Why Storytelling is Key To Nonprofit Fundraising

Khaled Allen
Khaled Allen

Don’t get so caught up in the details of your nonprofit that you forget to convey the human story behind it. While grantmakers and foundations may be more concerned with your business plan, donors give to people with causes, not to credentials and projections.

Studies show that people ultimately make buying decisions based on emotions. Here are four tips to help you appeal to the story behind your work.

Make It Specific

One of the biggest dangers when crowdfunding for nonprofits or social good is to generalize the issues you are trying to overcome in order to appeal to the widest audience possible.

But it’s the details that make a story real. Explain what exactly happened that inspired you to start your nonprofit and the circumstances and feelings of those you are helping.

What this looks like is sharing a particular story, and only then expanding to showcase the numbers that you can impact with the donation. For example, in trying to raise money for a solar light enterprise, describe a scene you personally witnessed of a family huddled close around a single kerosene lamp, children leaning close to their books while their mother tries to cook in near pitch dark, everyone coughing occasionally from the constant soot. Once you make your ask, explain exactly how many of these families you will be able to help.

There is a danger of being overly dramatic, but donors need to know they are giving to a real situation, not just an idea or a concept. We remember reality by the little details: the texture of the walls, the slant of the light as the sun goes down, the taste of dust in a worksite. You don’t have to be a bestselling author; just share your memory as it occurs to you.

Some pointers for conveying the reality of your story:

  • Use people’s names instead of referring to them as beneficiaries or cases. If privacy is an issue, makeup names. Even if you reveal that people relate better to others when there is a name involved.
  • Create a representative story to protect the victims. When dealing with child abuse or even cases where a person’s pride or community standing may be at stake, it is a good idea to create a representative story that combines salient details of various cases without explicitly identifying any one person.
  • Mention specific times. Even talking about ‘last summer’ instead of ‘last year’ makes a story feel more visceral and real.
  • Don’t assume your donors know what you’re talking about. Many people think a ‘village’ is a collection of grass huts and dirt, when most modern villages, even in third world countries, feature concrete, automobiles, and basic infrastructure, for example.

Share The Why

Central to every good story is a powerful ‘why.’ This is the purpose behind your cause. It is not the goals or the ROI sought, but rather the reasons that matter on a human level.

A good ‘why’ might be, “because inadequate light shouldn’t keep a child from an education,” or, “because these children have so much to share with the world, they just need the chance to do it.”

Some questions you can ask yourself to help bring out the story in your cause:

  • What inspired you to take up this cause in the first place? What specific incident happened, and what meaning did you pull out of it?
  • How might the potential donor relate to this problem?
  • Why is it important that this problem get fixed?
  • What impact does the problem have on people’s day-to-day lives?
  • Why should anyone care?

The last question may seem like a no-brainer, but as people try to protect themselves from discomfort, they can sometimes miss the obvious impact of others’ problems until it is spelled out for us.

Answering these questions appeals to the potential donors, but it also helps you tell your story by getting you to focus on the stuff that matters. This is what gets people to care.

Make It Personal

Humans are always looking for how others are like us, so highlight the ways your beneficiaries are like people the donor may know.

One way to do this is to appeal to emotions, which are universal. Don’t get sappy, but do use feeling words to describe your previous results or your intended outcomes: relief for oppressions removed, a sense of possibility for opportunities created, pride, joy, feeling listened to.

  • Use feeling words, because ultimately, what matters is changing how people feel about their lives.
  • Always tie your measurable results to the resulting feelings that they enable.
  • Talk in terms of your donors understand. They may not understand the relief of being free of expensive kerosene fuel costs, but they can certainly relate to knowing their kids will have a fair shot at a decent education and future.

Storytelling Traps To Avoid

There is a difference between telling a story to illustrate your cause and deceiving the donor. Stories can get out of hand when dealing with dramatic, emotionally charged issues, so keep the following in mind.

  • Protecting the people you help is your first priority. You can use any real stories you want, but if there is any chance these stories might be used against the person providing them, you are obligated to alter them. Use fake names, remove identifying information, and substitute pictures.
  • You are representing your organization. What this means is that the stories you tell should be accurate reflections of what you do and have experienced, but they don’t have to be 100% true. If privacy is an issue, they shouldn’t be.
  • Avoid adding embellishments for dramatic flair. These are easy to sniff out, and reality tends to be more poignant anyway.

What you are doing matters in a way that goes beyond concrete results. It actually changes lives, and the stories people live out. Make sure your potential donors know that by putting your story front and center.

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