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Fundraiser Asks: How Do I Tell Compelling Stories When Our Cause Has No “Happy Endings”?

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Question from the inbox:

Do you have any tips on storytelling when there is no happy ending?

The disease that I fundraise for is terminal, aggressive, and traumatic. Every diagnosis is a death sentence, and the average life span from diagnosis to death is 25 months. Bottom line: at this stage, there is no hope. No known cause and no cure.

Most families, loved ones and unpaid carers of our clients do not want to hear from us after the loved ones passing. We just remind them of the trauma that they have been through.

Having been in fundraising for many years – this is new to me.

I am sure that I am not the only one working in this space.

(Name and organization withheld)

No question, you have a challenge to work with.

Donor-love fundraising tells two very different types of stories:

  1. Problem-to-solve stories, which we use when asking donors to give. These are meant to show donors they can make things better by donating now.
  2. Problem-solved stories, which we tell donors to thank them after they’ve given. These are meant to show donors that their donations do what we promised they would do.

These two types of stories are very distinct from one another, and both are critical to sustainable fundraising.

Let’s look at both types of stories and how they might play out in your fundraising…

Problem-to-solve stories

For some organizations, these are not difficult to find, and they’re straightforward to tell. Say you’re an animal welfare shelter: There are some abandoned puppies here in the shelter, and we need funds to feed and care for them until they can be adopted.

You need to tell the story about one of the puppies who needs help. The story will work best if it’s detailed, emotional, and not complicated with a lot of insider knowledge. Basically, readers should meet a sad puppy they want to pick up and hug. Do that, and you’re at least half-way to a donation.

Easy, right? The puppy-in-need is part of the problem the organization exists to solve. It’s also a problem that many people – and probably all donors to the organization – want to solve. That story is directly relevant to those donors.

So my question for you is this: what problems do you exist to solve, and which of those problems do your donors also want to solve? What situations are relevant to your donors?

I’ll take a guess: You exist to serve people who have the disease and their caregivers – to make a very difficult journey just a bit more bearable. You may also fund research into care, treatment, and cure of the disease.

I’ll also guess that most of your donors are people with a personal connection to the disease: they have it, or someone close to them has it, or they’ve lost someone to it, or they are professionals who deal with it. I’m basing my advice on this assumption.

And that’s something that makes your audience – and thus your stories – a bit different from a “sad puppy” story. You don’t need to make a case that having the disease is bad … your people already know that. They know it more than the best story you could ever write.

Your “need” stories should be more focused: not about the disease in general, but specific needs of those who have it or things needed by caregivers or survivors. Those stories may not resonate outside your community, but they can be highly relevant to those within.

Likewise, when raising money for research, tell stories about specific areas of research. Promising breakthroughs toward the cure. Potential treatment or diagnosis improvements.

Remember that with all fundraising the real story behind every story is about the donor: Your donors should see themselves as active participants who can make a difference with their giving. If you have that, you have a strong fundraising story.

Problem-solved stories

Remember the sad puppy story, designed to make readers feel the pain of a bad situation? If the only stories donors ever heard were sad puppy stories, they wouldn’t have much basis for a good relationship. They wouldn’t see any progress, no idea that their giving was making things better. It would just be give, give, and give … and they never seem to make a difference. Organizations that do that tend to have poor donor retention.

That’s why it’s important that the organization also tell happy puppy stories – stories that show the problem (or small parts of the problem) solved.

Your happy stories need to be about small victories made possible by your work – and you know these victories are not small at all: treatments that made life better for patients; help for caregivers and family members; progress in research.

These are all signs of hope and success. Your donors need to hear them!

One last thing: I want to gently challenge your statement that your people don’t want to hear from you after loved ones pass because you remind them of their trauma.

I don’t know your constituents, but I urge you to reconsider this, at least as a blanket truth, because I think it may be limiting your ability to raise funds.

Not everyone is a donor, and that includes people in your community. Their reasons for not donating are their own. There’s little we can do about that – it’s really none of our business why people choose not to participate in philanthropy.

Donors are people who donate. They love to give. For them, giving to causes that matter to them is comforting and energizing. In the case of painful areas like your organization addresses, giving might be one of the few things available that helps them face the tragedy and pain they’ve been through. Giving can’t bring their loved one back or erase the pain, but it re-orients them. It can ease their grief, revive their hope, and give them strength to go on.

It really helps for us fundraisers to keep in mind that asking donors to give is not some kind of rude imposition. It could be exactly what they need. When we find ourselves reluctant to ask because we’re afraid we’re bothering people, we tend to ask too little and fail to give donors relevant and motivating reasons to give.

I wish you all the best as you tackle a difficult task. And thank you for being part of standing up to a terrible disease. You are making a real difference. Probably a bigger difference than you can know.

Find the help you need for the storytelling and other fundraising challenges you face:  Join The Fundraisingology Lab by Moceanic. You’ll find the tools, the information, and the supporting community that will take you to new places in your fundraising career. Join the waiting list now and you’ll be the first to hear when the doors open again!

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  • Jeff Brooks

    Jeff Brooks is a Fundraisingologist at Moceanic. He has more than 30 years of experience in fundraising, and has worked as a writer and creative director on behalf of top nonprofits around the world, including CARE, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Feeding America, and many others.

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