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We Need a Hero: Writing Donor-Centered Email Appeals

Resource Center - Foundation

(June 21, 2011) There is a lot of emphasis these days on numbers and statistics when showing donors the good things that your organization does. When you are writing the first line of an email, however, you need to be a storyteller, not a statistician.

Colin Holtz and Steve Daigneault, authors of the white paper "Storytelling and the Art of Email Writing," say that it is crucial to tell a story in your emails to donors (and this likely applies to direct mail as well). But they do not stop there. They say that you have to tell the right kind of story--one in which the donor is the hero, not your organization.

"Embracing storytelling means more than simply dropping a personal story into a fundraising appeal," say Holtz and Deigneault. Too often, nonprofits go looking for a compelling story about someone they have served, and the story comes across as forced or contrived. Yes, the stories might stir emotions, but donors are seeing through the formula, the authors say.

Instead of telling the story of your organization, we've often been told, tell the story of those your organization serves. That's been the going mantra. Now Holtz and Daigneault challenge nonprofits to make the donor the main actor of the story. It's about what THEY can do to make change happen in the world, not what your organization does.

Beyond the Personal Story

The authors present two types of storytelling that go beyond using personal stories. The first is the "explaining story," which, as it sounds, illustrates the problems that your organization works to solve. For example, if you work for an organization that seeks to preserve wildlife, then you would explain the challenges that specific animals face due to human interference.

Explaining stories can be effective because they tell a story in terms that people can more easily relate to and remember than simple cold statistics. However, the language you use counts. Are you using vivid details and simple language to get to the point quickly? Instead of saying that sea turtles face "habitat degradation" from a recent oil spill, you can say that they face a "horrifying threat of dirty, sticky oil." The intent is not to be alarming or to overstate the problem; the point is to depict the animal's situation in vivid terms rather than scientific language.

Compelling Stories

The second type of storytelling that the authors suggest nonprofits make better use of is the compelling story: One that causes people to act (and give) based on what they read.

Compelling stories set up a conflict or a problem and make it clear that the donor is the one who can make something change. Here is an example the authors used:

What if every week were an incredible week? A week when you felt meaning and purpose. A week when you know that you were literally changing the world for the better.

That's what it's like for U.S. Fund for UNICEF's monthly Pledge Donors. Every month, they support UNICEF's programs with a modest amount. And in return, they can be confident that with less than a dollar a day, they're saving innocent, vulnerable children from pain and suffering."

Effective fundraising appeals, therefore, explicitly set up donors as the heroes of a particular moment. They can speak to the impact one person can have, or simply tell the story of a moment of crisis or opportunity in which we are relying on the donor to step up and act.

"People give because doing so offers them a chance to write their own story--and join in a shared story," say Holtz and Deigneault.

In the opening paragraphs of an email message, avoid the temptation to focus on your organization. Instead walk the reader through how clicking a link at this moment will lead them to being the hero.

For more examples of how you can make donors the heroes of your story, download the white paper "Storytelling and the Art of Email Writing."

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