How to Rock Donor-Centered Stories to Get More Philanthropic Gifts

Claire Axelrad

Donors are always a bit nervous about their investment in your nonprofit.  More than anything, they want to know what their hard-earned money is accomplishing!

Bloomerang found that 8% of donors failed to renew their giving specifically because they weren’t sure what their gifts accomplished. THIS SHOULD NEVER HAPPEN!

If you want more gifts, you must give them.

For a lot of nonprofit insiders, this is a paradigm shift. Think about it.  I’m asking you to go from focusing on asking to focus on giving.  Another way to consider this is to shift from focusing on selling to focusing on helping.

When you view the world through a communications/helping lens, not a fundraising/sales lens, you naturally resonate with people.

Supporters truly yearn to know what their gift accomplished. All you have to do is show them!

But you’ve got to get serious, and strategic, about this.

You must not only demonstrate specifically how your donor’s philanthropy was used. You must do so in a manner that will capture their attention. A manner that puts them, not your nonprofit, at the center. And not just once, but multiple times in order to reinforce for the donor that s/he made a good decision.

Consistency in satisfying supporters is critical to sustaining support. Who doesn’t like to know they’re constantly in your thoughts? Use your initial thank you letter, of course. But don’t stop there. Use your blog or e-news. Place stories on your website. Send photos and videos on social media. Give folks lots and lots of gifts to open up and enjoy.

Got it?  Your job is to give gifts to keep your donors happy.

And donor-centered content is a “gift.” 

EXAMPLES of donor-centered content/gifts:

1. Here’s a photo showing what you accomplished. Seeing is believing.
2. Here are some tips we gave the Moms you helped; thought we’d share with you “8 Ways to Childproof Your Home.” Perhaps this will help someone you know.
3. Here’s a “how-to” video your gift made possible: “7 Ways to Save the Environment.” Perhaps this will be something you can teach your children.
4. Here’s an invitation to join us for a tour. We’d love to show you a good time.
5. Here are recommended resources for helping seniors age in place. Perhaps you can use this.
6. Here’s a story about how your gift helped. Please sit back and enjoy.

Notice how different this content is than “Your gift helped, but the need is still great. More help is needed.

When you view the world through a “fundraising lens” your donor communications are the opposite of donor-centered.

They’re too much about money.  Too much about single transactions.  Too much about what the donor stands to lose (their own money) vs. what they stand to gain (miraculous outcomes). Content created with a “fundraising lens” doesn’t make donors feel happy.

When you view the world through a “communications lens” you channel philanthropy. Literally, you channel “love of humankind.”

Today I want to talk about one of the most appreciated types of donor-centered content.

Content that is easily infused with “love of humankind” – emotion, pathos, empathy, sadness, anger, hope, joy and the whole panoply of emotions that resonate with human beings.

I’m talking about the earliest and most resonant form of human communication.


I know you’ve been hearing a lot about storytelling. It’s one of the memes du jour.  That doesn’t mean it isn’t important. Memes are memes for a purpose. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that storytelling is your most essential content marketing technique.

If you want to get noticed and make a difference in our digitally revolutionized society, where word-of-mouth, social sharing and social media shape your brand’s perception, you’ve got to capture folks’ imagination.

Albert Einstein Quote--"Imagination is more important than knowledge."

Imagination is more important than knowledge.

Albert Einstein

Stories are a gift of donor-centered content.

Should you have any doubt that stories are a desirable gift, you’ll want to know about a study reported on by Lifehacker and The New York Times. They found that when someone is reading a story the language center of their brain lights up. What’s especially interesting is that other parts of the brain also become active, including the areas that would light up if the reader were experiencing the event firsthand. WoW!

If you’re a nonprofit that’s been stymied because you don’t have much that is show-and-tell worthy, take heart!  You’ve got stories that will accomplish the same objective.

In fact, you can keep your constituents enthralled for days, weeks, months and all year long by dripping stories continually throughout the year.  Have your clients… staff… donors… volunteers… all tell the story from their personal perspectives. In this manner, you create a collective experience – everyone’s a part of it!

Note how different this is from the traditional type of e-news or blog article.  I know you’ve written one of these.  They tend to be educational or informational.  You think you’re doing a good thing by describing your program, or letting folks know you just hired a new staffer, or that you just redesigned your website, but you’re really just boasting at best; lecturing at worst.

People don’t want to be educated.  They want to be inspired.

J.K. Rowling Quote--"There's always room for a story that can transport people to another place."

‘There’s always room for a story that can transport people to another place.’

J.K. Rowling

People long to be transported to a place that takes them outside their everyday experience.  That’s why people read books. It’s why little kids ask for a bedtime story. Human beings are wired to enter into stories. They long to become a part of them.  To be taken along for the ride. It makes them feel good.

The opposite is true when it comes to facts and figures. With data, we naturally put up our dukes to try to refute the information. Fill your content marketing with facts and numbers and you’ll stop your readers dead in their tracks. It makes them feel combative.

Nick Morgan Quote--"Facts and figures and all the rational things that we think are important in the business world actually don't stick in our minds at all."

‘Facts and figures and all the rational things that we think are important in the business world actually don’t stick in our minds at all.’

Nick Morgan, author, Power Cues

Share stories, and you’ll grab folks’ attention.

In our information-saturated age, you need something to cut through the clutter.  Stories do that! Wonder what some of the best ways are to make stories work for you?

Let’s take a look…

First, you’ll want to understand the 5-step perfect story structure. Just take a look at Successful Storytelling: 5 Foolproof Ways to Raise Money where I offer you five keys to telling a memorable, actionable story. In a nutshell, they are:

  1. Premise
  2. Conflict
  3. Conflict escalation
  4. Climax
  5. Resolution

Master storyteller and copywriter Harvey McKinnon puts it this way:

Harvey McKinnon Quote--‘A good story has to have a number of qualities. First, it has to have emotion. Secondly, it needs to be real – we need to have something tangible happen. Stories have to come from a credible source – a mother talking about her child, someone who was homeless and who now has somewhere to live. Both of these scenarios are credible and understandable. Lastly, the notion that illustrates how the charity’s intervention makes the difference, thanks to a donor’s gift.’

‘A good story has to have a number of qualities. First, it has to have emotion. Secondly, it needs to be real – we need to have something tangible happen. Stories have to come from a credible source – a mother talking about her child, someone who was homeless and who now has somewhere to live. Both of these scenarios are credible and understandable. Lastly, the notion that illustrates how the charity’s intervention makes the difference, thanks to a donor’s gift.’

Once you’ve mastered the basic storytelling structure, you’re ready to take that story, run with it, and make it work for you.

And don’t forget – your goal is to inspire people to want to become more involved and invested with you! That’s what ‘making it work’ means in the context of nonprofit storytelling.  You don’t want your stories dropping like lead balloons.  You want your stories to be inspiring next steps – even if it’s just your readers looking forward to the next installment of the story. For now.

Honestly, if your marketing strategy were to become all stories, all the time, you wouldn’t go wrong.

Share inspiring stories through your newsletter, blog, social media, email, website – you name it.

And share them frequently. As business and thought leader Jim Collins taught us:

Jim Collins Quote--"We are known by the stories we can tell."

‘We are known by the stories we can tell.’

Let that sink in for a moment.

It’s true. The more you tell and share your stories, the more you will be known.  So share stories everywhere. And make it easy for your fans, advocates and influencers to share them with their networks as well.

Consider the fact that your constituents want to also be known by the stories they tell.  So your job is to make sure you use language that gives your donors ownership of all that’s being accomplished. “You did this!”

Your goal is to make your readers proud to be the hero of the story. People share what they’re proud of.

So include share buttons in emails, blog posts, e-newsletters and on your website. And don’t forget to share links in your email signature – a vastly underutilized piece of nonprofit real estate. Sharing helps to spread your mission beyond your existing constituencies and it helps those who do the sharing to become more engaged in what you do.

Sharing lays the ground for new gifts and bigger gifts.

Infuse all your content with story moments.

Sometimes the topic of storytelling can seem daunting. It doesn’t have to be.  You can study resources about storytelling if you want to get started in a big way. Or you can simply read a few articles like this one and dive in.

I recommend diving. After all, you’ve been telling stories all your life, haven’t you?

Doesn’t something happen to you just about daily that you then turn around and recount to your friends and family in the form of a mini-story?

Try to get into the habit of recognizing the stories in your daily work.

Stories can be eensy-teensy.  Like starting an appeal letter with “Jimmy will go to sleep again tonight with his tummy grumbling.” Or beginning a thank you letter with “Jane will be safe at home because you gave her grab bars in the shower and a home health aide.”  Or starting a blog post with “Pat and her two young boys’ lives changed in the blink of an eye when she learned she had inoperable cancer.” Can you picture Jimmy and his story?  Jane and hers? Pat and her two, soon-to-be homeless boys?

Resist the impulse to tell a too-long, too-complex tale.

First, you’ll never get around to writing it. Second, people don’t have time to read it.

Most people today are busy, busy, busy. They tend to scan copy. So use short sentences and paragraphs to make your copy easier to read. Make sure each sentence has impact, so if your prospect reads the first sentence, it’s likely they’ll go to the second sentence. And so on.

Tell stories so they resonate with your audiences: 3 Ways.

Earlier I told you about five structural elements of stories that have a captivating arc.  Now I want to tell you about three contextual elements that will help you tell the right stories for your target constituencies.

1. Be Relatable

The mini-stories I suggested above for your annual appeal, thank you letter and blog are about experiences people recognize from their own lives. They can relate to a kid going to bed hungry, even if it isn’t theirs. They can imagine needing to keep their own parent or grandparent safe at home. They can envision getting a catastrophic medical diagnosis, and how this might affect their loved ones.

If you know something about your constituents you can give them an instant picture of someone like them. [Have you created personas? Sent surveys?] Look for the stories that trigger the response of “there but for the grace of G-d go I.” This has the effect of getting folks to think how nice it would be if there were something that could solve this problem.

2. Be Empathic

What floats your prospects’ personal boats? Come at content marketing, relationship building and donor-centered fundraising from the perspective of the donor. What’s in it for them? What do they cherish? Why do they care?  It all boils down to feelings and values that are passionately held.

The small stories you tell should paint pictures in the minds of your prospects that show you understand them and their daily challenges. It may not be as transparent as knowing they need home meal delivery, or self-cleaning kitty litter containers, or snazzy running shoes, but nonprofits can still get inside their prospects’ heads and help them to find the meaning they seek by righting wrongs they find intolerable.

People ask themselves questions every day about why things aren’t better than they are. What can be done about bigotry and intolerance? About violence? Hunger? Disease? Classism? Climate change? Poor education? Isolated, frail seniors? Homeless veterans? The list goes on and on.

Think about what may be bothering your constituents; then tell them a story that connects them to this challenge and shows them how to become part of the solution.

3. Be Creative

The most memorable stories are told with a bit of creativity. These are the ones that “stick,” as described in The Tipping Point by author Malcolm Gladwell and in Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip and Dan Heath.

If you want to connect with folks through your stories, you need to make them a bit sticky.  This isn’t the easiest thing to do, but it gets easier with practice. If we take a look at J.D. Meier’s Six Principles of Sticky Ideas that he distilled from the Heath’s book, it becomes a bit clearer.  Every time you prepare to offer up a gift of content, think of these principles:

  • Principle 1. Simplicity
  • Principle 2. Unexpectedness
  • Principle 3. Concreteness
  • Principle 4. Credibility
  • Principle 5. Emotions
  • Principle 6. Stories

Simple means exactly that. Jimmy’s tummy is grumbling. The solution is clear. He needs food.

Unexpected means something that goes against the norm. A 12-year-old girl being sold as a sex slave. A river that used to provide all of a city’s drinking water, that today can no longer even be swum in. Or maybe making something funny that really isn’t a joke.

Concreteness just means specifics. Jimmy is 7-year-old and can’t stay awake in first grade.

Credibility means believable. Convincing. Even if there are no facts backing up the story, there are trustworthy people testifying to the situation.

Emotions tug at heart strings. You want your stories filled with them.

Stories – well, that’s what we’re talking about!  Merely by offering up your content in a “once upon a time” format you are making it likely your content will stick.

The more you keep “gifting” stories, the more gifts you’ll receive.

Remember that storytelling is something people naturally gravitate to. We’re wired that way. If it’s your job to build a bridge between the world’s most pressing problems and the people who want to solve them, storytelling should become your best friend.

Telling a compelling story designed to influence people to do something positive they’re predisposed to do – something that matches their values and makes them feel good – is a fine thing. Don’t you agree?

Additional Resources:

Infuse Your Content with Small Stories for a Big Effect — By Jeffrey L. Cohen on Convince and Convert

5 Things Companies Do That Ruin Storytelling Success

Social Media, Pretend Friends, and the Lie of False Intimacy

5-Step Strategy to Improve Your Facebook Engagement & Growth

Claire Axelrad

Claire Axelrad , J.D., CFRE was named Outstanding Fundraising Professional of the Year by the Association of Fundraising Professionals and brings 30 years frontline development experience to her work as principal of Clairification. A sought-after coach, Claire teaches the CFRE Fundraising Certification Course and frequently presents for The Foundation Center and 4GOOD. Claire writes a monthly column on Nonprofit Social Media plus regular columns for Nonprofit Pro and Guidestar. Clairification was named “Best Fundraising Blog of 2013” by FundRaising Success Magazine.

  • Soula

    Love this Claire and Neon, thank you. It’s everything we want to be and offer at QG&W.

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