4 Steps to a Story-Centered Fundraising Appeal That Donors Will Love

Young woman smiling as she opens a fundraising letter.
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Most nonprofit fundraisers spend hundreds of hours throughout the year thinking up ideas for their appeals and campaigns. As we brainstorm and work, there is often is a nagging voice in the back of our minds that says, “Will this really work?”

The worry is that our fundraising appeal will not resonate with any donors and end up raising no money. There are several things we can do to avoid this outcome, and it starts with fundraisers leaving behind their usual approach to writing appeals.

Problems With the Typical Fundraising Appeal

What do you do when you sit down to write a fundraising appeal? You probably know how much money you need to raise and for what program. You probably know what the call to action will be. This is all essential and necessary information. It is the foundation of our fundraising appeal.

But what do you know about the audience who will receive this appeal? Who are they? And what are their demographics and psychographics?

All too often in our efforts to communicate an urgent need, we forget that the real secret to a successful appeal that resonates with our audience is knowing our audience.

From the outset of working on an appeal, it is necessary to factor this information into the work. For instance, let’s say you were raising money for an animal shelter, and you assumed that all of your donors were dog owners. You start writing your appeal, and you make a lot of statements about what it’s like to be a dog owner, how cute dogs are, and what wonderful companions they are. Maybe you even share a story about a dog owner.

But the reality is 80 percent of your donors are actually cat owners. That one piece of information about your audience could change the entire appeal to something that would resonate more with your audience. Instead, you might talk about animals more generally and then share a story of a cat owner. That story is one that your audience would readily identify with and is a way that we can write in a more donor-centered way.

Understanding and Writing for Your Audience

Understanding who your audience is can be incredibly powerful information that improves your fundraising program. But first, you have to gather the data. Some of the data can be found in your fundraising database, but a lot of it can be collected through donor surveys.

Conducting an annual donor survey is a great way for nonprofits to get to know their donors better and gather pertinent pieces of data. Consider setting a recurring time each year when your organization will send out a survey to donors. Think about the timing of your appeals and general communications to identify a time when donors are not receiving anything from you. This is a good time to send them a survey.

An ideal survey length is five to ten questions. You don’t want to overwhelm your donors with too many questions and, as a result, have fewer people complete it. Strive to get a balance of qualitative and quantitative questions. That way, you’ll get the best demographic and psychographic picture of your audience.

Here are a few sample questions to consider:

  • Why do you give to our organization?
  • Of our programs, which do you most enjoy supporting?
  • What age range are you in?
  • Overall, how satisfied are you with the stewardship you receive?
  • Do you enjoy reading our newsletters?

After you close the survey, take a look at the results and start to identify trends in the data. Have your donors used similar words to describe why they give? Have they said they prefer to give to a particular program? Go through the results and highlight these pieces of information. These are the real gems of the survey. By finding the trends in your data and the language that your donors use to talk about your organization, you’ll be able to speak to them in that same language.

Choosing the Right Story for Your Nonprofit’s Appeal

Once you’ve gathered this information about your nonprofit’s donor audience, it time to get to work writing better appeals. Telling relevant stories to your audience is one place that you can start to make improvements. Here are four steps that you can follow to pick the best story to use in your next appeal.

Step 1: Start By Brainstorming a List of Possible Stories
Write down every possible story you can think of that might illustrate the appeal’s message in action. Think about the results your donors long for and find the stories that illustrate those outcomes.

Let’s say your message is something like, “Summer camp leaves a lasting impression on children and gives them the skills they need to succeed in life.” Here are some of the stories you could write down in that brainstorm:

  • A story about a child who attended camp last year, who was struggling in school
  • A story about a child who was socially isolated and struggling to make friends
  • A story about an adult who attended summer camp as a kid, and is now a successful professional
  • A story about an adult who attended summer camp after experiencing trauma as a child
  • Make sure that these stories about individuals do not put anyone at risk. Disguise identities where needed.

Step 2: Prioritize Your Story Options
Once you have created a list of possible stories, the next step is to prioritize which stories you are most likely to use. Some criteria to consider are:

  • How well does the story relate to the message?
  • How well will the audience relate to the story?

Your message and your audience are your central focus, so if the story doesn’t jive with them, then it’s not a good story to tell.

Step 3: Interview for Multiple Stories
So far you’ve done the legwork to find a few potential stories for your fundraising appeal. The next step is actually to get the stories. This means interviewing people.

A common mistake is not widening your net and only talking to one person. However, this approach will severely limit your story options and could result in a less than stellar appeal. Instead, aim to interview a minimum of three people, even if you only plan to use one of those stories. This approach will give you more options, and you'll have peace of mind in the process knowing that if one interview didn’t go well, there will be another choice. With time and practice, you'll start asking better questions.

Step 4: Decision Time
Once the interviews are done, revisit the message and the audience to make a decision about which story to use. It's also good to do a gut check — if the interview was interesting, chances are it will also make for an interesting story.

Storytelling is a wonderful way to transform your organization’s fundraising appeals. Follow the steps outlined here and you will be on your way to writing a fundraising appeal that your donors will love.