Which would you rather read – a page of facts and statistics or a story? Most of us would probably choose the story, and not only because it seems more interesting. Research has found that stories have a unique ability to capture our attention because narratives activate the brain’s emotional processing centers. As fundraisers, we can use storytelling techniques to increase the impact of our messaging and educate funders about our programming.
Use these 6 storytelling tips to increase the effectiveness of your fundraising writing, whether for a grant, a solicitation to major donors, or an end-of-year campaign.
1. Include the elements of a story – plot, characters, setting
Every story has certain elements, so what creates your nonprofit’s story? Who are the important characters? Where does the action take place? What was the problem? How did your nonprofit respond to that challenge?
For example, if your organization provides services to people experiencing homelessness or mentorship opportunities for youth, rather than filling your limited space to simply explain the work of your organization’s staff, begin from the perspective of a client. To bring your story to life, write in the present tense and use the five senses as descriptive tools.
This way, when you tell how your organization helped them, it will seem less conclusory and be more persuasive – you’ve shown the importance of your nonprofit’s work for the people it serves.
2. Feature an individual client as the main character
Your potential funder is the reader, and you want them to identify with the story of the community and clients you are serving. The best way to do this is by telling the story of an individual client, as the main character, with their permission. Using a client’s story to show how your nonprofit or program benefits the community will have a much deeper emotional impact on the reader than simply presenting charts, numbers, and data.
You may highlight an individual story as an answer to a question regarding the previous year’s outcomes in a grant application or an individual fundraising letter, showing rather than telling how your nonprofit made a difference in their life. Direct quotes from an individual explaining how your organization helped them can be quite powerful. Photos or videos can bring your funding request to life.
3. Everyone has a role in the story, including the potential funder
One common way to consider story structure is through the framework of the “hero’s journey.” The hero’s journey is a well-known story across genres, and as a fundraiser, you can tap into its familiarity to increase the effectiveness of your ask.
But don’t set the funder up to be the hero by “saving” your nonprofit with their donation – the hero is your client or your nonprofit, and the funder can only help the hero finish their journey. Make your grant or letter primarily about the individual client or program, teeing up the role for the funder at the conclusion.
4. Focus on the small
Resist the urge to write about your organization from a high level. Rather than filling space to give all the great data you’ve gathered about your program, such as numbers served, increases in clients, and demographic information, spend your time immersing the reader into the world of your clients or your community served.
Writing instead about more personal, simple, and smaller stories will grab your readers, allowing funders to feel connected to your clients and desire to help them.
5. Build a “success story” bank
If you haven’t been focusing much on client and participant success stories, this is the time to start! Individual success stories can help persuade an audience by illustrating the human side of your nonprofit in a way that mission statements and budgets can’t. Start to think about how you can build up infrastructure around getting client stories, such as establishing systems between the program staff and the development team to share client successes as they happen and begin to collect these in a success story bank.
If your nonprofit works across more than one area, think about how you can explore different areas of your nonprofit with those stories, painting different pictures of the work it does. Using participant quotes, stories, and photographs on social media (with permission, of course) is a great way to foster connection between both your participants and the community, as well as to better illustrate your work to potential funders and show them what their donation could help accomplish.
6. Persuade your funder
For people who read funding requests all day long, using narratives to share information about your nonprofit keeps your reader engaged – we pay closer attention and learn more from stories than from data and stats. Just as importantly, stories generate an emotional connection in the audience that we can use to educate them about the need for our work and to persuade them to fund us. Make funders feel like they must fund your nonprofit.