Storytelling is the New Black: How the Latest Buzzword Can Help you Raise More Money

August 15, 2016 - by Lisa Maska

Everywhere you turn, you see articles, workshops and conference sessions on “Storytelling.” That’s because our brains are wired to respond to stories more than to mere facts. But what does it really mean? And what does it mean in the world of fundraising?

It’s simple – it means conveying the impact your organization makes by telling the stories of real people you help. You see, people aren’t moved by reason alone – but a powerful story can vividly bring your program to life. A story can stir a donor emotionally, engaging them and inspiring them to give.

And while that is a simple concept – the execution can be tricky. But relax, we’ve got you covered. By incorporating these three key ideas, you can use stories to illustrate your work for your donors and the public. And when you do, you’ll inspire donors to greater and greater levels of commitment.

Get real

For our meals-on-wheels providers, you may have hundreds of potential meal recipients to choose from. Your drivers and case workers often know whose stories are the most compelling. You’re looking for someone whose “before and after” story illustrates the tremendous difference your program makes in their life. Perhaps before receiving your meals, they had to stretch Friday’s lunch into Saturday, and their pantry was bare except for crackers and tea. They are old and alone with no family nearby. Maybe they are sharing the little food they have with their elderly pet, who provides their only reliable companionship.

You will want to include enough details so the donor can imagine how lonely and hungry the senior was before – and how much better off the senior is thanks to your meals, and the donor’s help.

Keep it simple

One mistake that is all too easy to make (even for seasoned copywriters!) is to include too much detail. When there is a great story, with a ton of colorful detail – it’s tempting to include it all. It makes a richer story, right?

Sort of. It may make for interesting reading – but don’t forget, we’re writing a fundraising letter. And we don’t want details that distract the donor from making a gift. Details that are not pertinent may bring up questions your letter doesn’t answer, which can keep the donor from making a gift.

Case in point: we had a story of a senior, Greta, who had been a well-regarded pianist throughout her career. She was retired now, but had been an active performer and had traveled the world. In addition, she lived alone now, but owned four cats, and sometimes fostered shelter cats.

While these details made for an interesting story, and helped get to know Greta better, they were ultimately distracting to donors. You see, they made the donor wonder “Did she make a lot of money performing concerts around the globe?” And “How did she feed and care for all those cats? If she can afford food for them, can’t she afford food for herself?”

The last thing you want is for the donor to start pondering questions you aren’t answering in your letter. You want just enough story to show the vital difference your program makes for this senior in need.

Focus on the donor’s impact

In telling any story, don’t forget to include the donor. There is a popular fundraising axiom about “making the donor the superhero of the story, with the nonprofit as the humble sidekick.” That just means that you should make it super clear that the donor’s contributions make your work possible. Draw a direct connection between the donor and the beneficiary. For example, “Thanks to your generous support, Greta has a nourishing meal and a friendly visit each day – and, without this, she wouldn’t be able to stay independent in her own home.”

Bonus Tip – Create a Story Archive

You can only choose excellent stories to share if you have the stories at the ready. So, invite your meal recipients to write you thank-you notes, telling what a difference your services make for them. You’ll get wonderful notes, written from the heart. Not only can you share these notes with donors (just photocopy a good one and include it along with your acknowledgement letters – your donors will love it!), but you can call the seniors who have good stories, and get more information. Be sure to ask their permission to share their story, and you’ll be on your way to increasing revenue through the power of storytelling!