How to tell the story every donor needs — even Whiny Donor

Here’s an interesting tweet from The Whiny Donor (A feed worth following):

I both agree and disagree with Whiny about what they, or anyone else, “needs” in order to respond.

Agree: While those emotional vignettes are the go-to way many fundraisers connect with donors, they are not the only way, and often not the best way. (Though it beats the pants off reciting facts and stats!)

The sad truth is, many — probably most — emotional vignettes aren’t done effectively. They suffer from faults like these:

  • Off-target. They don’t connect the donor with the problem the fundraiser wants her to help solve, often because it’s a success story about the problem already solved. Which is clearly a story telling the donor she isn’t really needed.
  • Irrelevant. For a story to have impact, it needs to connect with the reader. That means it must be something she cares about and understands. This is often killed with jargon, too many details that obscure the main point, and not enough clear and powerful connection to the donor. It leaves donors wondering, “What does this have to do with me?” That’s not a great starting place for a charitable gift.
  • Clumsily written. Poor writing can make the most powerful story into a bowl of non-motivating mush.
  • Not emotional. This is the most common fault of fundraising stories. They’re told with a dispassionate journalistic style, carefully avoiding making that human connection with the reader. An unemotional story is like flavorless food.

Another common writing fault is when the story comes across as obviously manipulative, not “real.” I rarely see this is practice, but a lot of fundraisers are deeply terrified of making this mistake, which leads them to the opposite error of being unemotional.

Such a high portion of fundraising stories make various combinations of these errors, Whiny’s assertion that they don’t need these vignettes is realistic. You don’t need that stuff! Poor storytelling turns many donors away.

Disagree: I know it seems like we don’t need emotion in order to make a donation, but we do. All of us do. Every. Single. Time. I can’t read Whiny’s mind, but I’m willing to make a very strong guess that they actually got the emotional story they needed from that no-story appeal.

It’s just wasn’t the kind of story we often think of as a story.

Here’s what I think happened when Whiny read the appeal with “no story” (Whiny, please, forgive me for speculating about what went on the privacy of your brain — I could be wrong!):

The appeal came in the midst of the coronavirus crisis. It probably made a clear case that the organization was working on the front lines of the crisis and/or that the crisis had crushed its usual revenue sources. Whiny, living within the same crisis as the nonprofit, constructed their own story about what life is like in this time of disruption and fear. They realized they could do something meaningful that supported their values and gave them a sense of control. The story was utterly compelling.

The donor told the story. And that’s the best story of all, because it’s automatically relevant and highly motivating.

In times of crisis, fundraising gets almost easy, because you don’t have to tell donors something they don’t know. You just have to remind them of the situation they’re already highly aware of.

We don’t usually have that entry into donors’ hearts and minds. Which is why we tell those typical stories about people in need.

But in every case, whatever story we tell has to be taken in by the donor and transformed into her story — about what she cares about and how she will take action to promote her values and shape the world she wants to live in.


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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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