Please Tell Me a Story …

Making your mission come alive through stories.

I am about to write a direct-mail appeal for a nonprofit. It sent me two stories, each a paragraph long. And I am excited!

Why? In just these two short paragraphs, this organization packed in enough detail that I can tell my audience the story of two people being helped by the nonprofit. I can paint a vivid word picture that will engage your heart in the mission of the organization and (I think) make you want to be part of the solution it provides to people like Martha and Edith.

Whether your mission is helping people, animals or the environment, telling a story is critical to engaging potential donors — and turning them into committed supporters.

Enough facts
A great story for fundraising needs facts. But think of it as theReader’s Digest version. Don’t get too bogged down, but don’t assume your writer knows everything and can fill in the blanks, either.

For example, if you are helping people in a remote part of Africa, what kind of house does a typical family live in? Is it made of mud bricks, straw or bark? How far is it to the nearest source of water? Is that water polluted, dried up for months at a time, or cold and fresh?

If you’re rescuing abused animals in Denver, what kinds of animals do you rescue? Are they usually very young, or do their ages span several years? What kind of condition are they in when you rescue them? How do you learn about their plight?

Too often, we’re too close to the work we do so we forget that our donors don’t know the important details of what we do. Even though we told them before, it’s important to tell them again. Confusion is generally not a viable path to donating.

In their own words
Let the recipients of your help tell donors how great your organization is. Their quotes are powerful; it’s real people (who I now visualize because I’ve received enough facts to form an image in my mind) saying — in everyday language — how they have been helped.

While animal and environmental causes may not be able to quote their main recipients, include quotes from people who see the results of your work. For example, quote a woman who adopted one of your rescued cats or a family who hikes in the forest you are preserving.

“Project speak” is important in major-donor, foundation and corporate proposals, but so is proof that you are effective in what you do. Having someone who isn’t your employee or spokesperson say “this group is the best!” is a powerful way to provide that evidence.

Photos can fill in the blanks
Even if they aren’t professional (or at least high-quality) photos suitable to be used in your fundraising material, give your snapshots to your writer. They provide details that he or she can use to paint the word picture.

When I look at photos, I may see a person who looks older than his years (I know, because I was given the man’s age in the narrative) or who has a look of determination on her face that tells me she can succeed — with a little help from the donor. Your photos help me make these observations and then help me make the person real to potential donors.

Of course, a good writer can create copy from almost nothing. But copy that is truly moving and factual usually requires a decent amount of resources. By focusing on basic facts, a few quotes and some pictures to help your writer visualize, you increase the possibility that your fundraising project will connect with the potential donor and lead to a contribution.

Originally published in NonProfit Pro.

Author: PJBarden

With a professional career in strategic fundraising that spans more than 35 years, Pamela brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to working with nonprofit organizations. She specializes in writing fundraising copy, grant proposals, P.R. materials, instructional articles and blog entries, as well as developing and executing fundraising strategy for her clients. Pamela is a Certified Fundraising Executive (CFRE); an instructor for UCLA Extension School’s Fundraising Certification Program and the University of La Verne, College of Business and Public Management; a frequent webinar speaker; and author of two online courses for UCLA Extension. Pamela earned a Doctorate of Business Administration in 2015; her doctoral project (dissertation) was entitled “Nonprofit Organizations’ Awareness of and Preparation for Legislation, Regulation, and Increasing Scrutiny.” She is a past winner of a Gold Award for Fundraising Excellence and an ECHO Award from DMA; recipient of a Distinguished Instructors Award from UCLA Extension; a weekly columnist for NonprofitPRO (formerly Fundraising Success); and a monthly contributor to Blackbaud’s blog, npEngage.

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