How to tell a fundraising story when there’s no story to tell [MacGyver Fundraising]

MacGyver Fundraising: A series about getting it done in the real world

MacGyver was an US action TV show in the 80s (with a more recent reboot) featuring a brilliant professional problem-solver who could get himself out of any jam with whatever random materials were at hand. He always solved the most difficult situations. Fundraisers are a lot like MacGyver, constantly succeeding even when they don’t have the resources they need.

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Everyone tells you: Effective fundraising has to tell story.

There’s an entire conference called the Nonprofit Storytelling Conference!

But let’s face it — stories don’t grow on trees.

There are a lot of reasons stories are so hard to find:

  • Maybe you don’t have access to them because your work happens far away.
  • Maybe the people at the org who are close to the story simply don’t have time to gather stories. It doesn’t happen by itself!
  • Maybe the people close to the stories consistently get you the wrong stories. Their talents and training are probably not in this area!
  • Maybe the nature of your work makes privacy so important you simply can’t share stories.

Join the club. Getting the right stories is no small thing. For some, it’s nearly impossible.

Here are two powerful “McGyver” workarounds when you hit the story wall:

1. Use a word picture

A word picture is a quasi-story. Instead of specific people in a specific time and place doing specific actions, a word picture helps people see what things are like in a place or situation. If a story is a video, a word picture is a photograph. And you can do a lot with a photograph.

Here are the characteristics of a word picture:

  • The set-up is different. You must make it clear that this isn’t a specific account. Use introductory phrases like “Imagine” … “Here’s what it’s like” … “If you were there, you’d see.”
  • No plot. No “this happened, then this…” It’s just the situation.
  • Tell it in present tense. That helps to signal the ongoing nature of the scene. Past tense signals that you’re describing a specific event that happened in the past.
  • It’s short. Seldom more than five or six sentences.
  • It doesn’t name names. When you give someone a name, you signal that this is a specific person.

Make sure that your word picture is true — that the things you include really are things that are happening.

2. Flip the script

Sometimes the story to tell is about the donor. Not a donor — but the donor you’re addressing a the moment. The “you” of the story. This takes copywriting finesse, because donors give to make something outside of themselves happen. They just do it for interior reasons of their own.

A donor story is about:

  • The donor’s values.
  • The donor’s human characteristics. Not just what they do, but who they are.
  • The opportunity to make a difference.
  • The impact they can have.

It goes something like this (with a lot more details):

You are aware of a situation. You are the kind of person who understands and cares about this situation. The good news is, you can have a real impact and help make things so much better in this situation…

These alternatives to the standard story can work wonders, because they can do the same job a “real” story should do.

MacGyver Fundraising


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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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