7 Tips to Instantly Improve your Nonprofit's Storytelling to Engage Donors

by Jake Thornton

Telling a powerful story that connects a nonprofit’s mission to the donor is the heartbeat of an organisation’s fundraising efforts. If you fail to tell an engaging story that resonates with your donors, then you’ll fail to maximise on raising funds for your cause.

Stories can be told in many ways. The traditional route of direct mail, talking at events or talking one-to-one with your most valuable donors. As well as the endlessly opportunities that now exist in the digital space for nonprofits to be connecting donors to their cause through powerful storytelling.

Digital channels can include your website, social media channels, email newsletter … right down to the copy you have in your signature on the work email you use to contact donors.

Don’t waste any chance you have to fundraise with power when sharing your nonprofit’s story with donors!

Here are 7 tips (with videos) to help your nonprofit’s storytelling to better engage donors that will raise more money for your cause.

Tip 1: Know who you're talking too

Not all donors are the same, and while we know that human beings are innately different, we often treat donors as if they all have the same needs.

If it’s an upcoming appeal that you’re creating a story for, you may have already segmented your audience by low value, mid value and high value donors. If you don’t currently segment your database, then now’s a good time to start this!

Short video with Ken Miller on segmenting your database.

Each segment here has different needs, they are invested in your organisation at different levels. Perhaps the different segments are reflective of a different wealth gap (perhaps not), but you may be able to identify that high value donors have a higher capacity to give more which could be reflected through their age, location, profession etc. all crucial information which separates your high value donors from your mid and low value donors.

Understanding the differences in your segments will help you draw conclusions around your donors different motives to give, which you can begin to craft your story around these motives specially to donors based in segments.

The amount in which donors give to your organisation is only one example, you can segment based on which programs your donors give to, how long the donor has been active etc.

Tip 2: Make the content in your story relatable

An area where nonprofits and fundraising teams get it oh so wrong! Make the story relatable to the donor.

If the main hook of your story sounds something like –

The Syrian War has now passed the ten year mark. 600,000 lives have been lost, 2 million people injured, 13.7 million Syrians have fled as Refugees. You can help 2 million people suffering from devastating injuries and help restore hope to the 17 million looking to rebuild their lives in Syria…

Stop right there … the donor has already lost interest.

Short video with Anthea Iva on making your content relatable.

How can one person begin to imagine making an impact on the lives of 17 million people.

Perhaps something more along these lines would relate a lot better:

The Syrian War has now passed the ten year mark. Millions of families are still rebuilding their lives and you have an opportunity to help a family in need for only $xxx. The Al Numan family have returned to Syrian and are now looking to rebuild their future which will impact not only their lives, but their whole community.

Now the donor can relate to helping one family which will impact an entire community!

It also helps to use imagery that donors can relate too. For example, a mother’s holding her child, children playing sports or learning at school. These are the simple joys in life that we take for granted and something donors can relate to with some level of emotion.

That said, if you’re sending a mailer to one household, discuss the impact that one household can make. If you’re in a room with 50 potential donors, what impact can those 50 donors in the room make.

Tip 3: Get the donor invested emotionally, not logically

Donating is an act based on emotion, not logic.

Donors don’t need all the stats, research and data that nonprofits feel they need to prove the problem. Show the problem through powerful imagery that’s reliable, and explain through your story the impact your donor can make.

This is often an area that causes conflict between the programs and communications teams against the fundraising teams. While there is compelling evidence that the problem is extensive and that a lot of research has gone into identifying precisely where the problems exist to which your nonprofit is working. The fact is your donors won’t give to your organisation based on this evidence.

The donor is the hero of your story, not your CEO or program staff. The donor will make the impact, not the nonprofit. The donor will solve the problem today, your charity is merely the bridge that connects the donor to the program.

Repeat: Donating is an act based on emotion, not logic.

Short video with Lani Masuku on getting donors invested emotionally.

Tip 4: Talk about the impact and invite the donor in

Major Gifts and Capital Campaigns expert Gail Perry recounted her experience early in her career of the 5 million dollar major gift “That Bombed!”

Gail shared her experience of engaging with a prospect donor who was going to make a five million dollar donation which failed to come through because the approach had been to discuss the donor’s history with the organisation and all the important milestones the organisations had achieved. Gail felt they had scripted too much prior to their conversation.

The other area that failed was that they didn’t invite the donor into the conversation. Gail and the organisation did all the talking which didn’t allow the donor to ask questions or identify what was important to the donor. Hence why the five million dollar ask ‘Bombed’.

Short video with Gail Perry on The $5M ask that bombed.

Gail Perry has since gone on to raise hundreds of millions of dollars for nonprofits and is one of the most recognised names in the fundraising profession. Her advice from having this experience was simple – “We didn’t help him identify the impact of his gift and we didn’t invite him to talk enough.”

Talk about the impact the donor will have with their donation, and where possible invite the donor to have their say, get them involved in the conversation.

Tip 5: Be YOU

So often when you read a direct mail piece you can be forgiven for thinking that Apple’s virtual assistant, Siri had written it.

As the world evolves to social interactions at our fingertips, gone are the days that to be taken seriously, you must be presented as a Grade A professional with a technical understanding of all components of the organisation.

Think about this – if your nonprofit had a voice, what would it sound like? What would be the tone be of that voice and how expressive would it be?

If your nonprofit was a real person, what would they look like? How would they dress, smile, and interact with others?

The answer … Look around the team of your nonprofit. This team is your voice and the identity of your brand. If there is a disconnect between your staff and your organisation, then there’s a good chance there will be a disconnect between your staff telling powerful stories to your donors.

In an interview with Fulfilled, Ken Burnett summarised when being asked how to tell a powerful story to attract new donors.

“You need to be real, you need to be you. You don’t want to be copying the gurus … You need to learn to be you and it has to be real. I believe that everyone can tell a gripping story with power and passion that will move people to action.”

Short video with Ken Burnett on how to tell a powerful story.

By finding your voice and expressing your passion through storytelling, you have the power to inspire donors to take action. Approach with caution if this an area of your fundraising efforts that you outsource as the voice of your mission lies within your team.

Your story may be best told by a fundraising officer, a program manager or it could be the CEO. Whoever it is that inspires your donors, remember to be authentic, be real, be you! Credit to Ken Burnett.

Talk about the impact the donor will have with their donation and where possible, invite the donor to have their say, get them involved in the conversation.

Tip 6: Have conflict

While making a powerful nonprofit story should be centred around your donor, it still needs to create conflict where stakes are involved.

Nonprofit social media storytelling expert, Julia Campbell recently discussed this area with Fulfilled.

“You can have a story in a tweet, you can have a story in six words … But a story has to have a character, it has to have conflict and there has to have stakes involved.”

Short video with Julia Campbell on common nonprofit storytelling mistakes

The conflict exists within the problem that you’re asking your donor to solve. Your donor is the solution to that conflict, however there are stakes involved. This is where you need your donors to act now! More on this in Tip #7 …

Tip 7: Create urgency

What is the hook in your story? Why should the donor act now? The suspense in your story (having stakes involved) needs to drive your donors to take action now.

Shanelle Newton Clapham explains this in an interview with Fulfilled.

“You’ve got to be able to create some urgency. We can create that and it doesn’t necessarily have to exist innately in the case study or the story, but you have to be able to create some urgency.”

Short video with Shanelle Newton Clapham on crafting a powerful story

While having a call-to-action button on your website and a sign-off message at the bottom of your direct mail piece are the obvious choices to create urgency, you will get better results reminding your donors of the urgency within the story you’re telling.

The problem exists now! Each new day this goes on, the problem continues to intensify.


Thank you readers for making it this far down 😃  We hope that you feel inspired with new ideas to tell a powerful story in your next fundraising appeal for your nonprofit that resonates with donors.

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