(And What to Do Instead) It's something that most nonprofits do in their appeal messages... and it's hurting their fundraising results. Are you making this mistake, too?
Here is a fundraiser's trick-of-the-trade that will help you raise more money the next time you write an appeal message.
Why you shouldn’t tell a success story in your appeal letter
Let’s first talk about what a success story is.
A success story tells a completed tale of how someone who needed help received the help and is now doing better. A success story tells both the “before state” and the “after state" of someone's situation.
Here’s the structure of a typical nonprofit appeal letter story:
Most nonprofits convey this type of message:
WHAT TO AVOID: We've helped many underprivileged students learn how to read. Billy is one of them. When he came to us, Billy could barely read at grade level. But after taking our special summer program, Billy was ready for school in the fall. Will you partner with us by sending in a gift today so that we can help more students learn how to read?
Why this type of storytelling ineffective in appeals:
If you tell the story of a problem solved, the donor does not have a job to do. The donor does not want to fix a problem that might happen in the future. She wants to fix a problem right now. Telling a success story makes the donor feel glad and satisfied. She figures you have everything under control so she is not needed. She will simply find another nonprofit who urgently needs her help.
I know what you're thinking. "But Julie, I raise money by telling stories with happy endings and I have the donations to prove it!" Yes, you are right! Sometimes you may choose to tell these types of feel-good stories to report back to the donor about the good she is unleashing into the world. BUT... you'll raise more money not telling the whole story. If you want to raise more money, keep reading.
What to do instead of telling a success story:
Tell an incomplete story. An incomplete story tells only half the tale. The story should be told up until the point of help. At that point, you pivot the conversation. Now, you ask the donor to help the person in the story and people like him. A good incomplete story emphasizes the problem and the need for the donor to act now.
What it looks like in real life:
Let’s take the same example as above. Here’s a better way to illustrate the need for donations:
We are teaching 2 literacy classes for underprivileged middle schoolers this summer. Will you give a gift so that each of these students learns to read before the summer ends? Your donation will ensure they are ready for school in the fall.
I learned from fundraising expert Steven Screen why telling an incomplete story goes against a couple of deep-seated organizational values. Here are two struggles you might deal with when thinking about sharing only the bad news with donors in your appeal letters:
Struggle #1: You want to tell a completed success story because it shows donors you are good with their money and you can manage your programs.
Struggle #2: It’s hard to ask for help because that requires vulnerability. You want to be perceived that you are capable of doing a good job.
Both of these struggles can cause you to feel uncomfortable. So yes, incomplete stories might make you feel uncomfortable. BUT… it also makes the donor uncomfortable. And that’s what you want. You’re not writing the letter for you. You’re writing it for the donor.
The donor needs to feel uncomfortable to take action… to solve the problem. The responsibility is on the donor, too. She shares the problem with you. (Good news for you: You don’t carry the weight of this problem yourself!)
To sum it up:
A good incomplete story emphasizes the problem and shows the solution in action when she makes a gift now.
Tell the story of someone in need of help. At the point in the story when the person gets help, STOP. Pivot to how the donor can help this person and other people like him.
In your thank-you letter, tell the donor how her gift is helping the person. Then, in your next donor newsletter, tell the completed story… how her gift made a difference in the person's life. Now you've told a completed story and the donor rightfully feels she's made a meaningful difference.