Welcome to Your Donor’s Story

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By Pamela Barden

Writing a successful fundraising communication — be it an e-appeal, social media post, direct mail letter, personal letter, program copy or anything else — can feel daunting. Especially given the high rate of failure (since 100% response is rare), having to write the ask can seem like a pathway to failure.

But let’s look at your opportunity instead. Last month, while browsing in a home decor store, I saw a wall sign that read, “Every family has a story. Welcome to ours.” My near-immediate, self-directed conversation was, “And every donor has one, too. How do I get invited into their story?”

Let’s back up a step and ask ourselves, “What is necessary for a story?” While everyone who posts online doesn’t agree, the consensus seems to be that a story needs a theme, characters, setting, point of view, plot, conflict and resolution. While taking some liberty with the original meanings, here are some ways these concepts can help you get a front-row seat in your donor’s story without actually being face-to-face.


Yes, your story’s theme is your organization’s great ability to fix a problem. For your donor’s story, the theme is why they care about your cause. In print, suggest reasons that help readers think about why they should care about your cause. Don’t quote the official mission which may not be what they view as your mission at all. Instead, tell them something that tugs on their hearts.


Who else will influence your potential donor’s decision? Since you can’t insist that person also reads your story, consider different points of view that readers may bring to the experience of reading — and address those when possible (without turning the appeal into a term paper).


Where your donor is when reading your letter, e-appeal or post makes a huge difference. Test different days for sending e-appeals and posting on social media. If you use a deadline, don’t make it so short that the donor misses out if he or she puts your letter aside for a week. Consider your donors’ bigger stories (i.e., life) when trying to get them to think about yours.

Point of View

Author Jerry Jenkins asked in a blog post on elements of a story, “Who will serve as your story’s camera?” When you are having a conversation with your donor (not just talking to them), you are showing them your work in your camera. You may not know it, but what is recorded about your organization may, to you, be a secondary — or even tertiary — issue. Be sure to use words that engage, not simply educate.


What has happened in your donor’s life that makes him or her want to know more about, and even support, your cause? What took your organization from one of many to something worth a deeper look? As you tell your story, inject the elements that will grab your prospect’s attention and hopefully result in a contribution.


What is the problem your donor wants to solve? That’s what your donor is going to give to. Even if 90% of your work is one thing, if a donor loves the remaining 10%, that’s what that donor wants to hear from time to time in your story. Never forget: You can’t logic your donor into giving. Each donor will support what matters to them — whether it’s accomplished by your organization or another.


Once your prospect makes a gift, your work isn’t done. What has changed in the story as a result of the gift? Does the donor know how they are making a difference? At the very least, do they know you are grateful? If you aren’t thanking donors for their gifts, figure out today how to make that happen. You may live by email, Instagram and Twitter, but getting a piece of mail that simply says “thank you” will get far more notice than one email lost in the dozens that come every day.

Your job as a fundraiser is to tell your organization’s story, but only after you have also considered your donor’s story. To paraphrase Albus Dumbledore from the fourth “Harry Potterbook: “Differences of understanding about a charity are nothing at all if our aims are identical and our hearts are open.”

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