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Arts and Culture Fundraising: the Story to Tell When Nobody Is Dying

The standard formula for a fundraising message goes like this:

Something is not right. It needs to be changed, or somebody might suffer in some terrible way — maybe even die. By making a donation now, you can save a life.

If you craft a message like that with drama, urgency, simplicity, and clarity, you will probably do very well.

All that is true if you are working in one of these sectors:

  • Poverty
  • Social service
  • Health
  • Animal welfare
  • Environment
  • A number of others similar to these.

But there’s a big wrinkle. And if you are raising funds for an arts or culture organization, I can almost see you scratching your head or even rolling your eyes.

Because the standard formula doesn’t really apply to you!

Yes, you read that right.

If you’ve been listening to me (or just about any fundraising expert), you might be struggling with your fundraising because we’ve been leading you astray with the standard formula.

Here’s why the standard formula doesn’t do the job for you: If the show doesn’t go on, nobody dies. Nobody even suffers all that badly.

That doesn’t mean the show is unimportant. It just means you have to approach the whole conversation a little differently.

And that’s how fundraising is different for arts and culture:

Your donors don’t give out of altruistic compassion for the suffering of others. They do it mostly for themselves.

This becomes extremely evident when we note that your donors are also your customers. In fact, they are typically customers first, donors second. They’re already giving you money in the form of their purchases.

Why would they donate at all? There are several reasons they donate:

  • To make sure the art form will continue to be available for them. They understand the economics of the arts. They know that admissions and tickets don’t fully fund their favorite arts.
  • To get benefits. They value access and privileges that enhance their experience of the art.
  • To get recognition among their peers and community.
  • To “pay it forward.” This is the part of their motivation that comes closest to the standard fundraising formula. They value your art for what it has meant in their lives, and they know it’s important to pass that along to others.
  • To boost their community. Most of your donors know how your artform improves the quality of life, the reputation, and the economy of the community. This is rarely a primary giving motivation, though.

But it’s never to “save” someone. The main thing this tells us is that arts fundraising is only slightly about donors helping other people. It’s first about donors enriching their own lives.

So the action you call them to needs to include:

  • Keep the art available.
  • Get donor benefits — be specific about them, including what benefits are available at what giving levels.
  • Be recognized for your contribution. Bake donor recognition into your program, from donor lists in programs to naming opportunities.

(One thing you might think is notably missing from this list: To reach out to children or marginalized communities (i.e. outreach). I’m not saying outreach is unimportant to donors. Only that it’s not a primary reason most of them give. Most arts organizations have outreach as part of their mission, and find that there’s a (small) segment of donors who are extremely devoted to it. If you are an organization that is all (or mostly) about outreach, more (possibly all) of your donors may be motivated by outreach than the reasons above. That means your story will be somewhere between the standard formula and what I’m describing here.

The story to tell for arts fundraising

Since donors give primarily for themselves, the story you tell should be about someone like them. Not a superstar. Not an expert. Not a celebrity (unless the celebrity is clearly a fellow non-expert).

And the story they tell should be “What this artform means to me.” Or more specifically, “What something presented by this organization has meant for me.”

Here’s an example:

Cancer took my dad before his time. There are a lot of details to take care of when someone dies — everything from planning the memorial service to dealing with the estate, to cancelling subscriptions and getting rid of clothing. You’re almost too busy to mourn.

A few weeks after he died, while I was still in the thick of it all, I went to a Symphony concert. On the program was Gustav Mahler’s Symphony #5, a piece I know and love. Dad hated Mahler. We used to argue about it all the time. But he deeply loved that Adagietto (slow movement) of Mahler’s Fifth.

When the orchestra got to the Adagietto, I was taken by surprise at how powerful it was. Every phrase reached straight into my heart and wrung it out. I could almost literally see and hear my father, whom I thought I’d never see or hear again. I wept and shook and squeezed my hands into fists.

The Symphony took me on a difficult journey that night. But I’ll always be thankful for it.

Many of your donors have experiences like this that they can share. Make it a habit to find their stories and tell them in your fundraising and your reporting back. Because each story like this leads naturally to a fundraising ask: If the Symphony is important to you too, donate today to make sure it stays available for all of us!

Another way to tell this story is to describe the artform from that same point of view, but in your own words. Remind them how it feels and what they get from it:

Remember Rigoletto this season when the Duke leaves the love-struck Gilda? Their good-bye is a glorious 15-minute duet. You’ve probably never sung a duet like that with someone you love but you know exactly what they’re feeling! A tidal wave of emotion. We’ve all felt that, and the opera captures it and adds so much beauty and depth.

And that’s the power of opera. It makes your life richer and fuller. It’s a place where we come together and feel deeply. How hollow and sad life would be without that!

This second approach doesn’t require you to find and interview an articulate audience member, but it does mean you have to know the material.

What this approach to the story does most is that it’s about the artform as experienced by the audience. Not the insiders and professionals of your organization. That can make telling these stories a challenge. The audience/donor take on what’s happening is most likely simplistic, even “dumbed down” in the eyes of your insiders.

Finally, here are a few things your arts fundraising should not be about — because few donors care:

  • Because we work so hard, care so much and are so excellent.
  • Because this artform is “important.” Normal non-expert people love your art because it gives them pleasure, not because they “should” love it. That’s a dead-end for fundraising (and for sales) that is unfortunately much too common.
  • Because everyone should “support the arts.”

Related post: You Have No Dramatic Stories to Tell? You’re Looking at it Wrong!

Learn more about how to connect with donors in a meaningful way by taking our most popular online course, Irresistible Communications for Great Nonprofits. It’s available for members of The Fundraisingology Lab. Check it out.

CFRE Points:
Denis Mukwege par Claude Truong Ngoc novembre 2014 e1555536853306

Nobel Prize Winner Demonstrates the Power of Story

Denis Mukwege, 2018 co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, used his Nobel address to masterfully tell stories about his work with survivors of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The main story he tells is a harrowing account about a woman named Sarah. He ends it this way:

Today, Sarah is a beautiful, smiling, strong and charming woman.

Sarah has committed herself to helping people who have survived a history like hers.

Sarah received fifty US dollars, a grant our Dorcas transit house gives to women who are ready to rebuild their lives socio-economically.

Today, Sarah runs her small business. She has bought a plot of land. The Panzi Foundation has helped her with sheeting to make a roof. She has built a little house. She is independent and proud.

Her experience shows that, no matter how difficult and hopeless the situation, with determination there is always hope at the end of the tunnel.

If a woman like Sarah does not give up, who are we to do so?

This is very much like a fundraising story. What follows could easily be a fundraising ask. What does follow is a more general call to action.

Read the speech. It’s not easy or pleasant, but it’s powerful.

Mukwege’s story does one thing that careful fundraisers usually avoid: The story he tells is resolved. It has a “happy ending.” That’s called for by the context of the speech. I think what makes it work as a call to action is the direct challenge: If a woman like Sarah does not give up, who are we to do so?

That’s the secret to successful storytelling: Whatever else you do, make it about the listener.

Thanks to Bas van Breemen of Mindwize, a great fundraising agency in the Netherlands.

Interested in in Mukwege’s work? Check out the Dr. Denis Mukwege Foundation.

To discover how you can have powerful storytelling in your fundraising, take our online course; Your Blueprint for Donor-Focused, High-Revenue Fundraising Storytelling. It’s available for members of The Fundraisingology Lab. Check it out.

CFRE Points:
Pop Art Adventure e1542586243367

Effective Fundraising Is Always a “Choose Your Own Adventure” Story

Remember those Choose Your Own Adventure books? They are kid-fiction adventures that originated in the late 70s. Each book is narrated in the second person — you — and offers periodic decision points for the reader. It goes something like this:

  • If you decide to explore the cave, turn to page 52.
  • If you decide to walk away, turn to page 65.

The reader chooses. Your choice leads to a different outcome of the story. It’s a more active form of reading than normal books.

Fundraising should be like that. A way for each donor to participate — to make choices that matter.

Fundraising should actually be way better. Because it’s real, not fiction. When a donor decides to give, she not only feels the joy of giving … she actually helps change the world!

A fundraising message structured like a Choose Your Own might go something like this:

Something is wrong in the world. It’s wrong in a way that breaks your heart. It’s very clearly wrong, and it urgently needs to be fixed, and the way to help fix it is to send a donation.

  • If you decide to send a donation, turn to page 52.
  • If you decide not to send a donation, turn to page 65.

What happens if a donor decides to give and turn to page 52?

They get a warm glow as their brain confirms to them that helping others is the right thing to do. They quickly get a thank you message that specifically tells them what their money is on its way to do. Later on, they get more information proving to them that their gift really did make a difference! It’s almost as if you decided to explore the cave in the Choose Your Own book and then found a real-life chest of treasure!

What happens if the donor decides not to give and turns to page 65?

Not much. Story over. She’ll have other chances.

That’s the beauty of it. Every donor always has the right to say no when giving isn’t the right option for them.

But this is why fundraising is so amazing. It’s not just hypothetical outcomes. It’s a reality. What donors choose to do has an actual impact on the real world.

Sadly, you wouldn’t know that by reading most fundraising. It doesn’t set up that moment of decision. It doesn’t give the donors the chance to do something thrilling — or not do it, if they choose not to.

Instead, most fundraising is like this:

We are an awesome organization. We do awesome, important things. We’re very good at what we do. You can help fund our awesomeness by donating.

  • If you decide to send a donation, turn to page 52.
  • If you decide not to send a donation, turn to page 52 because the same things will happen either way!

In this telling, the awesomeness doesn’t depend on the donor. She can support it or not — but it makes no difference.

Charitable giving should be about action, change, progress, and relationship.

Does your fundraising create clear choices like Choose Your Own Adventure books? It should. And it can!

Want to know some specific ways to make your fundraising like a super-thrilling Choose Your Own Adventure? Check out our popular online course, Your Blueprint for Donor-Focused, High-Revenue Fundraising Storytelling. It’s available when you join The Fundrasingology Lab.

CFRE Points:
Pop Art Sing

5 Professional Tips for Making Your Fundraising Stories Sing

Jeff Brooks joins long-time friend and colleague, Kristine Poggioli to talk about writing great stories for fundraising — for direct mail, email, or any other medium.

Kristine’s tips for fundraising stories that really do the job:

  1. Grab the reader’s attention with a powerful hook.
  2. Know what the donor cares about and focus on that.
  3. It’s never the “victim’s” fault (even when it seems to be).
  4. Focus on headlines, outer envelope teasers, subject lines, etc.
  5. Make everything about the donor!

Put these ideas to work in your stories, and you will raise more money!

Find out more about Kristine Poggioli at her website.

Want to learn how to tell great stories and take your fundraising to new heights? Then you’ll want to find out more about my Blueprint for Donor-Focused, High-Revenue Fundraising Storytelling Course. You can access it when you join The Fundraisingology Lab.

CFRE Points:
Pop Art Truck Driver e1518680821459

Angry Bees and Direct Mail Fundraising

Not long ago, when I was in Toronto airport on Canada Day (1st July) I read a fascinating story about a ‘Transportation mishap’ (no kidding, that is what the local paper called it).

A truck with millions of bees had overturned. The truck was taking the bees back home in their hives after working hard pollinating some blueberries.

Most of the bees were rescued, according to the RCMP (the Mounted Police, or Mounties) and no people were injured, though unsurprisingly ‘Anyone with a bee allergy … was encouraged to stay in and keep the windows shut.’

Hang on — this really does have something to do with direct mail!

Well, I’m obsessed with data. Every nonprofit organisation I’ve ever worked with has demanded evidence that the money they spend on techniques and ideas is worth it. Thank goodness, because I believe that too!

So, for example, in a mail appeal, we use a load of tactics. Things like:

  • Specific ask amounts
  • A strong proposition
  • Thorough targeting
  • A great story with a start, middle and end
  • Additional ‘lifts’
  • Full-page response coupons

Of course, there are more subjective ‘tactics’ such as brilliant copy and design.

Together these tactics mean the pack tends to be large — often the letter is 4 pages long. But they have an enormous impact — a recent appeal for a charity using those tactics raised 4.5x more than a pack that didn’t use them.

Back to the bees.

With millions of bees hanging around, ‘bee experts’ and the police had to get all the bees back into their hives and rescued, whilst minimising stinging.

Bee stings are 100% fatal for one party involved (the bee) and always hurt the other party. So bee-stings are to be avoided.

A bee expert in the story about the mishap said, “These bees will not go out looking for anyone to sting… Still, remember that they’ve had a traumatic experience ….”

So the Mounties listened to the experts, who told them to use smoke.

(Hang in there dear reader, it all joins up in the end.)

Again, according to the newspaper, ‘…people working at the scene were wearing full protective gear and dousing the bees with smoke to keep them docile.’

Here’s the weird part: Nobody really knows why smoke makes bees docile! Some experts say that it disorients the bees. Others believe smoke fools them into thinking a fire is coming, causing them to gorge on honey in anticipation of fleeing.

In other words, the ‘experts’ haven’t a bloody clue why smoke works.

Back to our direct mail packs. We have tested lots of different tactics, and usually, an individual tactic makes a slight impact on the result on its own. But we rarely know why. And the search for ‘why’ never gets us anywhere.

For example longer letters usually work better. It’s quite dependable with only rare exceptions. We have no idea why this is so. There are theories, but no actual data that tells us what makes longer letters more effective.

Many a CEO or other authority refuses to believe that longer letters work better. They refuse to do it.

And so their fundraising is just a little less effective.

Which is too bad.

And I think you know where I am going with this.

If you were a Canadian Mountie, and you had to get 10 million bees onto a truck, would you care how the smoke works?

I’d just be thankful there is something that does the job. I’d use the smoke even though I don’t know why it works and ask questions later. Or never. Because the Mounties have a lot to do.

We’re all in a similar position. We have important work to do and not enough time to do it in. We have all kinds of techniques that nobody can explain because nobody knows why they work.

If we’re smart, we believe the experts and use the techniques. If we’re curious enough, we test those things to confirm them.

But we never reject a technique just because we don’t have an explanation for it!

Want to learn the ins and outs of telling the right stories in the right way? Sign up here for The Fundraisingology Lab and get access to Jeff’s masterclass: Your Blueprint for Donor-Focused, High-Revenue Fundraising Storytelling.

CFRE Points:
Pop Art Map of Africa

The Uncomfortable Blessing of Fundraising

I was in Uganda, gathering stories on behalf of a client. At that time, Uganda was Ground Zero of the AIDS epidemic. The disease had devastated parts of the country, killing nearly all adults under 60. The tranquil beauty of the countryside gave the impression of the richness of life. But the reality was the country was as empty and broken as if there’d been a nuclear holocaust.

I was visiting some of the hardest-hit communities. We saw no adult men or women, other than white-haired elderly ones — but there were children everywhere.

Most of my interviews were with older women. They’d ended up caring for their grandchildren after their own children died of AIDS. They typically had a dozen or more grandchildren in their care, all orphans, all with no source of care but grandma — who struggled to feed them all.

In one especially devastated community, an old woman approached me and asked if I was a priest. I told her I was not.

“So minister,” she said, then hurried away. I learned later that the community experience was that the only white people who visited them were clergy. And if I wasn’t a priest, I must be the next best thing, a minister.

A few minutes later, the old woman returned. She was holding a baby. She motioned me to follow her. We walked a few yards, pushing through a thick tropical forest until we emerged in a small clearing. The ground was a square of black soil, raked into steep furrows.

“Reverend bless,” the old woman said, motioning at the ground.

She wanted me to bless the garden plot. To invoke God’s power on the urgently needed crop.

And then, before I could even start to wonder how you bless a garden, she thrust the baby into my arms. “Bless baby,” she said.

I stood there at the edge of the garden plot, sleeping baby in my arms, and wondered what to do. I felt profoundly uncomfortable, terribly inadequate; I wanted to beg off, to explain how I was the wrong guy, to get away.

Fortunately, an insight came to me: I had no choice but to go through with the blessing they sought. I needed to figure it out and just get on with it.

My discomfort was nothing compared to their need for blessings. If I’d refused, it would have been an awkward extrication from an awkward situation — to me. To them, it would have been a crushing disappointment with potentially fatal repercussions. What sort of clergyman would do that to them? Or, as I asked myself, what sort of human being would do that to them?

I learned that day that sometimes the role is bigger than the person playing it. That sometimes doing the necessary thing can feel uncomfortable — but that is no reason back out.

This issue comes up in my work quite often in the form of a nonprofit leader who balks at signing a fundraising message he or she doesn’t like.

The less experienced ones say, “This is just dumb. It’ll never work. I know that because I wouldn’t respond to it.”

The more experienced ones say, “I realize this is how you motivate donors to give. But I don’t talk this way! It makes me uncomfortable.”

The true leaders (experienced or not) say, “I don’t understand this, but I’m willing to sign if that’s what it takes to get people to fund our cause.”

The real leaders get it — a lot quicker than I did: sometimes you have to fake it. You have to bless the baby and the garden. This may not be why you showed up to do the job, and you may feel unequipped to do it — but a role has been given to you, and you need to take it.

I don’t know if my blessings in Uganda had any effect on the garden. Or the baby. No doubt I got it wrong, but to this day I cherish the memory. It was one of those rare moments when the divine gets mixed up in normal life and leaves you changed. I often think about that baby. He’d be a young man by now. I hope he’s having a good, productive, joyful life.

Life is that way. There are times you have to push aside your sense of who you are and what you do in order to perform the role that you’ve been placed in.

So play the role; sign the letter. That’s how you participate and the strange mechanisms of the world. It’s how you transform the world around you. And yourself.

In my Storytelling Masterclass, we explore some of the many layers involved in getting a transforming story from the real world into our donors’ heart and minds. Don’t miss this chance to dig deep into the most challenging facet of fundraising! It’s available for all members of The Fundraisingology Lab.

CFRE Points:
Pop Art robots and humanity a scene from hamlet 123 RF e1518674179663

You Have No Dramatic Stories to Tell? You’re Looking at it Wrong!

We don’t have any dramatic stories to tell! How can we tell great stories?

We don’t work with babies or puppies! We have no way to be emotional.

Have you heard or said things like this?

It’s flat-out wrong.

If you have no drama or emotion to share with donors, it’s because you’re making one (or both) of these mistakes:

1. You’re looking at processes, not outcomes

Let’s say your organization works to advocate for low-income housing in your community. What you do: Make phone calls. Write emails. Publish studies. Attend meetings.

That may be an accurate description of your daily activities and processes. It’s not the end-product. It’s not why donors give.

There’s no drama!

The process exists so you can attain the outcome, which is people who might have been homeless having homes. That’s dramatic. That’s why donors donate!

That’s the story you need to tell!

If you think the fact that your donors are giving unrestricted gifts that largely fund overhead means you can’t talk about the outcomes of your programs, you aren’t thinking clearly! Your donors need — and deserve — to hear the stories of your outcomes. They don’t care about your processes, nor should they.

2. You assume life vs. death is the only drama that people care about

Relatively few nonprofits can legitimately claim that their work directly saves lives. The rest of us participate in other kinds of drama.

Arts and cultural organizations: Nobody is going to die if the show doesn’t go on. But something important will be lost; something that deeply affects the hearts, souls, and minds, culture, and legacy of your community. Yes, it really matters. It matters a lot!

Education: People will survive without what you teach. But what is the cost to them and to society if they don’t learn it?

A lot of organizations that help people in need really don’t save lives. They make lives better. But the difference may be dramatic and heart-rending.

Have faith in the importance and drama of your cause.

Find the drama. It’s there if you look! And tell that story.

Then donors will flock to your side.

Want to learn the ins and outs of telling the right stories in the right way? Sign up here for The Fundraisingology Lab and get instant access Jeff’s masterclass: Your Blueprint for Donor-Focused, High-Revenue Fundraising Storytelling.

CFRE Points:
Pop Art Father and Son e1518471523916

How Dad’s Last Story Changed My Life

Like many people, I spent much of my life believing my father was immortal. Then he told me a story that changed that.

When dad was diagnosed with cancer, I knew he was going to beat it. The whole family did. I was worried, of course, and I learned enough about his cancer to realize we couldn’t take it lightly. But my heart and most of my mind were confident he’d overcome it. He was in his 60s. I was in my 40s.

For two years it went well. He had a few rounds of chemo that shrank the tumors and kept him strong and healthy. He continued working as a math professor. He talked about the future. There were places he wanted to travel, and he looked forward to his grandchildren’s milestones. He bought a new car.

Then the cancer roared up like a flame with new fuel. Dad went through an especially aggressive regime of chemotherapy. It left him on his back, gasping and bleeding from his mouth. But it didn’t slow the cancer. Still, we believed he would overcome.

One night, my family went to my parents’ house for dinner after Dad had recovered from that chemo. He looked well, almost back to normal. My faith in a positive outcome grew as we ate and talked.

Then after dinner, Dad cornered me in the kitchen. Nobody else was around. He grabbed me by both shoulders. That wasn’t like him at all. His hands trembled.

“I’m worried about Mom,” he said, his eyes drilling into me. “She really can’t take care of herself. Last night her sleeve caught fire at the stove. I was there, so she wasn’t hurt. But you know how she is. . . .”

He didn’t finish the thought. He let it play out in my imagination. We faced each other in silence for probably a minute.

My mother had a chronic illness. All her life she had an impulsive approach that mostly served her well. But it was becoming dangerous. Dad had been quietly taking on the increasing burden of her care: driving her to appointments, making sure she took her medications, keeping her from falling, from getting lost, from setting herself afire.

It suddenly hit me—hit me almost with physical force—that my optimistic belief about his cancer was out of step with reality. At that instant, I realized that the cancer might take him, and leave my mother to my care.

That was the moment my father became mortal.

All he’d done was paint a quick verbal sketch: my mother, standing at the stove, flames licking up her sleeve, unaware as it climbed her arm. It was as vivid as a movie.

Until then, I’d understood the risk with my head but hadn’t felt it in my gut, or taken it seriously enough to prepare for a future without him. Now I was charged with energy to respond.

That’s the power of story. It can flip the switch in our heads from a vague fact to an unavoidable reality.

My father’s story—the last story he ever told me—was barely a story at all. But it was utterly vivid and heavy with urgency. I began to prepare for life without my father. He died a month later, and I became my mother’s caregiver.

I hope I never tell a story that hurts a donor as much as that story stung. But I do hope to tell stories that deliver as much motivating truth.

My experience is in no way unusual. We all live parts of our lives hiding behind a curtain. Maybe it’s the health of a loved one. Or our own financial situation. Or the appalling fact that children are going hungry. Or that diseases like cancer carry off people far too soon.

We know the facts. We can calculate the statistics. But we know them with our heads, not our hearts. That’s how your cause is for most donors. They’ve been exposed to the facts, probably for decades. You can shovel more and more facts about your issue at them, but you won’t change a thing in their brains, their will, or their muscle to pick up a pen and write a check.

Not until you lift the curtain by telling a story. Until then, they won’t give.

(Excerpted from How to Turn Your Words into Money by Jeff Brooks.)

For more tips like this on how to use storytelling to connect with your donors, join Jeff on his storytelling course, Your Blueprint for Donor-Focused, High-Revenue Fundraising Storytelling that is available for all members of The Fundraisingology Lab.

CFRE Points:
Made to stick
Donor LoveBrandingDonor PsychologyStorytelling

Six Steps to Make Your Communications Sticky

How do you make sure that everything you write grabs the reader’s attention, engages them and makes something happen?

After all, there is no point writing stuff that doesn’t have the desired outcome.

Even if that outcome is to help a donor appreciate the love they spread through their gift. The lives they changed. The lives they could change.

Let me point you to a great resource: Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath. It is one of the best fundraising books ever – and it is not about fundraising.

In it, they talk about the Darth Vader Toothbrush. It is worth reading the book just for that. I am not going to tell you more on that, but you do need to know. It is a quickish read, and not full of marketing jargon or nonsense.

For ‘sticky’ communications the book gives us an amazingly apt acronym: SUCCES. Here it is…

  • Simple: find the core of any idea. You need to prioritize your ideas. Providing ten arguments to the public is doomed to fail because people will not be able to remember them all. Be a master of leaving things out and stick to the core of your fundraising message.
  • Unexpected: grab people’s attention by surprising them. You need to violate people’s expectations with counterintuitive surprise. Generate interest and curiosity.
  • Concrete: make sure an idea can be grasped and remembered later. Explain in terms of human actions and use sensory information. Use concrete images and proverbs.
  • Credible: give an idea believability. Look for ways to help people test your ideas for themselves.
  • Emotional: help people see the importance of an idea. Let people feel something. Research shows that people are more likely to make a charitable gift to a single needy individual than to an entire impoverished region.
  • Stories: empower people to use an idea through narrative. Tell stories. Hearing stories acts as a kind of mental flight simulator preparing us to respond more quickly and effectively.

Made to Stick is highly recommended reading for smart fundraisers. It will boost your ability to write great marketing and fundraising copy.

It’s a quick read too!


Want to discover more ways to make your nonprofit communications sticky? Join The Fundraisingology Lab and get instant access to the Irresistible Communications for Great Nonprofits course! You’ll see great results immediately.

CFRE Points:
Did you hear about Chelsea

The Power of Witnessing

Many charities have proven that telling individual stories is more motivating for potential donors than throwing statistics and numbers at them.

Telling potential donors that there are 10,000 people diagnosed with a disease per annum is not as effective as telling a story about one person facing that disease… and showing them what they can do to help.

Storytelling hammers fact-sharing when it comes to soliciting donations.

Assuming you already know this is the case, then the next stage is to tell stories in a really engaging way.

I often get involved in writing copy, and a trick I have found is that stories flow better, and are more engaging if they are personal, involving, directly thank the donor, and are witnessed.

By ‘witnessed’, I mean kind of like what preachers do. Don’t just tell someone a story, make it personal. Since good direct mail letters should be written in first person singular, to a donor, the writer should be telling the story from their own perspective. (If you didn’t know this – check out our Irresistible Communications course! It’s available for all members of The Fundraisingology Lab.

In a story about someone who has a disease, the writer should have met that person or their family where possible. It is more compelling to say ‘when I met Bill, I was shocked when he told me that…’ ‘it brought me close to tears…’ than just saying something like ‘let me tell you about Bill. He was diagnosed with ….’

Take a leaf from preachers – witness change.

A while back I found this story which was on the home page of Vision Australia’s website. (Yay! A charity with a beneficiary story on their HOME page!) Just as a thought exercise I re-wrote it.

See what you think.


Vision Australia’s Children’s Services provide teams of specialists to assist families with children who are blind or have low vision from birth to 18 years of age. Your donation means we can ensure more children like Chelsea (pictured) benefit from these specialised services.

Seven-year-old Chelsea Nagle, was born with no vision at all due to a rare genetic condition known as Leber’s Congenital Amaurosis. Her parents were totally shocked and distraught after finding out that their daughter was completely blind.

Vision Australia provides free specialist help and support to children who are blind or have low vision which is critical for families who are faced with the shocking knowledge that their child has little or no sight. Your donation today can help ensure our services are available when Australians need help the most.

When the occupational therapist started, Chelsea couldn’t even hold a toothbrush well enough to clean her teeth – with children who have no sight, there’s no impetus to reach for things or pick them up as a sighted child will and there’s no learning by observation. Everything has to be encouraged and taught. The therapist helped Chelsea to explore things by using her sense of touch and to develop more self-help skills such as eating with a spoon and fork, brushing her hair, all to build up her independence.

Learning to use a cane was something else that required physiotherapy – Chelsea had to work on her wrist, arm and shoulders so that she could learn to hold out the cane properly and be able to walk confidently.

Every single one of her achievements has taken a lot of effort. Vision Australia’s support has been a vitally important part of getting Chelsea ready and able to attend school. To prepare Chelsea for school we provided counselling, physiotherapy and occupational therapy.

“Vision Australia’s support has been extremely valuable and I don’t think we could have survived without it, and I don’t think Chelsea would have developed into the independent, active and adventurous child she is today.” Lynda Nagel (Chelsea’s mum).

Your support today can help provide more specialist and individualised advice and training – the building blocks for a lifetime of learning – to children like Chelsea.

That’s a powerful story. But told in a journalistic style — facts without witnessing.

Here’s my rewrite to add a human narrator. (I had to make up some facts to do this!)


Part of my work is to speak with children like Chelsea and their parents about the vision diseases they’re fighting. Recently, I had just got off the phone assuring her mum, Linda Nagle, that I will do my utmost to ensure that the service that has helped Chelsea so much will continue.

Linda reiterated the huge impact services funded by caring and loving Australians have had. Then she took a big breath, paused and told me “It is so hard to describe the change in our lives,” she paused again. “From everyday things like brushing teeth to using the cane to get around safely, Melissa has been a godsend.”

Melissa is our trained occupational therapist – she’s completely funded by donations from people like you.

“Every day that I wake up I wonder what it would be like without the help of Vision – not just Melissa – but also the enormous support from the whole team. It also gives me a real lift to know that this is all funded by wonderful people. These are people across Australia I have never even met.”

By this point, tears were welling up in my eyes. Sometimes it just hits me, what a difference you are making in the lives of people like Chelsea!

“To have so much love and generosity from strangers is truly wonderful. If I have time to sit and think about it, I can’t help myself from crying.”

“I hope that you can tell them what a huge impact they are having on the life of my little child and our whole family.”

Please, make a donation today…

Putting the narrator into the story … revealing how the story impacted them … makes the story so much more real.

Because that’s the way we tell stories to the people we’re close to. We never merely recite the facts. We enthrall people with “witnessed” stories.

Do that with your non-profit stories, and they’ll go from good to irresistible!

Please share your thoughts by leaving your reply below. We’d love to learn from your experience.


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