How to harness the power of your charity's story

Charlie Davenport

Although many organisations are telling their stories these days, there still seems to be something missing from their stories. What’s missing is what makes a story truly great – empathy.

Empathy is a special kind of connection that we form with other people. It’s different from sympathy. Sympathy is when someone feels bad for someone else. In fundraising, sympathy manifests itself as donors feeling bad or guilty about an issue.

Empathy is when we feel with someone.

It is the core of our human experience in that it allows us to feel that connectedness with others. That desire to feel connected to others – a sense of belonging – is something that we as non-profits can create for our donors.

Yet, all too often we are missing this opportunity with our stories. Instead the stories we produce end up sounding like every other run of the mill non-profit story. The basic formula of: “here’s someone we have helped, they had this big problem, they couldn’t solve it on their own, but then they found our great organisation and we were able to help them. Isn’t our organisation great?! Now, make a gift.”

The problem with this model of storytelling is that we fail to form a meaningful connection with our audience. This connection will help them see how they are connected (in a variety of ways) to our work.

There are so many ways to make a connection with someone. Two of the core ways we form connections are as follows:

#1 Shared Values & Beliefs

Our values and beliefs are the core of who we are. One of the ways that we can connect with our audiences through our stories is to communicate the values or beliefs that we share with them. So let me ask you – What does your organisation stand for? What do you believe?

I’m on the board of an organisation in Vancouver called Women Against Violence Against Women, which is a feminist rape crisis centre. You would think that ‘feminist’ is a defining value that brings many of our donors to us. On some level it is. But over the last year of many conversations with donors there has been a much more fundamental value that has emerged – safety. Our donors want the city to be safe – for themselves, for their wives, for their relatives, for their daughters. Knowing that this is a value that we all share, we have told stories and started conversations about safety.

#2 Life Experiences

The second way that we can find common ground with our audiences through our storytelling is through shared life experiences. There are probably a lot of things you have in common with your donors. Perhaps being a parent. Maybe experiencing grief. It could be something as simple as joy.

Universities and colleges have it somewhat easier when it comes to talking about shared life experiences with alumni because they all went to the same school. But really, any organisation can tap into universally shared life experience.

These are just two examples of what it could look like to tell stories about shared values and common life experiences.

When you tell a story, you are opening the door for your donors to have an experience. By telling your donors stories and highlighting a universally experienced emotion, value or belief, you can help them feel more integrated in a community; your community. Because at the end of the day what we all long for is to realise our own humanity in others.

How to Boost Donor Retention

Furthermore, non-profits should be using storytelling to boost donor retention. According to Blackbaud’s 2016 Charitable Giving Report, it shows us that donor retention for first-time donors is still remarkably low – 29% for offline donors and 21% for online donors. But if donors are retained passed that first year, the retention rate jumps significantly to 60% for offline donors and 58% for online donors. This data shows that new donor retention should be a high priority for non-profit organisations.

According to this most recent Charitable Giving Report, “The non-profit sector is entering a period where sustainable growth depends on embracing best practices in donor engagement, retention, and stewardship.” This is our professional call to action. Now is the time to instate best practices at your organisation and truly develop a great system for donor retention.

So much of fundraising and relationship building is about following up with donors—keeping in touch, reporting impact, keeping them apprised of new happenings and so on. This is where you will see a lot of organisations struggle. First, they wonder about the “right” volume of communications to send to donors. Second, they wonder what the content of these communications should be.

My short answer to the question regarding volume of communications to donors is that it needs to be more than you are currently doing. For instance, one email a month to your email list is not that much and more than likely not enough to do the heavy lifting of relationship building. Start by evaluating the volume of your communications to your donor segments—offline and online donors. List out everything someone would have received if they made a gift six months ago. Ask yourself: Is this enough to successfully build a relationship with the donor?

When it comes to the content of donor communications that actually retain donors, we must focus on communicating impact. The best content to accomplish this is stories. Stories show donors their impact in action and clearly demonstrates how, through giving, a donor has helped solve a problem or meet a need.

As you evaluate your donor communications strategy, here are three places that you will want to incorporate stories:

1. Thank You Letters

Thank you letters are often the first touch point a donor receives after making a gift. A great thank you letter should surprise and delight donors, tell them how the gift was used, and tell them a story of impact. This does not have to be a long story. It can be a short paragraph in the letter, but that will be enough to give your donors the warm feels about their philanthropy.

2. Donor Newsletters

Newsletters are such an important piece in donor communications and stewardship. But all too often they are just used to report updates and nothing more substantial. Pivot your organisation’s newsletter to be more donor-centered. Make the whole newsletter about donors and donor impact, which includes telling a variety of stories.

Need some newsletter inspiration? Check out these five non-profit newsletters.

3.  Impact or Gratitude Reports

Many organisations are starting to do special follow-up reports on larger annual campaigns that they run. These reports are impact or gratitude reports that, again, highlight donor impact through stories. They showcase stories of program participants, clients, and beneficiaries of the work. In some cases, they will also tell donor stories to help connect donors to their peers.

No matter where your organisation is at with donor retention, you should be encouraged to evaluate and upgrade your efforts through story-based content.

Finally, we leave you with 3 final tips:

1. Consistency is how you crush it

Being a consistent storyteller will look different for every organization. But it starts with this question – what’s one small action you can take every day to keep telling great stories?

2. There has to Be a Why

If an organization has not identified why they are telling stories – why that activity matters to them – they will be less likely to be consistent, which is important (see #1).

3. Vulnerability leads to connection

Non-profit organizations also want connection with donors, clients, community members, volunteers, and so on. Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable when telling your story. So long as it’s what’s real and true for you, people will connect with it.

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