Innovation guru Lucy Gower shares her top tips for telling powerful stories that will inspire your supporters
The most potent item in any fundraisers toolkit is the ability to tell a story that captures donors’ hearts and minds and inspires them to take action.
You might refer to them as case studies, but I call them stories. The term ‘case study’ sounds very clinical. People respond to stories, because stories capture our imaginations. Stories make us feel something in a way that a ‘case study’ does not.
Brilliant fundraisers are masters at gathering stories and telling them in a way that inspires their supporters. Whether you fundraise from trusts, foundations, individuals or corporates, telling a story is the most effective way to get your message across. So ditch the case study mindset and focus on finding and crafting emotional stories that will engage your supporters.
Get out from behind your desk
You have to go and find the stories that inspire you. Telling a story written by someone else will not have the same impact. Get out from behind your desk and spend time with your beneficiaries and the people that deliver your services. Learn to ask open questions, become better at listening and allow yourself to be inspired. In a fundraising organisation finding stories should be part of everyone’s job, so help your colleagues get out from behind their desks too, and regularly feed back on how stories are being used to engage supporters.
Understand your audience
Before you start to write, think about who your audience is and what their needs are. Spend as much time as you can finding out about them. What interests them? What do they care about? What types of projects might they like to fund? You may have one story that you tell in several different ways, depending on the particular interests of a supporter. Think about the channels you’re using too; a story for your website will be written in a different way to direct mail or an email campaign.
Find your focus
Often we know so much about our cause that we confuse our reader or listener with too much information. Be clear on what it is you want your supporter to feel, and one key thing that you want your supporter to do. Do you want them to make a regular gift, volunteer at an event, or take part in a challenge? Don’t offer them all three! If you give people too many options, they are likely to default to doing nothing.
The power of one
People give to help people. Your story should always be about one person or animal or geography – depending on your cause. For example tell the story of Joe, an abandoned baby who desperately needs a family. Don’t talk about the thousands of babies that have been abandoned and need families; this makes the problem feel too big for your supporter to be able to help. Make your supporter care about one person.
Make it emotional
People make decisions based on an emotional reaction. You must make your story emotional. Make people care what happens. Making the story about one person is one way to do this, but your use of language can also evoke emotion. Paint a picture with your words. Martin Luther King, painted a picture of his dream with his “one day on the red hills of Georgia” speech. Quotes are very powerful; use them where you can.
Show the solution
When telling the story of the current situation, make sure you bring your supporters into that story. Make it really clear how they can be part of the solution. If they give £3 a month, what is the difference it will make to the current situation? Will their donation mean that James has someone to talk to, that Tom does not go hungry, that Claire has a safe place to stay where she is not at risk of abuse? The supporter can help make this happen; they are always the hero in the story. So be clear on why their help is needed, where their donation will be spent and the difference it will make.
Use pictures (but get permission)
Using images helps to bring your story to life. If you are telling the story of a beneficiary, you must get permission to use both their story and their images. For sensitive stories, you may choose to protect the identity of individuals by using a different name or image of an actor.
Ask a stranger
Ask someone who has no knowledge of your organisation to proofread your story. Make sure there is no internal jargon or acronyms. It must be written in plain English and be as simple as possible to understand.
Lucy Gower is innovation director at Clayton Burnett. She is also a fundraising consultant, and trains fundraisers to find and tell inspiring stories. For more information contact firstname.lastname@example.org
This article first appeared in The Fundraiser magazine, Issue 34, October 2013