No matter how your organization chooses to use storytelling, here’s what I know for sure. Telling a story does not guarantee better fundraising results. For too long, we’ve assumed that simply telling a story is the golden ticket to donors’ hearts and minds. There are many factors that make a story more or less successful in fundraising. Unfortunately, sticking any old story into your year-end campaign is not going to magically improve it.
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I’m sure you’ve probably read at least one nonprofit story before, got to the end, and then thought, “Okay, so what?” Undoubtedly, there will be some people who remain unmoved by your story. But usually when a reader has this response to a story (or even a fundraising appeal), it is an indication that we have not given them a clear or compelling central argument. AKA a key message.
Just as every fundraising letter or email has a key message and a call to action, stories benefit from having a key message. By starting with a key message in mind, your story will have a clear point that can be clearly communicated to your audience. This helps you avoid the common pitfall of telling a story for the sake of telling a story.
Stories need to speak a common language
The benefits of knowing your audience for fundraising and communications materials are truly endless. Knowing your audience helps you form a connection with your audience through the stories you tell that build rapport and leads to them taking action.
However, one of the quickest ways to disengage your audience is by speaking a language that your audience doesn’t understand. This includes the usual suspects like jargon, wonky policy language, and graduate level theory. Your audience cares about what your organization does, especially people who have previously donated. Chances are if they have been engaged with your organization for any length of time, they have their own way of thinking about the issues you work on and the problem you are solving. It’s up to you to figure out how your audience thinks about these things and to find the common language threads so that you develop a universal language with your audience.
Stories must communicate values and sides
In the nonprofit sector, we spend a lot of time talking about how stories need to be emotional and evoke emotions in our readers. What we don’t spend nearly enough time talking about is that stories must communicate values and sides.
It is through philanthropy that people can act out their core values. By helping potential donors see their values at work in our organization, we help them see themselves. Stories are a great vehicle for communicating values to potential donors. But first, we need to understand the values our current donors have in common so that we can weave them into our stories.
Second to values, stories must communicate “sides.” By drawing a line in the sand and showing the sides people are on in the story, donors are able to decide which side they want to be on. Moreover, having clear sides in a story helps to answer the question, “What does donating say about me?” This reinforces the values communicated through the story.
Stories have the ability to bring together your community and unite them around your cause. I hope that these tips will help you tell more strategic stories during year-end fundraising this year.
Vanessa Chase is President of TheStorytellingNonprofit.com and co-founder of Stewardship School. Her goal is to help nonprofits connect in more meaningful ways with donors through stories and stewardship. She works with nonprofits throughout North America—including BC Children’s Hospital Foundation, Union Gospel Mission, and Cancer Care Connection—and is an internationally recognized speaker. Vanessa is also the Board Chair of Women Against Violence Against Women.