How to Make a Story Your Most Powerful Fundraising Tool

Planning a fundraising campaign? If so, you’d better have a whopper of a story (or two) to share. And by a story, I mean a riveting account of a real client who stands to benefit directly from your organization and the funds you need to raise.

I’m not talking about some sad story that paints degrading images of broken and desperate people. Or gloomy stories of grave situations that leave your readers feeling heartbroken and hopeless.

I’m talking about stories of hope, transformation, and impact. Stories that honor your clients by demonstrating their strength, hard work, and determination. Stories that show how he or she can overcome an insurmountable challenge through a combination of 1) his/her own resolve, 2) your organization’s solution, and 3) your audience’s help.

Are you with me?

You undoubtedly have a lot of important tools in your fundraising toolkit. But understand this: The single most important component of any fundraising campaign is your storyan emotional story featuring a real client faced with a real problem that your audience can really help solve.

You need a powerfully emotional story that clearly articulates WHAT the need is, HOW it can be solved, and WHY your readers should care.  (And the WHY piece is critical folks, so stay with me…we’re going to talk more about this in just a bit.)

Last week I shared a post on how to write an emotional story. We talked about the 4 pillars every emotional story needs to captivate readers:

  1. A Compelling Character – your protagonist or main character. A real person who’s currently in the midst of the real situation your story is about.
  2. An Emotional Connection – to help your reader feel emotionally invested in your character. This can most easily be forged by revealing a universal human need: food, water, shelter, health, safety, education, emotional support, etc.
  3. A Conflict – the challenge that prevents your main character from obtaining what he or she so desperately needs, right now.
  4. The Solution – the response your organization can potentially provide to make a positive impact on your main character’s life.

(For a more detailed look at how to write an emotional story, click here. Want to learn more about how we can help with storytelling? Learn more here.)

An emotional story that incorporates the 4 concepts outlined above can serve as a great donor retention tool.

But, by adding the following 4 elements to your emotional story (not necessarily in this order) you can transform it into the centerpiece of your fundraising campaignyour appeal letter.

  1. Add one more character to your story – the reader. You want your readers to feel like an integral piece of this story. They can’t replace the main character, but they can play a powerful role. All you have to do to make them feel like heroes is show them how they can rescue/help/lift up/empower your main character and others like him/her. Make them feel like they have an important opportunity to be a part of the solution.
  2. A strong call-to-action (CTA) – This is when you tell your readers exactly what you want them to do. Be specific. Ask for a specific gift amount, within a specific amount of time, for a specific purpose. (And don’t be afraid to ask more than once.)
  3. Tell your readers “why” – be sure your readers understand exactly why they should help. Present a strong case for support. Don’t assume they already understand why they should give. Give them a reason, or two!

Next After, a research lab and consultancy that’s conducted over 1,000 online fundraising experiments, found that the most significant factor in influencing people to give is your value proposition (or, the “why.”) “If your donor doesn’t know why their gift matters, they’re not going to donate.”

You’ve been told time and again to keep your appeals short and sweet so perhaps you’re worried about the extra length a value proposition would add. Well, you can relax. Next After’s research also shows that longer appeals that offer more answers to “why” are significantly more effective than short appeals that don’t. (Like 150% to 316% more effective. Check it out for yourselves!)

  1. 4-Part Closing – As you close out your appeal, be sure to:
    • Ask again – tell your readers exactly what you want them to do and how to do it.
    • Leave the story open-ended. It’s not time for happy endings just yet. Leave the ending open so your donor can envision him or herself as an integral part of the solution. (You’ll be able to add a happy ending later when you follow-up with donors to thank them for their support!)
    • Be human. Sign off with a real person’s name and signature, and with real contact information.
    • Include a P.S. – This reinforces the sense of urgency and gives you one more chance to plead your case. According to Clair Axelrad, the P.S. is the most valuable piece of real estate in your appeal! (It may be the only part some people read.)

Now that you know what it takes to write a winning appeal, try applying these 4 steps to a client story you’ve already written.

By the way, if you’re finding this article useful, would you give it a share? You can use this pre-populated tweet or this LinkedIn update.

Need an example? Using the fictional story included in last week’s piece on emotional storytelling, here’s how I applied the 4 concepts above to transform it into an appeal letter.

Here’s the original story:

Hi Jill,

When I first met Mary, she was sitting in front of her modest but tidy mud-brick home, expertly braiding her 6-year-old daughter’s hair into neat rows. Occasionally she stopped to playfully splash the toddler sitting next to her in a basin of water.

“We may not have much, but my children always appear neat and clean,” Mary said.

25698_388505388253_6246445_n“This is the end of the water for today,” she said, pointing to the basin beside her. “It took me all morning to find the water and bring it home. I wanted to get more, but there wasn’t time.”

Even though carrying two 40-pound water jugs long distances is tough work, Mary said she’s determined to make sure her family has enough water for drinking, cooking, cleaning, and bathing every day.

During the dry season, she often walks hours to find water. Sometimes she makes her way to a muddy swamp. Other times she comes across a watering hole for cattle that she can dip her containers into.

Alone in the wilderness, Mary is always at risk of being ambushed by rebel military groups or wild animals.

“Sometimes I am frightened, but what choice do I have?” Mary said.  

Mary and her children are often sick because they don’t have access to clean water. The children are sometimes too ill to attend school. Mary says she often feels anxious and glum about her family’s situation, but she’s not giving up.

“I want my daughters to live in a world where they don’t have to spend their days collecting water. I want all my children to be healthy so they can receive an education and make better lives for themselves.”

Mary is one of the thousands of people in the Yuzda settlement who lack access to clean water. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Here’s how we can tweak the ending with the four elements outlined above to turn this emotional story into a compelling appeal letter.

Jill, by supporting Water is Life with a donation today, you can help give Mary and thousands of others access to clean, life-giving water(Personalization, first CTA, and an invitation for the reader to be a hero.)

With a Water is Life borehole pumping water directly into the heart of the Yuzda community, long hours spent collecting water will be replaced by more time with family, at work, or at school. And since our boreholes pump clean water from fresh-water springs, the entire community will experience healthier living. (Two value propositions, or “why’s.”)

Your gift of $100 will make clean water accessible to more than 1,000 Yuzda residents. Click here to make your donation today. (Second CTA – including a specific amount, specific impact, specific timeframe. – and another hero making opportunity.)

With your support, we can keep more women safe, more girls in school, and more people healthy. (More of the “why,” more hero-making, and more real, tangible benefits.)

“Clean water would be the greatest gift this village has ever received,” Mary said. “I can’t imagine a life with water outside my door, but I pray we’ll have the chance to experience this kind of life one day soon.” (More “why”)

Thank you, Jill, for your desire to help bring clean water to those who lack access to this life-giving resource. Contact me directly at [insert phone number and email address] if you’d like to learn more about this campaign. (Hero-making and open ending.)

With gratitude,

Real Person’s Name

Real Signature

P.S. We’re so close to reaching our goal of raising $10,000 to construct a borehole in Yuzda. Your support today will help us reach our goal and give people like Mary access to a lifetime of clean water. Thanks again, Jill, for your support! (Reinforcing the need and urgency.)

Using the 4 tweaks above, you can turn almost any client story into a powerful fundraising tool.

Are you leveraging the power of emotional storytelling in your appeal letters? Do you have additional suggestions for writing letters that inspire people to give? Please share your advice in the comments below.

Need help writing appeal letters? We live for this stuff. Learn more about how we can help today!

Again, if you find this article useful, would you give it a share? You can use this pre-populated tweet or this LinkedIn update.

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