Events Marketing

Live from IFC 2018: What stories to tell to get your donors to take action

on April 15, 2018

This week, the CrowdRise team has descended upon New Orleans to eat some po’ boys and attend two of the biggest nonprofit fundraising conferences of the year: The 2018 International Fundraising Conference and the Nonprofit Technology Conference, from April 11th through April 17th. And, lucky for those who couldn’t make it, we’re live-blogging our favorite fundraising sessions along the way. (So sorry you can’t download the po’ boys to enjoy at home.)


Storytelling for your nonprofit is only helpful if it causes your donors to take the action you want them to take.

That’s why it’s important that, before nonprofits go sending out yet another email blast or appeal letter, they know what type of stories to share to better engage supporters, when to share them, and even who to share them with.

While we were at the 2018 International Fundraising Conference, Steven Screen, Co-Founder of The Better Fundraising Co., shared a checklist of tips that organizations could use to tell better stories through their fundraising materials. Here’s what we learned...

Your donor should have a role and see themselves in every story

In every message you send and in every story you tell, your donor should see themselves in your communication. It sounds so simple. But when you look at most nonprofit messaging, you wouldn’t even know that they had donors, because they’re either talking about themselves or their mission. Donor communication should instead focus on your donor’s role in your story — not your organization’s role.

So how do you showcase your donors as the hero in your story? First, write to them about what they can do. (You can be sure that you’re doing this correctly when you have at least a 2-to-1 ratio of “you” to every “we/us/our” in your communication.) Also ask them to do something compelling, not just to “partner” with you towards your mission. Supporters are more interested in being a hero than a partner.

When it comes to a call-to-action, always talk about outcome over process. Skip to the things that they care about, such as “help the kids,” instead of “support the uplifting kids program.” Also be specific… “Be the difference for a refugee” will raise less than the specific call to “provide medical care for a refugee.”

How you tell a story is less important than what story you tell and when you tell it

When you are asking for support, whether it’s in an appeal letter, an invite to a fundraising event, or even a 1-to-1 ask, make sure you are telling a story of need. This could be a problem that is unsolved, a person that needs help, or a story that is not yet complete. Why? Presenting your story in this way paints your donor as a hero with a powerful role to play, and gives them a clear space to fill.

As Steven put it, “you should have a donor-shaped hole in every message you send out.”

When you write to your donor about what they can do, place them into the narrative and get specific. Also ask them to do something that they can actually achieve on their own. For instance, rather than asking them to “end homelessness in our region,” let them know that, “your $35 gift secures a night of safety for one child or one mom.”

You also don’t need to support a dire or life-threatening cause to have urgency or timeliness in your messaging. “No one goes to the doctor and finds out that they need to support the library next week,” Steven said. But that doesn’t mean you can’t tell your story in a compelling way. Relate your messaging to a specific outcome: “We have 47 essential books for children that need to be replaced in our library before National Reading Day.”

Be vulnerable in your ask, even when it’s hard to do

It’s not always easy to bring to light the areas where you need the most help. But it’s also important to be vulnerable in your appeal letters, and talk to your donors in a compelling way that speaks to their heart. This can be difficult for many organizations to do, and many are hesitant to call out the real problems they are trying to solve, because they don’t want people to think that they are not managing their money well. That’s where vulnerability comes in.

Steven quoted Brene Brown: “Through my research, I found that vulnerability is the glue that holds relationships together. It’s the magic sauce … Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they are never weakness.”

You have to be vulnerable and honest when talking to your donors because, if they don’t know how their gift is truly making a difference, why would they make another gift?

You have a big story you need to constantly tell your donor

Many organizations stick to a familiar model in their appeal letters, which is a mix of asking and reporting: “We’ve got this covered. We’ve taken care of everybody we’ve come across. The need is enormous, we’ve been very busy, and it would be great if you would consider partnering with us. [Insert photo of happy child here.]”

A lot of the reason behind this script is that there is a lot of competition out there, so many organizations feel like they have to report to their donors and potential donors that they are competent and worth the investment right there in their ask. But unfortunately, competency is not something that moves the needle for most donors.

Instead, you need to emotionally move them enough so that they feel that they can justify making a gift. The battle you should be fighting is trying to get a donors attention in your emails and marketing, and letting them know that they can make a difference today. (These two factors are way more important than competency.)

The big story you should be telling your donors is simple: your donor is needed + their gift makes a real difference. If you follow this in your donor communication, your donors will be more likely to read your messaging and give you a gift.


A big thanks to Steven Screen for a IFC 2018 session that was so, so great. To check out more of our favorite sessions at moments at the International Fundraising Conference in New Orleans, as well as NTC 2018, follow along with us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram as we live tweet, live blog, and share all of our favorite moments at the show.

New call-to-action

Rilee Chastain

Rilee Chastain is the Content Marketing Specialist at CrowdRise. She is passionate about content optimization and all things social, and cares way too much about her Instagram aesthetic. She also has a life goal to eat mac and cheese at least 3 times a week.