Stories connect people and inspire donors to care.
Stories connect people and inspire donors to care.

How to Maximize Your Donors’ Generosity through Storytelling

Three essential steps lie between your organization and your donors’ generous gifts. Find out what they are and how you can ensure your donors support your cause time and time again.

It might be tempting to paint a rosy picture of what your organization can do.

You could exaggerate a bit. Tell donors what you wish were true. What might possibly happen in the future, even if it’s not the case now.

I know this because I’ve been there!

Many years ago, an organization I worked for had two choices: tell members about a critical financial situation, or gloss over that need in order to save face.

You know, “focus on the positive.”

Communicating the dire need for cash made us look weak, untrustworthy, and irresponsible. But not addressing the desperate financial need prevented us from actually getting additional resources.

Program cuts and a potential shutdown loomed on the horizon if we couldn’t come up with the money.

So what were we to do? Either way, we were in a lose-lose situation.

What do donors need to know before making a gift to your organization?

Donors will check three boxes before they ever part with their hard-earned money:

1) They need to know you.

What’s your mission? What do you stand for? What value do you bring to your community?

2) They need to like you.

This might seem petty at first glance, but it’s true. How many times have you said “yes” to someone simply because you liked them? A friend, a girl scout, a witty salesperson…it probably happens more often than you think.

3. They need to trust you.

Don’t lie or exaggerate. Do speak like a human and share your humanity with your audience.

Once donors know, like, and trust you, they will want to help you…

And the way they get to know you is through the stories you tell about the people you’ve helped.

Stories help us understand and empathize with one another.

They connect us.

But remember that in fundraising especially, these stories need to be truthful. 

Let’s look at an example and see if you can spot the differences between these two statements:

  1. You can help make a difference today with a gift of any amount towards the ABC Cancer Research Project,” and
  2. You can help cure a child of cancer right now with a gift towards the ABC Cancer Research Project.”

The first statement invites the donor to help fund cancer research. That’s truthful.

The second statement implies that the donor is helping cure a child of disease, an exaggeration that crosses the line into “liar-liar-pants-on-fire” territory.

Everyone knows…

  1. Nobody can cure a child of cancer with a donation.
  2. Cancer patients either need medicine or a miracle, neither of which your donor has.

(Remember, donors are like moms and teachers – they can always tell when your fingers are crossed behind your back!)

So how will you know what to say and how to say it?

Use data to help inform your strategy.

The next time you scroll through your LinkedIn feed, note anything that stands out:

  • Which posts attract the most views and interactions?
  • Who is the subject of these posts (organizations, small groups, or individuals?)
  • What’s the general feeling of the post? (formal, casual, emotional?)

A friend and I have talked about this phenomenon recently. We’ve noticed that our LinkedIn posts and articles with the most engagement are personal in nature.

You might have seen these, too. For example, posts about having a baby, getting married, or making it through a difficult personal situation.

Inevitably, someone makes a comment like, “This isn’t Facebook – keep your private life to yourself.”

But I disagree completely.

Please keep those personal moments coming because these are what actually attract others to us!

For example, I watched a video of a young man seeing his results from the Bar exam. His reaction was rather subdued as he lay his head down on the desk, covering his face, and silently releasing the flood of emotions.

But his mother’s reaction on the other hand, it was priceless! Overwhelmed with joy and pride, the viewer watches her praying, hugging her son, crying, and raising her arms up high.

In that moment, she was every mother.

As I watched the family celebrate, I pictured one of my own sons in this same position and cried like a little baby.

Why? Because her son was my son, and their joy was my joy…even for a moment.

How do you come up with stories?

The good news is every. single. person. has a story to tell.

So pay attention to your program participants. Listen to donors when they respond to an email or post on social media. Take notes when someone calls or sends a message about a meaningful experience they had with your organization.

And then, with permission, share those stories in any number of ways.

Could you post a joyful, emotional video clip on social media? Yes!

Share snippets of people’s lives like on Humans of New York? Yep!

There are some wonderful examples of newsletters that are crushing it in the storytelling department. Case in point, check out the Nashville Rescue Mission, which raises millions of dollars each year through its donor newsletter.

No matter how terrifying it might feel to open up and be vulnerable with your audience, you have to be honest.

When the financially strapped organization I worked for a decade ago finally did come clean to the community, it was awful. Unfortunately, there were major cuts.

Nearly half the staff was laid off, and the remaining staff was stretched thin. Every person took on additional duties.

Families with children in the program second-guessed their decision to stay.

Some families left.

And yet, our dedicated supporters did come through. However upset they might have felt, donors made some magic happen because that organization stayed open.

Against all odds, students and teachers had a successful year.

And while the organization went through an extremely difficult time, the community is now thriving and has even moved into a larger building to better serve more students.

I wasn’t privy to all the conversations happening behind closed doors, but I bet those case statements were filled with high-impact, life-changing, heart-string-pulling experiences.

All great storytelling and fundraising is a one-on-one conversation. So remember to use stories to help donors get to know who you are and the good work you do.

Make it easy for donors to like you by showing examples of the great work you’ve done for your community.

And whatever you do, establish trust by doing what you say and saying what you do. Then, reap the rewards of a donor base that responds generously time and time again.