Our idea of a “fundraising story” is way too small

Tell great stories. It’s the fundraising mantra. We’re led to believe that if our fundraising is going to have any hope of raising money that we have to be able to create protagonists, work out a plotline, and build the action in our stories to a crescendo like we’re Cecil B. DeMille or something.

Yes, good stories are important in fundraising. Crucial, in fact. But there’s this idea that all you have to do is drop a story into a mail or email appeal, and suddenly donors will crawl over broken glass to give.

The problem is that a story, even if it’s a good one, probably won’t be able to save an appeal that doesn’t have a compelling offer, fails to present valid reasons to give, and isn’t donor centric.

But that’s only the half of it.

We need to see the idea of storytelling in a much larger context. In reality, every word, every image, every ‘thing’ in your appeal — from the envelope or the subject line to the paper or the digital graphics to the signature — everything is telling a story.

It’s not enough to simply drop a story into an appeal. Your appeal – all of it in its entirety – IS the story.

Not only that, everything that a nonprofit does — from the website to the internet presence to the media coverage (or lack of it) is part of the story. The entire donor experience that a nonprofit is providing is the story.

This is simply another way of saying, as Seth Godin does, that the brand is the story. “Every brand has a story,” he writes. “The story includes expectations and history and promises and social cues and emotions. We support a charity or a soccer team or a perfume because it gives us a chance to love something about ourselves.”

Sure, there are all kinds of dramatic devices we can use in storytelling for fundraising. But whether we’re talking about the story of someone saved from addiction in an appeal or “story” in the larger context, what makes a story good is when it’s about the donor.

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