Attract New Donors through Storytelling

Did you know that 72% of all charitable contributions are made by individuals? That eclipses foundations (15%), bequests at (8%), and corporations (5%) by a large margin. In addition, 88% of dollars raised comes from 12% of an organization’s donors and that nearly 1/3 of all online donations are a result of peer-to-peer fundraising.  (source: nptechforgood)

Now: Imagine if you could get enough existing individual donors to influence their peers to also become donors. That would be a pretty powerful thing, right? But that can only happen by creating and sharing stories that can be passed along.

People Prefer Stories to Stats

Statistics are a great way to inform people about an issue or a solution. They speak to the screen_shot_2016-03-31_at_1-24-57_pmmind. We become more knowledgeable. We may share that knowledge with others making more people knowledgeable. That’s great. But if you want people to act and to be moved, you need to appeal to their emotions, and you do that with stories.

My Story

My first nonprofit client was the Atlanta Children’s Shelter. I received an invitation from them in the mail – you know, that box that the USPS puts a bunch of unwanted letters and flyers in that we all throw away without looking at? That’s what I did with their invitation; I threw it away.

It was only when I checked my email and read a message from a friend telling me to look out for an invitation from the shelter that I dug it out of the garbage, wiped the spaghetti sauce off, and realized that I’d been invited by a friend to attend a fundraising breakfast for the shelter. My friend was a table captain in charge of inviting people to sit with her at her table of 10. Not only did I want to support my friend, but I also suspected I would be interested in meeting the other people at her table, so I RSVP’d.

The event was lovely. I learned about what the shelter did and about the needs of homeless moms. It was educational. I was happy that I attended. And then it happened.

A beautiful woman who I spoke with when we were mingling before the event took the stage. Earlier, she told me she was a little nervous, and I assured her she would do great because of how articulate she was. As she ascended the stage, poised and graceful, she began to unfurl an awesome (in the old-fashioned sense of the word – full of awe) story: She had been a client of the Atlanta Children’s Shelter. She had been homeless. This radiant, intelligent woman was on the streets with her child. She did not represent what I had always assumed what homelessness looked like, yet there she was, telling her story.

I was hooked. I was ready to get involved. I was going to make some calls and see how I could help. But helping by pulling out my checkbook at that exact moment was not what I was thinking. The deal was still not closed. Not until I learned from the next speaker that their operating budget was a little higher than other shelters because their pre-school was NAEYC accredited.

I was a mom of two young boys and I knew the high standards of a NAEYC accredited preschool. I had removed my own children from pre-schools who chose not to renew their accreditation because of the cost of NAEYC. It was expensive, but I knew it was worth it. Here was a preschool for homeless children ensuring that even though these kids were off to a rough start, they were going to have a quality education. The moment I heard this my checkbook was out and I was writing the biggest check I could afford.

There are a number of lessons in my personal story. One is that direct mail is equivalent to throwing dollars in the trash.

  • 5.6 million tons of catalogs and other direct mail advertisements end up in US landfills annually.
  • 44% of junk mail is thrown away unopened, but only half that much junk mail (22%) is recycled.
  • The average American household receives 848 pieces of junk mail per household, equal to 1.5 trees every year—more than 100 million trees for all U.S. households combined.
  • Junk mail destroys 100 million trees a year—the equivalent of deforesting all of Rocky Mountain National Park every four months.
  • Largely due to deforestation, junk mail manufacturing creates as much greenhouse gas emissions annually as 3.7 million cars.
  • Americans pay 370 million annually to dispose of junk mail that does not get recycled.

(Source: NYU)

Also, people respond to their peers and stories move people. But one of the more important lessons is you need to know what stories will move people. For me, it was her story plus the NAEYC accreditation that did it. However, once I started working with ACS I learned that most people did not put the latter issue high on their value list. Everyone has a different trigger.

Know Your Audience’s Hot Button Issues

People will donate based on what their values are. Nonprofits seeking donations can be one of the most competitive industries out there. The resources (money) that people are willing to give is limited and if they choose to donate those dollars to cure cancer, then they won’t have that money available for homeless children or premature babies. Individually, we can’t save the entire world, so we have to focus on giving according to what we value most.

Why do people give? Here are 7 main reasons:

  1. They feel like they are part of the community and it is their responsibility to contribute to the good of their community.
  2. Their religious convictions motivate them to contribute to the greater good.
  3. The see charitable giving as good for business either for tax breaks or PR opportunities.
  4. They get involved for the networking opportunities (remember why I initially went to the fundraising breakfast)
  5. They feel a moral obligation to “do the right thing.”
  6. They have been recipients of a nonprofit’s service.
  7. They were raised to share their wealth.

Your stories need to appeal to at least one of these motivations and it needs to do so in an emotional way.

Structuring Your Story

Stories do not have to be long. Consider the challenge to tell a story in six words or less which led to “For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.”

A single image can tell a story. For example:

Meals on Wheels


The key to a good story is that you get your audience involved with the main character. You show them the challenges they are facing and provide the opportunity for your audience to make a difference.

Telling your story through digital platforms today provides many more opportunities to build relationships with your donors based on what they care about. Through retargeted ads, you can show
specific ads for stories that are already resonating with them.

Every social network is investing heavily in video which is a more dynamic way to share your stories.

Most importantly, stories shared online and through social ads allow your audience to get engaged through comments and by sharing them with their peers.

Remember that 1/3 of all online donations are a result of peer-to-peer fundraising.

That is a big deal.

Many nonprofits feel the need to post content daily on social media, which yes, you should post daily. But be careful to not post content just to mark it off your to-do list. There are nonprofits that I have supported, that I have been passionate about, but that I had to simply unfollow their social sites because when I saw the updates my attitude was “so what!” or “that again?” Be mindful that your content is constantly compelling by being passionate about the story you are telling as opposed to feeling compelled to post an update.

When you tell your stories, make sure you lead your audience to a call-to-action that is appropriate and seamless. Maybe you’re focused on increasing awareness about your mission and therefore your call-to-action is for your audience to spread the word. Maybe you need your audience to get involved and write to their representatives. Maybe you need volunteers.

Your call-to-action does not always need to be and should not always be about giving money. Give people other opportunities to get involved and the money will come.

Make sure your audience does not need to jump through weird hoops to respond to your story. They should be able to email with a click, not have to copy and paste or write down an email address. They should be able to donate through a site like Paypal, where they do not even have to pull out their wallet. Make sure volunteer opportunities are specific and signup is easy.

As a nonprofit, you are on a mission to make the world a better place. That mission is driven by the stories of the people you serve. Their stories drive the passion of the people who work in the nonprofit every day. Share those stories with that passion and your donors will work for you.