal stories or photos to work from. I’ve learned to share what I can from lobbying work — what critical questions are coming up that we didn’t anticipate, where is support coming that caught us by surprise, and how are we overcoming roadblocks. Take the donor (especially individual donors in mail appeals) inside the process. Bring them with you into the public gallery when public officials voted on your bill, and your staff all sat holding their breath. They’ll appreciate understanding the process better, and they’ll enjoy getting a behind-the-scenes look at how their money goes to work.

Pamela Grow August 10, 2009 at 7:34 am

Thanks for sharing Tracy!

I think of story-building as a constant process – and not just client-specific. I worked with an organization once with a dual mission – to provide afterschool/summer enrichment to inner city middle school students & also provide inner city teaching opportunities for high school and college students. The stories from the parents of the college students who had signed on to teach the summer program were incredible!

Gary Dillard August 10, 2009 at 8:20 am

You nailed it, Pamela! People respond to people. It’s why they watch Oprah, it’s why they open their wallets. (Okay, they’ll also respond to stories about cute animals.) Whatever your organization may be, it has great people stories. Use them. Even if it’s a museum full of artifacts, there’s a story about how someone reacted to seeing Grandma’s photo and learning her story. Have your volunteers actively searching for these stories so when the time comes to use them, you’ll have a storehouse to choose from.

NavitasHR November 11, 2009 at 8:30 am

Pamela: I really liked your approach to this topic. I have been working with a community based organization helping them better tell the story of what their organization accomplishes. Although a large part of my work has been establishing result-based metrics for the organization’s programs, I have continued to impress upon them that numbers, while important, are only half the story. The ability to demonstrate how a program impacts individual lives in a personal way is crucial to helping the broader community understand the importance of the organization’s work in a real way. Your suggestions were great. I will be forwarding your ideas on and retweeting for you. Kim H.

Vikki Baptiste November 30, 2009 at 8:45 am

Thanks for this timely post, Pamela! The organization I work for primarily serves the low-income population, and I find it very hard to get stories from our program staff.

The problem is that they see what they do every day as just that … what they do every day. If only they would take time to get to know the customer more, I’m sure they would see what a difference they make in people’s lives.

We serve over 5,000 families annually with utilities assistance. There are 5,000 stories there alone – and that’s not even considering the domestic violence victims we serve, the foreclosures we prevent and the homeless we house.

Why do we have such a hard time collecting these stories?

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