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[ASK AN EXPERT] Should You Use Stories Or Data In Your Year-End Appeal?

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Our Ask An Expert series features real questions answered by Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE, our very own Fundraising Coach, also known as Charity Clairity. Today’s question comes from a nonprofit employee who wants advice on whether the use of stories or data will create a more compelling year-end appeal:

Dear Charity Clairity, 

Should nonprofits appeal to reason or emotion in their appeals? My boss is firmly on the side of needing to “prove” the need through the use of data. But I’ve heard the opposite. Who’s right?

— Tired of Debating

Dear Tired of Debating,

You’re both right, but… you’re more correct, particularly when it comes to crafting a written appeal. 

Stories trigger emotion

That’s because the human brain is wired for stories, not facts. We want to enter into stories, so we perk up, pay attention, and get drawn deeper and deeper into the narrative. As we do, our empathy for the story’s character is increased.

“Jimmy goes to bed hungry every night.”

READER: Oh no! Poor Jimmy. [Empathy triggers emotion] I wonder why? [Emotion awakens curiosity]

“His mother lost her job last month, and now she can barely afford rent and milk for Jimmy’s baby sister. She’s gotten a few house cleaning jobs, but most weeks, there’s no money left for food.”

READER: Oh dear. This is terrible! They can’t go on this way. [Empathy triggers further emotion] I wonder what kind of help they can get. [Emotion awakens impulse to help]

“This is where the Food Bank, and you, step in. As you can imagine, when you’re this worried about survival, it’s hard to do anything else.”

READER: Oh my. I’m lucky not to have to worry. I wonder the best way to share some of my blessings?

“If you or someone you know needs help, please connect with us at our food hotline. If you’re able to share some of your blessings, please consider a gift of $25, 50 or $100. Every $1 donated provides two meals. Hunger is a solvable problem. Your support today means no one tomorrow will have to worry about where their next meal is coming from.”

Jonathan Gottschall, author of The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, argues we’re putty in the storyteller’s hands. So, if you want to shape how your potential donor feels and acts, wrap your appeal into an emotional story.

Facts ritgger rational thinking

Facts can stop a reader dead in their tracks – before they get the chance to be drawn into your story. We naturally want to refute facts, so we put up our dukes and begin to “fight,” asking ourselves (or the storyteller if they’re present in the room) questions. 

“One in four children in our community don’t get enough to eat.”

READER: What do you mean? “1 in 4 of which children?” “Is this a citywide average, or just certain neighborhoods?” “How do you define ‘not enough?’ 

“Each week, through our network of Neighborhood Pantries, emergency Pop-ups, Home-delivered groceries, and other programs, we are serving 55,000 households a week – almost twice as many as we were serving pre-pandemic.”

READER: How do the kids get to these pantries? What other programs? That’s a lot of households compared to the population of our city. I’m not sure I believe this number.

“This is where the Food Bank, and you, step in. Of 6,000 people surveyed last year, 82% of parents sometimes or often worried about running out of food.  As you can imagine, when you’re this worried about survival, it’s hard to do anything else.”

READER: How did you choose who to survey? Can this percentage be extrapolated to apply to all the households you serve?

Your reader has so many questions when presented with data, it’s hard for them to enter into a giving mood. At least not until their questions are answered to their satisfaction. If you’re making an in-person pitch to a major donor, you can explain. With a written appeal, you’re out of luck. Too many people will put your appeal down, or delete your email, simply because their brain won’t allow them to be drawn in.

Speak to the soul to give facts a fighting chance

Back to your question about whether to appeal to emotion or reason.

Emotion, emotion, emotion! The best way to persuade folks to give is to trigger empathy. Help people walk in the shoes of others. It’s a little-known fact that Darwin argued the most “fit” societies were the most empathic. We’re a profoundly social and caring species, with sympathy being a stronger instinct than self-interest.

I like to begin an appeal with a single emotion-packed sentence that enables people to imagine the situation with which the protagonist of the story is confronted. 

“Jimmy will go to bed hungry tonight.” 

“Jane is afraid of her father.” 

“Jessie died from drinking dirty water.”

Once you’ve captured folks’ attention, you can continue the story with something that builds on the emotion you’ve already triggered.

 “Jimmy goes to bed hungry every night, ever since his single mother lost her job. Sometimes, because he slept so poorly, he falls asleep at school.”

“Jane is afraid of her father because he often screams and yells at night when he comes home, forcing her to cower behind her bedroom door. She’s seen him hit her mother, and also her 4-year-old brother.”

“Jesse died from drinking dirty water because the nearest clean water source is 4 miles away, and he was too thirsty to wait for his mother to return.”

As the reader continues, they begin to envision what Jimmy, Jane and Jesse’s life must be like, and their heart softens. They’re now open to hearing how their philanthropy can help.

As you’ve no doubt heard it said, the heart rules the head. Appeal to your donors’ hearts.

Heartfelt calls to action

Don’t just speak to the heart in your opening line, or in your storytelling that follows. Also infuse emotion into your all-important call to action.

Without a strong call to action, your appeal will fall flat. Namby-pamby asks, like “Will you stand with us?” or “Will you join our movement?” are devoid of energy. You need something active, not passive, to propel action.

And “action” implies the need to use action verbs. Save, support, change, act, give, invest, fight, fix, intervene, repair, transform, build… The more powerful, the better. Calls to action should be succinct as well, and should answer the questions “Why am I taking this action?” and “What difference will it make?”

Simply stating “Give today” doesn’t answer this important “why should I give?” question.

Oxfam America does a great job with “Save lives.” I also like  Share Our Strength’s simple “Help feed hungry kids,” Habitat for Humanity’s “Help build strength and stability,” and Sierra Club’s Be a champion for the environment.” There are lots of great action-oriented examples that go beyond a simple “Make a donation.”

Proof absent persuasion isn’t actionable

Stories are persuasive; data is just proof. First, you must win your donor over. So let your boss know you plan to write an emotional appeal that causes the reader to shed a tear… get a lump in their throat… find themselves chuckling, smiling or even beaming with a flicker, or a flame, of recognition, appreciation or gratitude. Tell your boss you plan to take your reader out of their everyday life, and move them someplace else where they’re offered a new perspective. From this perspective, they can choose to act. To become part of the story, in a positive way. To make a difference. To bring joy to sadness… hope to despair… healing to hurt. To bring the happy ending they, and you, wish to see.

Let the debate end!

Charity Clairity

What phrases or stories have worked well in your successful year-end appeals? We’d love to hear from you!

Have a question for our Fundraising Coach?
Please submit your question here. Remember, there are no stupid questions! If you need an answer, it’s likely someone else does too. So help your colleagues by asking away. Please use a pseudonym, like “Tired of Debating” did, if you prefer to be anonymous.

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