Nonprofits experience a significant increase in philanthropic giving during the holiday season each year. Many annual donors choose to make their one gift at this time of year and many new donors will also be making gifts. But what happens after the holiday giving season ends? Is your nonprofit doing enough to inspire and retain these donors?

Vanessa Chase recently joined us for a webinar where she walked us through the essential principles of donor stewardship and discussed why stories are your best stewardship tool.

In case you missed it, you can watch the full replay here:

Full Transcript:

Steven: Well, good afternoon, everyone, if you are on the East Coast and good morning if you’re on the West Coast, or somewhere in between. Thanks for being here for today’s Bloomerang webinar “Keep and Inspire Your Donors with Stories.” And my name is Steven Shattuck, and I’m the VP of marketing over here at Bloomerang, and I’ll be moderating today’s little discussion, as always.

And just before we begin, just a few housekeeping items. Just want to let everyone know that we are recording this presentation. I just hit the record button. So that’s definitely happening. And I’ll be sending out the recording a little later on this afternoon. So if you have to leave early or if maybe you wanted to review the content yourself or with a colleague a little later on, you’ll be able to do that. I’ll be sending out a YouTube link, as well as our guest slides, in just a few hours after the conclusion of the presentation. So look for that from me a little later on.

And I want to encourage everyone listening to please use the chat function right there on your webinar interface. If you hear anything that maybe you want to ask a question about, or have something explained in depth, please feel free to use that. We’re going to have a formal Q&A session towards the end of the presentation, and we always like that to be very lively. So don’t be shy. Use that early and often throughout the hour here.

And just in case this is your first webinar with us, welcome. We do do these every Thursday. In addition to doing a lot of great educational content, Bloomerang also offers a donor management software application. So if you’re in the market for that, if you’re interested in learning more, you can visit our website, you can get a video demo, you can check out some customer stories, you can learn more about us. So please feel free to do that.

I’m going to end that little commercial right now so that I can introduce our guest. She is Vanessa Chase. Hey, Vanessa. How’s it going?

Vanessa: Great, Steven. How are you?

Steven: I’m good. Thanks so much for being here. Just a little bit about Vanessa, in case she’s new to you. Vanessa is president of, one of my favorite blogs on the internet, for sure. She’s also co-founder of the Stewardship School, which is a really cool project I’m hoping she’ll tell us more about towards the end.

Vanessa works with non-profits throughout North America, including the BC Children’s Hospital Foundation, the Union Gospel Mission, and the Cancer Care Connection. She’s an internationally recognized speaker. She’s a great blogger, like I said, and one of my social media buddies. She’s also on the board . . . she’s also the board chair, I should say, of Women Against Violence Against Women.

So Vanessa, really glad to have you here. This is a great topic. Definitely a lot of people interested in this. And I am going to pipe down so that you can tell us all about stories. Why don’t you take it away, Vanessa?

Vanessa: Absolutely. Well, thank you so much for the introduction, Steven. We scheduled this webinar many moons ago, and I’ve been really excited about it. I’m really glad it’s finally, what, December 11th, and we’re here at the webinar. And we get to talk about how we can use stories in our stewardship.

So we’re going to talk about quite a lot today. A couple highlights just of where we’re going to go and what I’m going to talk about. So we’re going to talk about why stewardship matters and why this is a really key activity for us. We’re also going to talk about good versus great donor stewardship and what the difference is that really kind of makes organizations stand out above all the others.

We will also look at a couple specific tactics for using stories in stewardship, and talk about just the general tips for telling great stories. And of course, as Steven mentioned, we’ll make some time for Q&A at the end.

So a quick question for all of you who are on the line today. I’d love to know, what’s your role at your non-profit? And are you struggling with donor retention? So you can use the chat box just over on the left-hand side and let us know. Maybe you’re a development director. Maybe you’re in communications. Some other role. Just let me know kind of where you’re coming from and what kinds of issues you’ve been facing in your work.

Great. So lots of people responding, which is wonderful. So lots of development. There’s communications. Welcome to you all. Thank you so much. Yeah, a few people are mentioning, as well, that they’re having issues with donor retention and they’re looking for ways to improve their donor stewardship, which is great. So thank you, everyone responding. I really appreciate that.

So there are a couple reasons why I really enjoy talking about this in terms of why stewardship is important and how we can use stories. And the biggest one is that donor retention is a huge issue for our sector. So many of you may know this already, but the average donor retention rate in the non-profit sector is 41%, and the average donor attrition rate is 59%.

This basically means that we are losing more donors than we’re keeping on an annual basis, which is really tragic. Because so many of you are doing such great fundraising work, spending a lot of time and effort on your work, and to be losing this many donors every year is such a shame.

So I think, really, the issue, though, with our sector-wide conversation about how we’re talking about donor stewardship and really approaching this issue of donor retention is that we’re not really talking . . . we’re talking a lot about why it’s a problem, but it’s really making it more difficult to raise money, and it’s making it more expensive, and all that jazz.

But no one’s really talking about how to fix this problem. So my goal for today’s webinar is that we will really be able to talk about the how of this conversation. So how can we fix donor retention? How can we really improve our retention rates through stewardship?

So probably not a big surprise for a lot of you, but I certainly think that the greatest solution to our donor retention problem is their stewardship. I think it really has the added benefit of helping you raise more money, and of course retain your donors, which is what we really want to do.

So stewardship is the process of expressing gratitude to donors for their giving and providing them with accountability as to how their gifts were used. And really, what person doesn’t want to be thanked after they’ve made a gift? You know, philanthropic or otherwise. But so many organizations aren’t doing a really great job at this. So we’re going to talk about kind of some ways that we can improve that. We’ll talk about three specific ways, especially.

But just some highlights as to why I like to make this recommendation around why donor stewardship is so important. I think there are three kinds of key reasons that we should focus on. So first, it demonstrates impact and accountability of how a gift was used, which is so important. This is really key in helping you build trust with your stakeholders.

It’s also the practice of gratitude, which is really great. You know, there are lots of conversations these days about why gratitude is important and how we need to show gratitude in order to connect with people more. It’s really kind of all part of this process of relationship-building with our donors, which is what we’re doing in fundraising, right?

And ultimately, it shows donors that we care, right? It’s not just about you as the organization. Your organization isn’t this kind of egomaniac. But really, you recognize that there are lots of other great people in your community who made your work possible. And I think that in showing them gratitude, demonstrating that impact, and telling them about how they were a part of that, you’re really able to show them that you care and really bring them into the fold of that community, which is so fantastic.

So a couple of case studies, though, just in case you’re curious about how stewardship works. So I work with an organization called Women Against Violence Against Women here in Vancouver. And we’ve really focused the last couple years on how we can grow our fundraising program, which has been a really important initiative for us in general.

So I can tell you back in 2010, this fiscal year, we had a fiscal revenue of about $41,000 in fundraising that we did in-house at our organization. And last year, when we closed the books, we were at $181,000, which was a huge jump for us.

To give you some perspective, they’re a small organization with a staff of 12, and they have one development person and about 7000 donors. So they have lots of work cut out for them.

But what we really did is focused on three key things. We focused on how we could say thank you more often through monthly thank-you phone calls. We also talked about how we could do more handwritten notes to add kind of that high-value touch points, and how we could add in more touch points without making an ask.

So overall, we really focused on just taking better care of donors, and we had outstanding results. And I have to tell you, this isn’t an anomaly. There . . . this is the kind of results that I’ve seen so many organizations get from focusing on their stewardship.

Another really great example that I want to share with you is from the National Rescue Mission. Now, I don’t work with this organization, but I’ve heard the story many times from Michelle Branson, who is their communications person and does their newsletter every month. So their donor newsletter raises $2 million annually, which is like, whose newsletter raises that much money? Well, the National Rescue Mission does.

So it’s a significant amount of money. And what really is interesting to me about this is that they’ve really focused on how they can tell stories, and how they can connect donors to the work very directly through stories about clients, through stories about other donors and other stakeholders in the organization.

And what they’ve really done is built a community of all these people and all these stories. And I think in kind of doing that, they’ve really helped to connect donors more directly to the organization, and ultimately have really improved their fundraising overall.

So as you can see here on the slide, this is a story from one of their clients who was homeless, and they tell his story, which is really great. And just some other examples of what they do. They had this great profile which is on the page on the right there which is called “The Mission in My Words,” and it’s a feature they do every month of someone from the community who talks about why the mission matters to them. The organization’s mission, that is.

And it’s really great for a couple of reasons. I mean, it’s a way to showcase donors, as well. But it also really provides donors with social proof, which is really key. And that really helps them to see what other donors are doing and how that really plays into what motivations people are giving to and how people are connecting with that work, which is so important, right?

So I want to talk a little bit about kind of good versus great donor stewardship. And this is a really interesting kind of conversation to me. So I talked about this earlier about what kind of makes an organization be differentiated from one another. So I think in terms of good donor stewardship, there’s kind of a bare minimum that we’re all doing. Or maybe we should be doing, right? This includes thanking a donor, acknowledging their gift, explaining what kind of impact they’ve had.

But I’ll admit this is a bit of a stretch for a lot of organizations. All too often, I really see stewardship that looks something like this. So this is a thank you email that I received not too many days ago from the St. Jude Children’s Hospital from a gift that I made online. So this is the only acknowledgment I’ve received after this donation, which is really a shame.

So this is such a key touch point for donors. It’s the first impression you make after they make that gift, and it really sets the tone for that relationship. What can people expect from you? Is the bar really low? Or can they expect to be really surprised and delighted every time they hear from you?

And I have to say, both as a donor and a fundraising professional; I would not be excited to hear from them again based on what this communication looked like. And in fact, I’m sure if I see another email from them, I’d be less inclined to open it.

So another example, just to show you, to talk about kind of good stewardship. This is an example from the University of British Columbia, which is my alma mater. So I made a gift to them, I don’t know, a while ago, to . . . I think it was around Mother’s Day. It was in honor of my mother, who has multiple sclerosis. And so I donated to their MS research fund on campus.

So this is a really, it’s a step up from the last email that we looked at. They talk a little bit about the work, some of the programs they have, how I can get more involved in as an alumni, which is all great. But it’s pretty vague, right? It talks very high-level about, like innovative research scholarships, improving the learning and teaching environment, all those sorts of things.

But what’s confusing to me about this, and where I think they make a big misstep, is that I donated to something specific, you know? MS research, or infectious diseases and immunity research as they call it. And yet they’re telling me about how my gift is going towards things like the library, improving student experiences. Which is not at all what I donated to, right?

So in this process of building trust with donors through stewardship, we really need to focus on how we can convey why we’re a trustworthy institution, right? And continue to believe in our vision and our mission. So a really great way to simply improve this would have been creating a letter version that talked about specifically about the infectious disease and immunity research, for instance, and give me very specific examples of what they’re doing in that research.

It’s all about kind of the art of the follow-up and making people feel connected and continuously informed about what’s happening and how they’re a part of that work.

So great stewardship is a definite departure from the last two examples that we looked at. I think great stewardship is memorable and really kind of rare in our sector. To me, I see a couple common qualities in great donor stewardship.

So, for instance, it makes the donor . . . being able to conjure up a feeling in someone else’s mind is so, so important. And I think that really, at a very fundamental level, this is also what storytelling in fundraising is all about, right? Making people feel something. So great stewardship also makes the donor feel really, truly special, and lets them know that you care about them.

And what stands out in all of this, I think, is when it has a personality. It’s not just the same old corporate bland communication or language. It’s really a little bit more colorful than that.

And I think, finally, great stewardship really reminds us that donors are the heroes of our organization. And it’s really important to keep that top of mind, because it’s very easy to become very organization-centric, or I think as Tom Ahern would say, very egotistical, in terms of how we talk about our organization and the works we do and how awesome we are, and really forget that it’s donors that help us make all that possible.

So in a nutshell, I like to think about great donor stewardship as being celebratory and being grateful, and kind of summed up in this picture. We want to make donors feel this way. Like we are throwing confetti all over the room because we’ve received a donation from them that has been a really exciting experience for us, that we’re so happy to have them a part of our community, and that we want them to stay a part of our community, right?

I think that’s where the magic comes in with donor retention, where we’re able to continue to foster that relationship and build on everything.

So I’ll show you an example of what I’m talking about. This is an example, an email rather, from Invisible Children that I think I received right before Thanksgiving. Maybe, like, the week before or something. The subject line was “We Love You,” which was great. And I was like, “Oh, that’s kind of unusual.” And so I opened it, and this was the email, which is really . . . up at the top, there’s literally confetti and sequins, which is kind of awesome. I certainly like that.

And the email itself has four pictures of staff members who talk about why they love their supporters. They get it. They’re so passionate. They’re committed. They’re fighters. All reasons why they really appreciate their supporters, how they fit into the mission, which is really great.

And again, the copy of this email is so different from so many of the other ones that we see, right? So it starts out with, “We’re feeling extra thankful today, and not just because Thanksgiving is around the corner. We’re officially declaring it, today, as Invisible Children Supporter Appreciation Day, because you’re all pretty awesome, and because we can, right?”

So it was just this out of the blue really great touch point with their supporters that told them about why they’re awesome, why they love them, and kind of encourages them, in a way, to continue to be a supporter, and to continue to be a part of this great organization.

So I imagine right about now, a lot of you are kind of thinking, you know, “Vanessa, this is all great, talking about stewardship, which is all fine and well. But how the heck does story fit into all of this?” And I give you an A+ for thinking about that question, if it’s been top of mind for you, because it’s a really great one.

So stories are a type of content. And they’re a type of content that shows our work in action. And really, every stewardship touch point is an act of content creation. And stories, in this sense, are really the perfect type of content for stewardship because they show our work in action and help us convey that impact more effectively.

So kind of going back to basics; stories help us, you know, again, clearly show donors their impact, demonstrate accountability, and as I mentioned earlier, they make them feel something, because you’re telling them about a very personal life experience that someone else has had. And in an ideal world, you’re hopefully conjuring up that emotion, or maybe a similar one, in that donor because they can relate to that, and ultimately they empathize with it, which is really great.

So what is storytelling? I just wanted to start by kind of laying some ground work here before we talk a little bit more specifically about storytelling. So over the last couple years, this is the definition that I’ve kind of created from a fundraising perspective to think about the work and how we tell stories specifically in fundraising.

So I like to think about it as the process of combining facts with narratives in order to communicate a message and an emotion to a target audience. Now, that might seem like kind of an unusual definition, or maybe not one you’re used to hearing about storytelling. You might think of things like Disney movies or fairy tales, maybe your favorite TV show. Kind of fictional stories, right?

But we’re telling non-fiction stories, ideally, right? So we are telling stories that are true, that have happened, and they’re authentic. So that’s a little bit different for us.

So I think what’s really interesting is that since we’re using stories strategically as a part of donor stewardship, we need to include a few facts to be able to tell our donors more about the work that they’ve made possible. Maybe some numbers. Maybe the bigger picture things. But ideally, we want to give them a very specific example, which is where the narrative comes in, and that’s how we kind of explain how they’ve impacted one life, or one object, or one place, whatever that may be, in terms of your work in the mission that you work towards.

And so I think because of that we also need to talk about how we can talk more effectively to that audience, right? And we want to be impactful and effective in how we communicate. Which is why we have to think about our target audience, who we’re really talking to, and engage them in a way that’s really effective.

And I think that that’s really important, because I highlight oftentimes through our organizations that we’re not just telling stories for the sake of telling stories. We’re telling stories to keep our donors, to inspire people to continue to give, to make them feel like they’re a part of a really awesome cause, and to in general make them feel really great. Like, there are lots of purposes that stories serve for us in our fundraising work. They’re a little more specific in stewardship.

But I think it’s always important to remember that when we tell a story, it’s a specific kind of strategic exercise, not just something we’re doing just for the sake of telling a story because everyone else and their aunt is doing it, right? We’re doing it because we want to make an impact and we want to really connect with our donors a little bit more.

So two reasons why I think stories are really great for stewardship. The first is that they create context for your audience. So your donors are not at your organization five days a week like you are. You know, they don’t have the advantage of knowing the ins and outs of your programs. And this means that their knowledge level is much less than yours. Anytime we’re communicating, whether it’s in a newsletter or a thank you letter or, you know, even in a fundraising deal, we have to take their knowledge level and their perspective into account in order to communicate with them well.

So whenever you’re trying to explain something new or trying to introduce new information to donors, I think you really have to create context for them to understand that information. And that’s where stories come in. They help us create context for that information through the emotion and the experience that you create.

So I’ll give you an example of this. So one of my clients, as Steven mentioned at the beginning, is Cancer Care Connection. And so they do social work for folks who are going through cancer. Either patients, their families, their friends, loved ones. Their goal is to help provide them with emotional support and guidance through the process. So they do kind of everything except medical care. Which is pretty unusual, I think, in the cancer space. Most organizations are doing things like direct medical care, research, things like that.

So when I started working with them last year . . . yeah, about this time last year, actually, I was really excited because they do great work, and I think they have a great message to tell, a great story to share with people.

But one of the things that I really struggled with was that I had never had a relative or friend who’d been affected by cancer. And so I really thought, you know, how do I communicate the struggle, the conflicts, the emotional experience of somebody who has cancer or is affected by it by a family member or friend in the writing that I do for them? How can I connect with that as a writer and a communicator?

And that was really challenging for me. I struggled with that for a couple weeks, kind of trying to wrap my mind around what does it feel like to be affected by that, and how can I communicate that to their donors if I haven’t experienced it first hand?

So I had a really interesting conversation, though, with one of their staff members, who is one of their cancer resource coaches. She’s one of the social workers. And I happened to ask her what are people calling about these days? What are some common questions you’re getting, concerns that you hear from people?

And she told me that one of the common calls that she was receiving was from adult children who had a parent who was affected by cancer, and that parent was either electing to not continue treatment or enter hospice, whatever. They were making a decision that was not what the child wanted. The child wanted them to continue to fight the fight, to not give up, and they were really feeling, in that moment, extremely helpless, you know? It’s a disease that’s far beyond our control. There’s nothing they could do about it.

And I, in the moment when we were talking about this, had this realization that I totally knew that feeling. In a totally different context, in a totally different disease, for that matter, which was that . . . my mom’s struggle with multiple sclerosis. She’s had times where she’s changed treatments, or changed how she wants to approach managing her MS. Times where I feel like, “No, no, you should keep taking that medicine,” or, “You should continue doing something different.”

And I’ve experienced that helplessness, because I’m certainly not a medical professional. I’m sure in my lifetime, I won’t find the cure for MS. And I really empathized with all of those people who call Cancer Care Connection, and that really helped me to understand their work better by creating context, because it’s something I could relate to in my own life.

So I know that was kind of a long-winded story. But I just wanted to tell you that because I think that this is how your donors might often feel, or how they might relate to your work. They may not have had a similar experience to what your clients go through. If you’re a social service organization, they may not have experienced something like being homeless, or having an addiction, or living in extreme poverty, or any number of issues. But chances are there’s some other experience in their life where they can relate to that emotion that those people are feeling.

And so I would really think about how can you connect to that emotion and how can you create context for them and remind them of how they’ve felt that emotion in other ways.

And so that kind of ties in as well to the second reason why I think stories are so great for stewardship, which is that they do emotionally connect donors to their impact. They remind them that they’re a part of something big, a part of something really great, and that it’s important for them to continue to stay a part of that.

So let’s talk about some qualities of good versus great stories. I’m sure a lot of you have questions specifically about stories, and there are a few things I want to highlight about them.

So there are a couple key differences. So there’s a lot of good kind of mediocre stories out there these days. You can find them pretty much on any non-profit’s website, or on social media, lots of other places online, also in direct mail letters. So some pretty standard things is that a good story has a hero, and usually that hero, or the protagonist or maybe both, are the client and the organization.

So usually the way that stories position it is that the client is the protagonist and the hero is the organization. The organization has come to their rescue. They have developed this great program, this great service, that’s helped the client overcome a conflict.

And that’s really the second important thing about this, is that there is a conflict. That you really introduce this idea that the client was struggling with something, and it ultimately needed to be solved, and was, which is great.

And I think also another good mark about a good story is that it incorporates some visual aspects, right? There’s a picture. There’s maybe a video. There’s something that kind of evokes some visual interest and engages people a little bit more with that story, which is important.

But there are some key differences, though, between this and a really great story. And so I think that is that a great story is that they make the donor the hero. So the organization takes themself a little out of that equation, and instead they write from a very donor-centric perspective and talk about how the donor has made this work possible, how the donor helped that client, how the donor helped that animal or that place that you were trying to preserve, whatever that might be.

It also takes the audience into account. So as I mentioned earlier understanding the audience’s perspective and being able to really account for their knowledge base, their worldview, their perspective, and write directly to that, which is so important. And it ends with a vision and a call to action.

So as I mentioned earlier we’re not telling stories just for the sake of telling stories. We’re telling stories because we want to inspire people; we want to continue to engage them, for a whole variety of reasons. And so if you tell a donor a great story, and suddenly it just ends in this kind of very anti-climactic way, you really lose the momentum there. It’s such an opportunity to tell them a bigger vision, to tell them what’s next, what can they expect from you. Is it another great story and an impact report in two months? Can they expect to be invited to an event, whatever that might be, where they can see the work?

It’s really important to give them that vision, and to be able to incorporate them, to tell them what’s next, and to tell them how they can continue to be a part of that.

So I think I’ve laid some pretty good groundwork so far. I want to talk about some specific examples of storytelling, and specifically how you can use these tactics on stewardship. So there’s three I want to talk about, which is we’re going to talk about thank you letters, we’re going to talk about newsletters, and we’re going to talk about emails, as well. So I think hopefully it’ll cover a couple interesting areas for you in terms of thinking about how you can use stories in stewardship, and broadly, in donor communications, which are also a type of donor stewardship. Or at least I would encourage you to think about those as stewardship in your plans.

So the first thing that I’m going to show you is the letter from Cancer Care Connection. So this is a pretty standard thank you letter. And what I’d like to ask you all, and you’re welcome to respond in the chat box, and in fact I’d love to hear from you, is what would you do to improve this letter? So go ahead and type in your answer in the chat box. I’ll read some of them off as we get them in.

Yeah. So a picture, which is great. Oh, Kendall. So my question is what would you do to improve this letter?

So some great suggestions. Add a small picture about what the organization does. A specific story. Obviously those are wonderful, good ideas. Shorter paragraphs on being helped. Cindy says use the word “you” more, which is great. Absolutely. That’s a cornerstone of good donor-centric letters, is using the word “you” more.

All right. So for, I guess, example’s sake, I’ll show you how we revised this letter. And I’ll tell you right off the bat, there is no picture in it, unfortunately. I couldn’t get them to use a picture. There were some big improvements. And the on that I’ll draw your attention to, first and foremost, is the first sentence in that letter.

So, “When we received this, your gift, we were absolutely delighted. You are helping so many people who are affected by cancer, and we are so grateful that you decided to support them.” What a significantly better paragraph than the last letter, which started off with, “On behalf of Cancer Care Connection, thank you for your recent gift.”

So I think I read in “Donor-Centered Fundraising,” Penelope Burk, that something like 71% of non-profit letters start off with either “on behalf of” or “thank you for.” Which is such a, like, standard, mediocre way to start your letters. And I would really encourage you to kind of banish those two sentence starters from your vocabulary and from your thank you letters permanently. Be creative and think about how else you can say thank you and show gratitude. There are tons of ways to do that.

So in the center paragraph, which I’ll admit is a little long, there is a story buried in there, which talks about, who are these people who call Cancer Care Connection for support? And so it mentions Carol, who’s one of their cancer resource coaches, who recently helped a young mother and son who were diagnosed, the son was diagnosed with leukemia. And talks about, they were facing lots of emotional and financial hardships, and over several counseling calls, Carol was able to help them find housing close to the hospital, emergency assistance, and some other basic needs that they needed help with as they were going through that experience.

So again, a very different feel than the last letter. Of course there’s always ways for improvement in everything, and certainly some things I would change in this letter, as well, including some visuals and probably breaking up that middle paragraph a bit more. But I hope that gives you kind of a sense as to what kind of transformation you can make using stories, using more donor-centric language in your thank you letters.

So I’ll just give you a couple of my favorite tips for thank you letters. So first and foremost, be as donor-centric as possible. And I have to say, it looks like, from a lot of the comments that you all made, it looks like you have this nailed. Using the word “you” more often and really taking the donor into account is really very important.

I think one of the other great things to do is use different perspectives to say thank you and to tell the story. So I heard about a great thank you letter from OSU, which was for their first-time donors, who were mostly new alumni. And instead of having their university president sign the letter, they decided to have the letter written by their university mascot. Which is so clever, because it’s a cornerstone of their brand. It’s a really important part of the student experience. And to have the mascot write and sign the letter, it’s just really kind of charming, creative, and engaging. It hopefully reminds alumni of what they loved about going to school there.

I think another thing you could do, as well, is tell the shortened version of the story. You know, we don’t want to write two and three-page long thank you letters. That would be a little overwhelming. So we kind of have to pick and choose our battles with this in terms of what details we want to include and the highlights of the story. One of the things you can always do is direct donors to your website or some other place where they can continue to read stories, or of course follow up with them afterwards and tell them more stories.

And of course, demonstrating that bigger vision to keep donors engaged. So in addition to your mission statement, you also have a vision for the world. And I would highly encourage you about how you could end your thank you note off on that letter. What can you tell donors about that vision to inspire them? How close are you to achieving it? What will the world be like when it’s achieved? And why is it important for them to continue to stay a part of that and continue to believe in that vision?

So those are just a couple of questions to get you thinking about that.

So the next thing I want to share with you is newsletters, which are really great. So I shared earlier on the example from the National Rescue Mission, which is great. This one is from Union Gospel Mission, which is another example of a donor newsletter. And this one is called . . . their monthly newsletter is called Gratitude, and it’s a digital version, which might appear kind of snazzy, but it’s actually got lots of content. And I believe they do a paper version of this, as well, to mail out to donors.

So here you can see on the slide, up at the top, there’s a message from the president. There’s Wayne’s Story, which, there’s Wayne in the picture. Year end, and there’s a donate button as well.

So this is really great. The story’s kind of long, and I’ll show it to you on the next couple slides. But what’s really great is here on this first slide, it says, “A Place to Belong: Wayne’s Story.” And right in the caption there, it says a great quote from him, which is, “Your support gives men back their lives, but also gives them back to their families.” And it uses the word “you,” which, again, is really very donor-centric and really great.

Just some snippets from this story. As you can see they’ve given some great background about Wayne, the conflicts that he was facing, and his journey to recovery, which is really great. They talk about some of the adversity he faced. Isolation, increasing dependence on alcohol, all those sorts of things which they helped him through in their recovery program.

What I really like, though, about this story the most is that it ends off on a really great note. So it ends, of course, with a direct mention of how donors impact lives. And I think as Steven mentioned, we’ll send out the slides later, so you can certainly have a more in-depth read of this email if you’d like. But for time’s sake, I’m just kind of giving you the highlights as we go along.

But again, this last quote is really great. So it says, “When you support UGM, you save lives. It doesn’t just affect one life. Your support gives people back to their lives, and it also gives them back to their families.”

So I think what’s really great about that is that, you know, donors have read this great story about someone who’s overcome an addiction, and at the end, they’re reminded that they were the ones that made that possible. That they were the ones who helped this person to get to recovery, right?

So this is an example of how you can think about how you can tell better stories in your newsletters, and how you can really incorporate that aspect of the donor as the hero at the end.

And just a couple tips for newsletters. So my first would be send newsletters regularly. You know, either quarterly or monthly. Whatever works for your organization. I know this really kind of depends on your capacity. But it’s a really important tool. I think it is, anyways. It’s a tool that allows you to stay in connection with your donors between appeals, between annual reports. And it helps them to stay connected to the impact, the mission, the vision, all those important things which we want them to stay engaged with, right?

The other great thing about a newsletter is that it allows you to tell more in-depth stories if space allows for it. If you have a multi-page newsletter, then you’ll have that space to tell a much bigger story, to use pictures, to use other visuals. The really great thing you can do with digital versions, as well, is incorporate video, which is really great.

And I think it continues to remind donors of the bigger picture that they’re a part of. Again, which is really important. That’s your organization’s much larger narrative, and that reminds them that they’re so important and such a fundamental aspect of that work happening.

So the last kind of tactic for storytelling and stewardship that I want to highlight is a really interesting hybrid that I’ve kind of seen popping up in my inbox quite a lot lately, which is the out of the blue stewardship email. It’s a really great way to keep in touch with donors and continuously show gratitude, and also kind of report back to them in a way that isn’t as formal as the newsletter.

So I showed you one earlier from Invisible Children. This one’s from Human Rights Watch, and I believe I just got this a couple days ago. It’s celebrating Human Rights Day, which I think was one or two days ago. Not too many days behind us. But anyways, so this is the email that they sent. And I’ll show you the bottom half of the email on the next slide.

The opening line is, you know, really tells us what they’re doing with this email. You know, “Today, on Human Rights Day, we want to recognize all that you’ve helped us achieve.” Which is great and I think that that potentially sets the stage for this being a really donor-centric email. But it doesn’t quite hit the mark in a couple of ways.

So they give a couple of really good examples of campaigns that they’ve done on advocacy issues around human rights, which is great, the good things the organization has done. But nowhere in these two paragraphs does it really talk about what the supporter has done. Have they signed a petition? Have they made a donation? Have they lobbied politicians? What have they specifically done as a group that helps make this possible, which I think is kind of the missing ingredient in this email.

And so you’ll see here in this slide, as well, kind of on the bottom . . . let’s see. I think it’s this paragraph here. So, you know, it says, “But we also want to pause to recognize you, our supporters, because it’s because of your commitment we’re able to continue to protect victims and defend human rights of countless people around the globe.”

So this is a really potentially good statement. But again, my question would be, how did they make this commitment? What specifically did they do? How can they recognize the individual commitments that people have made through, again, signing petitions, making donations, all those sorts of things.

So I think in this instance, it’s kind of an issue of being able to customize it a little bit more and figure out, how can you best tailor that message to the audience and really recognize what they’ve specifically done?

So I’ll give you another example of an email which I really like a lot. This is from the Unicef USA fund. And I think the subject line of this email was “Your Impact in 16 Photos,” which is kind of a great subject line, right? I think it’s very specific. It tells me what to expect in the email.

And this is a really nice, short email. It has this great visual right in the middle, which makes it very easy to click on, which is great. And they tell me exactly what’s happening. So they’ve done work in the Central African Republic, and they want to talk about what they’ve been able to accomplish in this area because of what donors have done.

And this is just, again, a very simple, really great way to connect donors to their impact in a way that’s slightly less formal, and that keeps them informed about what’s happening on the ground in their work.

So I’ll tell you, when I clicked through to this email, it took me over to a Facebook photo album of 16 photos, lo and behold, which were all really nicely narrated with captions, some a lot longer than this. But again, they really give you the gist of what’s happening with the work in action, which is such a great idea for an international development organization, or any organization, really. Because again, this really gives people a behind the scenes look at what’s going on with the work and how they can really engage with it a lot more.

I felt like this is also a really effective email for another really important reason, as well. So this email went out to their general email list. So I’m on the email list, but I’m not a donor. And I have to say that I thought what was really strategic and really great about this, the email strategy perspective, is that they’re really transparent about talking about their impact. So for someone who hasn’t made a gift before, they might click over to this photo album and see all these great images, see all the great work that’s happening, and think, “If I made a gift to Unicef, I’d be a part of this, too.”

So I think from both a fundraising strategy perspective and also an email strategy perspective, that’s a really clever idea in terms of being able to engage people more broadly with the impact of the work, even if they haven’t made that gift yet.

So a couple of tips, just to round us off here on email. I always recommend that you keep it short and sweet. I know the Human Rights Watch email was extremely long. They’re a very different type of organization than a traditional kind of social service or 501(c)(3). They do more advocacy work, and advocacy emails tend to be significantly longer.

I’d really encourage you to think about how you can craft a great subject line that focuses on conveying gratitude. I think that is so important right from the get-go. Be transparent with people. Tell them what they can expect in there. And find a way to surprise and delight them.

I think that email’s also a really effective tool to drive traffic to other digital content. So as you saw with the Unicef email that I just showed, they drove traffic to their Facebook page, specifically to one photo album. So chances are your organization has lots of other great content on the web. Maybe it’s stories on your website, maybe things on social media, maybe videos on YouTube or Vimeo, wherever it might be. But you can use email as a tool to ask people to go elsewhere to see that content. So, again, a really great way to continue to engage them with your digital presence online.

And lastly, what I would encourage you to think about is to make sure that that content really highlights impact. So that it’s very tangible, that people can very clearly see what happens there, and really reminds them of all the important aspects of what they’ve been a part of.

So just one last question that I’ll ask you all. And you don’t have to respond here in the chat. You can just jot this down in your notes. But I know that we’ve covered a ton of information in today’s webinar, and I hope that it’s been useful for you. And one thing I always like to encourage folks to do is to take action on what they’ve learned and really implement what they’re learning. So I’d encourage you to write down, you know, one idea that you heard today that you’d like to try in your stewardship.

And give yourself a deadline. Maybe you’ll make the change this week, or maybe you’ll make the change in January. Whenever that is. I think this really helps you to set a goal and to make sure that you actually try out what you’re learning and test things, which is really great.

So with that, Steven, I’ll turn it back over to you for questions.

Steven: Yeah. Great job. That was a lot of fun, Vanessa. Thanks so much. Really great ideas there. Love all the examples. And we had quite a lively conversation in the chat room, which you could probably see very often.

Vanessa: It seemed like it, yeah.

Steven: Thanks to everyone. Yeah, it was awesome. And thanks to everyone for being a good sport. I always like it when fellow fundraisers kind of talk to each other and bounce ideas off of each other and engage with the guest. So thanks a lot.

We had a ton of questions, and we usually only do about 10 minutes.

Vanessa: Okay.

Steven: So I’m just going to kind of pull out things that sort of look interesting to me, if you don’t mind.

Vanessa: Sure.

Steven: Hopefully you’ll be able to answer questions maybe offline, as well. Here’s one from Heather. Heather’s wondering, “How do you do personal things like handwritten notes when you are at a larger organization that has thousands of donors?” It looks like she works at a hospital, maybe a hospital foundation.

What advice would you have for Heather there, Vanessa? Just lots of people to thank and maybe not a lot of bandwidth.

Vanessa: Yeah. Great question, Heather. And I’m sure that’s probably something that a lot of other folks can relate to, as well.

I think there are a couple ideas that I can give you. One is segment your donors. So focus on those high . . . I guess I hesitate to say “high-value donors.” But people that you’re focusing on cultivating to the next gift level. Maybe you’re wanting to cultivate them into major gifts, or maybe cultivating them into a legacy gift. Whatever that might be for you. Focus on people who, if you had a higher personal touch point with them, there might be a bigger payoff in another year or two years, whatever that might be.

So I think that’s one smart strategy that you can use to kind of divide and conquer if you find yourself with thousands of donors. There’s other things that you can do, I think, as well. If you do a printed acknowledgment letter for people, or a tax receipt, whatever that is for you, you can write just a short one or two sentences on that letter. That won’t take you a lot of time. That’s an easy way to kind of add in a personalized element to that letter, as well, which is really nice.

And if you’re looking for ways to kind of increase your bandwidth with that specifically, or with, more broadly speaking, handwritten notes, look to your volunteers or your board members. We are perpetually looking for ways to put our board members to work, right? And board members are often afraid of going out to make face-to-face asks. But there are other really great ways for them to be involved in fundraising, and I think doing personalized, handwritten notes from a board member, wow. How fantastic would that be to get?

So think about, you know, ways that you can give them note cards or acknowledgment letters. You know, some small thing between board meetings, if you do monthly board meetings, or every two months, as homework that they can do. And it’s an easy thing that they can do, and hopefully something that they can help you with in terms of increasing your bandwidth through that.

Steven: Love it. Put those board members to work, for sure.

Vanessa: Absolutely.

Steven: Here’s one from Jenn. A good question from Jenn, “How do you best use stories when the clients or the people that you serve need to be kept confidential?”

Vanessa: Great question, Jenn. That’s one I get quite often from folks. I find that across the board, a lot of non-profits have issues with confidentiality. I know hospitals have it around HIPAA legislation, and lots of organizations work with children, and that presents confidentiality issues, as well, for vulnerable populations.

So a few ideas around that. I mean, I think the first and foremost always important thing to do is to ask the person if they want to remain anonymous. So I think oftentimes these organizations make the executive decision that this person had a traumatic experience, that they’re vulnerable, whatever that word might be, and we automatically decide that they should be anonymous.

Well, I think ultimately it’s their story, and they need to have some autonomy over how that’s shared or if it’s shared. And so asking them if they do want to remain anonymous I think is the first step in that. Asking them directly. And if they say they don’t want to, if they’re comfortable with using their name, maybe even their photo, then by all means, you can certainly do that.

If that’s not the case for you, if you’re working with children or in the case of one organization I work with, which is a rape crisis center, you know, that’s a very sensitive issue, and for a number of reasons, we can’t necessarily share women’s identities around their experiences. So what we often do is we will either interview staff members. So women who are counselors to the women who come in for services after assault. And we’ll have them tell a story through their perspective, and we’ll really work with them to make sure that the details of that story are kind of neutralized, so there’s not too much information about a woman where her identity could be recognized.

But you can essentially tell that story through a staff perspective, right? Staff members have lots of great stories to tell.

And I think volunteers are kind of in the same boat, too. If you’re looking for those stories, and looking for kind of a vessel to be able to tell them, volunteers are another really great option.

Steven: Great. Makes a lot of sense.

Here’s one from Cindy. Cindy’s wondering about stewardship emails. How often is too often? She’s wondering, “Would once a month be too much, or should it be more often or less often?” How often should you do things like stewardship emails?

Vanessa: Good question. I think that once a month is totally okay. I have one client who, they do a monthly email newsletter, and that’s a really great tool for them which they send out every month to everyone on their list. But they’ve segmented their email list, so they know who their donors are.

And they also send out a special thank you email every month to donors. And it’s simply just a story. And usually it’s something about the work, seeing our work in action. Something along those lines. And it’s just some short stories, usually about 500 words. There’s usually pictures. Sometimes if there’s a video about the story, they’ll send people to see that video.

And they’ve actually had really great responses to that. They’ve had lots of donors email them back and say, “This was great. We love being updated on the work,” which I think is wonderful. Once a month doesn’t seem too overwhelming.

I think that oftentimes we get really anxious about sending people too much email. But if you think about kind of the whole scope of someone’s inbox, you know, they’re receiving probably 50-plus emails a day. And so to receive two emails a month from you is probably not going to be a red flag on their radar. In fact, they’re probably going to think, “Oh.” It might have been a while since they last saw you in their inbox.

I think that the danger is that when you send emails not often enough, you start to become irrelevant, and then people start to forget about the work that they’re a part of and really disconnect from that.

Steven: Right. Right.

Speaking of getting board members to help out, Ariel here, it sounds like she’s having some issues getting her board member involved. She says, “Our board is extremely reluctant to be involved.” They have a small staff. What advice would you have to someone who recognizes that we want to get the board involved in all these things you’re talking about, but they’re not really into it, or they need to be convinced. What advice would you have for those folks?

Vanessa: Yeah. Sometimes board members definitely need some hand-holding, right?

I think the first thing that you have to do for board members is to really help them understand that fundraising isn’t just about asking for money. The fundraising is one piece of the philanthropy pie, and ideally we have to do all sorts of other things to cultivate the philanthropy at our organization. That includes things like communication, stewardship, active outreach to people in the community, all sorts of things.

And I think it’s Kay Sprinkel Grace who talks about three key roles of board members. That they can be, of course, askers, that they’re making fundraising asks; that they can be advocates, so they’re out in the community advocating for your organization, doing advocacy-like work; or they can be ambassadors, so they’re representing your organization, they’re being a part of the work in some way, shape, or form.

And I think that stewardship kind of falls underneath that category, where they’re involved with representing your organization, but they’re not making the fundraising asks.

So I think the best thing that you can do to kind of lead them through that process of either identifying where they’re at or figuring out what are some key activities for them are to first bake it into their board member job descriptions. Most board members have job descriptions, or they should, and as a part of that you should absolutely require that they participate in fundraising or stewardship in some way, shape, or form. And that really kind of keeps the accountability level high for them.

I think that there’s also things you can do as a group. I have one organization that I work with, they have obviously their monthly board meetings, but every three months, their board also gets together for a separate meeting for about two hours one evening where they all make thank you phone calls to donors.

And they do it at the organization, so everyone’s there together as a group, and it kind of creates that accountability where everyone’s definitely going to do it. And it’s a supportive, safe environment that, they can get help if they have questions from a staff member. And I think it just kind of makes it easier for them to actually do it, rather than sending them home with a list of people to call and hoping they do it.

Steven: Yeah. I love that. My wife, once a week, they order a bunch of pizzas, and they bring all the board members in, and they write letters or make phone calls for a few hours. It’s great.

Vanessa: Yeah. That’s great.

Steven: Well, we’ve probably only got time for one more, because I want to . . . Vanessa, I want to give you time to talk a little bit more about yourself here at the end. Here’s one from Kate. Kate noticed that a lot of your examples came from human rights type things. It sounds like she works at an arts organization. How could she go about finding stories for her organization? She can’t seem to find a conflict that their participants are overcoming, sort of like, you know, that happens in human services.

What would you say to Kate for maybe a kind of organization that doesn’t have that sort of life-threatening story to tell? And I have a feeling that Kate, you can definitely find stories. But what would you say to her there?

Vanessa: Yeah. Great question, Kate. I think that one of the things you can think about is, rather than framing it as conflict, you can think about it as outcomes. So what outcomes are your participants experiencing at your arts organization? And those might not be anything like a social service organization. But I think that if you reframe it as, they participate in X program, they experience Y outcome, those are some examples of, kind of outcomes, impacts, and things like that. And those are all stories that you could potentially tell.

So I think some great places to look for those stories or think about what those outcomes might be is, if you’re applying for grants, oftentimes you have metrics kind of very clearly outlined. Of course, you can talk to program staff and say,” What are some common outcomes that people have from participating in our programs?”

There’s a theater company here in Vancouver that works with young people who are at risk. And so they certainly think about how they can tell stories about young people who are less at risk, I guess, in this case, and have started to make better life choices.

I think if, you know, you’re purely a production company, you can think about the overall value that your productions add to the community. So what is the importance of culture of the arts in your community? What value are you bringing to the table? And think about stories that you can tell from key community members; politicians, from donors, from other influencers, who might also value the arts, who can talk to that point, who can tell a story about the influence of your plays on the community and how they’re really making a difference.

Steven: Love it. Great. Great.

Well, Vanessa, we’re about out of time. This was really awesome. Thanks so much for being here, answering people’s questions. And thanks, everyone, for listening along and following along, asking questions. I really enjoy it when I see that. It was a lot of fun.

Vanessa, I want to give you the last word here to tell people where they can get in touch with you, follow you online, email you. You guys got to read her blog, too. It’s really fantastic.

Vanessa: Thanks, Steven. Yeah, absolutely. I know we didn’t get to all the questions, so if you have a question that you’d like me to answer, I completely welcome you to email me anytime, or send me a tweet over on Twitter. The best way to reach me is usually by email, so you can find me over at And you can also find me over on Twitter @VanessaEChase.

And as Steven mentioned, I have a blog. We post three times a week on all things related to storytelling and stewardship and donor communication. So I highly recommend you to jump over to so you can check that out.

Steven: Yes, please do. And like I said at the beginning, I’ll be sending out the recording, as well as Vanessa’s slides, just in case you didn’t get them this morning, so you can review all of this great advice.

Lots of educational resources on the Bloomerang website. We do these webinars, of course, every week. We’ve also got some podcasts. We’ve got our blog. You can check all that out if that interests you.

We’ve got one more webinar left in 2014, and then I’m taking a little bit if a break for the holidays. I hope you won’t mind. Next week, we’re going to be talking about sort of mid-level giving with Harold Pinkham. That’s going to be fantastic. He’s super smart. If that interests you, please do register. It’s totally free. It’ll be totally educational.

I’ve got some webinars scheduled out in 2015, so you’ll also see some more webinars on that page. You may find a topic that interests you there. We’d love to see you again back here on Thursdays.

So Vanessa, a final thank you to you. Thanks so much. It was a lot of fun. Hopefully you had as much fun presenting as I did listening.

Vanessa: My pleasure. This was great. Thank you so much, Steven.

Steven: And thank you all for taking an hour out of your day. Catch us next week. We’d love to see you again. If not, have a great weekend, and we will see you soon. Bye now.

Kristen Hay

Kristen Hay

Marketing Manager at Bloomerang
Kristen Hay is the Marketing Manager at Bloomerang. From 2018 - 2020, she served as the Director of Communications for the Public Relations Society of America's local Hoosier chapter. Prior to that she served on several different committees and in committee chair roles.