The Story of Fundraising

What’s the last good story you read?

I am currently reading a novel that is one of the few I have read multiple times. Despite the fact that I know how it is going to end, the story itself is so compelling that I enjoy it time and again.

While it is doubtful that our fundraising copy is going to spend any time on the New York Times best-seller list, there’s no reason why our newsletters and e-newsletters, appeals and e-appeals, videos, and websites have to be boring. But unfortunately, we get lazy and fall back on talking about ourselves or using timeworn clichés instead of seeking out a great story that will pull our donors and prospects into the heart of the action, almost as if they are experiencing our work themselves.

When I started my career in fundraising, I worked for an organization that had program staff members who were responsible for raising a portion of their own salaries. While I don’t advocate that model in most cases, looking back I realize that as people right on the front lines of the work the organization was accomplishing, they had a strength that I, an organizational fundraiser, lacked: stories they had experienced firsthand.

For those of us who are tasked with providing information that encourages giving, the right story can make our jobs go from impossible to possible. So how do we get those compelling examples that help our donors and prospects grasp the importance of the work we do? Following are things that I have found can make my task as a copywriter a joy — or a job.

A good story starts with the right questions. Oftentimes, we interview a person to get his or her story (or a story related to a project being funded) and end up with a story that is mediocre at best. This can be the result of a failure to ask the right questions.

I generally start by asking, “Can you tell me your story in your own words?” This immediately tells me if the person is going to open up or if I am going to have to work to extract information. If it’s the former, I let the subject talk, interrupting only if I need clarification. But if he or she isn’t comfortable responding to that open-ended request, I turn to a previously prepared list of questions.

Some of the questions I might ask include: How do you think things are different now that you are (part of the program/receiving help/etc.)? What would your life look like today if you weren’t (part of the program/receiving help/etc.)? What would you tell someone who is thinking about financially supporting this program? What’s the No. 1 thing you love about this program?

You need to find your own style of interviewing and develop your own questions based on the kind of work your organization does. When you are comfortable about the process and the person you are interviewing is comfortable, you are far more likely to end up with a great story.

A good story gives me enough detail to feel part of the action. We need to help the reader or viewer paint a picture in his or her own mind, and sharing details helps that process. As a writer, I would rather wade through a lot of detail and choose the ones that I think are most compelling to the reader than have to stretch to find enough to say.

If you are collecting stories for someone else to use, don’t take it personally if the writer only uses some of what you provide. It’s far better to have too much to work with than too little.

A good story has compelling “sound bites.” The best stories often are the ones where the subject of the story is telling most of it in his or her own words. When you get compelling quotes from the person you are interviewing, it’s almost priceless.

Some people naturally speak in highly quotable phrases while others struggle to articulate things in short, pithy statements. If you’re comfortable doing so, you can always ask the person, “So would you say …” and provide a short summary of his ramblings and see if he will “own” that statement. I don’t make up quotes (unless someone asked me to do so, and then I get that person’s approval before I use anything), but I will try to gently lead a person if I can do so in a way that is true to what she is saying.

A good story leaves me wanting to do more. Our supporters deserve to know that we are making a difference because of their contributions, but as fundraisers, we often need to also show that the job is not yet done. For example, “We have fed hungry children like Billy, but there are still many, many more who still need our help …” Strive to tell stories that show how someone or something has benefited, but also leave the reader excited about making a gift so you can repeat that success again.

I often hear, “It’s hard to get stories.” And it is; we’re busy, some people aren’t willing to share, other people tell their stories but not in a way that is beneficial for fundraising, privacy laws and common decency keep us from pursuing some stories, or for another reason we can’t get stories that will make our fundraising copy compelling.

But this old dog knows that a good story can engage many people in a way that pie charts and spreadsheets will never do. It’s worth the effort to find the stories and share them with your donors and prospects. You may not win a literary award, but seeing donations come in as a result of a story can be a thrilling reward for your efforts.

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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