Let’s say you and your team have created a strong annual fund strategy for the year. Part of that plan involves sending regular appeals to donors and prospects.
The question then comes up: What exactly should we write about in our appeals?
When there’s some significant event related to your cause that’s happening now or coming up soon (for example, a natural disaster or an election), your messaging strategy to donors could simply be: “Here’s what’s happening, here’s the problem and our solution, and here’s how your support will make a difference.”
But what about those times between newsworthy events? Should fundraising stop? Of course not! You just need to find an emotional story that will engage donors and move them to give.
Focus on Stories of Transformation
Whatever issue your nonprofit focuses on, some kind of transformation occurs at the heart of the work you do. Here are a few examples:
Personal transformation — “Organization A” helps children who are malnourished, homeless, and abandoned find a forever family that provides the care, education opportunities, and love they need to flourish.
Social transformation — “Organization B” is striving to end the epidemic of gun violence in the United States by changing laws and attitudes about firearms.
Cultural transformation — By reviving classic plays and musicals that spotlight today’s up-and-coming talent, and by nurturing the voices of tomorrow, “Organization C” cultivates the power of the performing arts to enrich people’s lives.
What transformation does your nonprofit create? How are people’s lives actually made better (individually and/or collectively) through the work you do?
Once you’ve identified the type of transformation created by your nonprofit, now you need a “main character” for your story. Ask yourself: Who benefits from this transformation?
Depending on the scope of your work, your answer might be clearly defined individuals like the children who are served by “Organization A.” Or, in the case of a social transformation, it might be a very large group like an entire city or even a country.
In the case of the “Organization B,” one could argue that gun violence prevention benefits all of us living in the United States. Intellectually, that’s a powerful transformation indeed. And people love stories with high stakes.
But we want to create an emotional experience. To do so, you want to find an individual whose personal story of change dramatizes the larger transformation. To put it another way, it’s difficult to tell a moving story without a main character.
Take San Francisco AIDS Foundation, as one real-world example. Their mission is to reduce HIV infections in San Francisco to zero and end the epidemic in the city where it began. That’s very powerful, and it may move some people to give all on its own. But if you can put a face to the mission and tell an authentic, emotional story of an individual whose life was transformed by the foundation’s work, you have an even stronger case for support.
In a recent appeal for the Foundation, we featured the story of a man who nearly died at the height of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. Sadly, survival brought with it a new challenge known as AIDS Survivor Syndrome. For two decades he grieved the friends he’d lost and felt guilty for surviving when so many others didn’t. He suffered from deep depression, isolating himself for many long, lonely years. It wasn’t until he found a loving community in San Francisco AIDS Foundation’s 50-Plus Network that he began to experience joy in life again. In his own words: “The doctors saved me from dying but San Francisco AIDS Foundation gave me my life back.”
As you can see, even this short summary of his story is moving. It provides an emotional, inside-out perspective on the life-changing work San Francisco AIDS Foundation is doing. By putting an actual face to the transformation, the reader can imagine other people who will be helped by their donation.
Choose a Beneficiary with an Emotional Story
Choosing the right beneficiary to feature in an appeal involves several considerations.
1. How powerful is the story of their transformation?
The most powerful stories of transformation involve a completed journey. Think of two islands. The main character in the story is trapped on one of the islands where they are suffering. But your nonprofit has the boat that transports them to the other island where their life is better. This is what that might look like in copy:
“Before I discovered Foundation X, I was homeless and afraid to fall asleep or I’d be hurt, robbed or even killed. Now, thanks to their shelter program, I have a safe place to sleep every night.”
Sometimes an individual is in the process of being helped by your nonprofit and their story of transformation is incomplete. In our metaphor, they are still on the boat! If that’s all you have to work with, you can still tell their story. Just focus on their hopes and dreams for a better life.
“So many times I thought to myself: No one cares that I’m homeless. But Foundation X proved that someone does care. They’ve given me a safe place to call home until I can get back on my feet, and they’re helping me find permanent housing where my daughter and I can live.”
It’s not as powerful as a completed journey, but it still puts a face to the organization’s work and helps the reader imagine the personal impact of their philanthropic support.
2. Do you have permission to tell the beneficiary’s story?
Ideally, you want permission and complete buy-in and participation from the beneficiary so you can use their specific details in sharing the story. The more details you use, the more visceral the story will feel to the reader.
That said, remember that some beneficiaries are also victims. You should never push an individual to share their story if it makes them uncomfortable or poses a threat to their mental health or personal safety. There is absolutely no acceptable instance where “getting the story” is more important than being 100% ethical in your pursuit of sharing an example of transformation.
In her 2016 book Victims’ Stories and the Advancement of Human Rights, author Diana Tietjens Meyers provides an important perspective and guide for storytellers. On p.182, she explains:
Sensationalizing victims’ stories, twisting their stories to suit your purposes, using someone’s story without consent, interviewing victims in ways that retraumatize them, and publishing stories likely to have harmful consequences for the individuals who provide them are brazenly unethical practices in the public arena.
Even with full permission and the enthusiastic participation of a beneficiary who wants to tell their story, it may still be wise to change the name of the individual for privacy purposes, depending on their circumstances, age, comfort level, or other factors.
3. Should the letter come from the beneficiary or from the organization?
In other words: Is it more effective to have the individual tell their own story of transformation or have someone in your organization tell the story?
Well, it depends. The process of writing an effective fundraising appeal is rather involved, and you generally want to have a professional copywriter draft the letter regardless of who signs it. In most instances, a copywriter will interview a willing and enthusiastic beneficiary to get a deeper sense of their story and a feel for their voice. Then the copywriter will draft the letter and send it to the beneficiary for review and approval.
Some beneficiaries might be more cooperative than others. Some may want to exert much more control over the copy than is feasible, especially when it comes to utilizing fundraising messaging.
Ultimately, it’s best to just be as flexible as possible in how you can authentically use the individual’s story. If the beneficiary is uncomfortable being a signer on a fundraising letter, then perhaps it’s more appropriate to include their story in a lift note. Perhaps you feature approved quotes from the beneficiary’s interview to bolster your case for support.
Ideally, you probably already know what motivates your donors, so factor that into decision-making and keep ethical considerations top-of-mind in order to present the story in a way that unequivocally works for both the beneficiary and your organization.
Where to Find Great Stories
Everyone in your organization is a resource for great stories of transformation … and those who deliver your services and interact with your beneficiaries day to day are particularly good candidates. We recommend enrolling your whole team and letting them know to be on the lookout for individual beneficiaries who not only have powerful stories but also are enthusiastic about sharing their stories to help grow your organization and further your mission.