When stories in appeals kill your fundraising results

by guest blogger George Crankovic, Senior Writer at TrueSense Marketing.

With all the articles, blog posts, and white papers about storytelling in fundraising, it’s easy to think that all you have to do is drop a story into an appeal and there you go — success.

Not necessarily so. In research done by Network for Good, 44% of nonprofits polled said that stories had no impact on results or were unsure. 32% said stories somewhat improved results. Only a quarter said that stories definitely improved results.

There could be lots of reasons for this, but one might be the way the stories themselves are told. Here are some things to watch for that could be making your stories less effective:

  1. Avoid “purple prose.” Sometimes writers become enamored with their own words. Your story shouldn’t read like a Victorian novel or like a True Crime mega-drama, for that matter. Instead, strive for a simple and colloquial tone in which the story seems to be telling itself. Let the donor, the person being helped, and the situation come to life, and let the events proceed organically. If the story really is a good one, it will pretty much tell itself. Without a lot of embellishment needed.
  2. Keep it simple. Stories that get too complicated become too hard to follow, causing donors to give up or conclude that you’re trying to baffle them with BS. You can’t expect donors to keep track of characters and plot lines. There should be one to three named persons and no more than one situation. Simple stories are easier to read — and thus touch more readers.
  3. Make it about the donor. Frame your story so that the donor is part of it. One way is by using phrases like, “What would you have done if this happened to you?” And make it clear that they can enter the story and change it by donating. From the donor’s viewpoint, a story about strangers is far less interesting than one where the donor is in the action. It’s less believable too.
  4. Hold back the solution. If the story includes the solution to the problem — if there’s a happy ending all wrapped up and tied with a bow — your donor is left out. Instead of providing the solution, your donor is just a spectator to it. Instead, it’s better to present the story as a cliffhanger, so that the result depends on what the donor does.
  5. Give the story space. All the emphasis on short copy in appeals — especially online — makes it tough to tell a story with the right pacing. Sure, you can tell a story in two lines — “Raymond was addicted to drugs. Then he got his life back at Hope House.” — but that’s probably not enough in itself to move most donors. So don’t try to jam a story into a too-small format. That just signals to donors, “Here’s the story; let’s get this over with.” Better to save your really good stories for the longer-format pieces like newsletters or multiple-page appeals when you can let them play out for maximum effect.

Stories can and do work in appeals, naturally. But it’s not like flipping a switch. Connecting with donors demands stories that are real and believable.


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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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Jeff BrooksJeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 35 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com. More.


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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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About the blogger

Jeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 30 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com.

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