Your communications and development teams are brainstorming approaches to your next fundraising campaign. Fueled by collaboration and the smell of multicolored markers, they’re excitedly filling big Post-It wall pads with phrases and sketches, reconfigured and brand-new ideas. Then a development staffer chimes in with, “Why don’t we ask one of our clients to write the appeal this year? I know the perfect person to do it!”
You feel the room almost physically divide as co-workers mentally retreat into their departmental territories.
To the development employees, the idea makes a lot of sense. People become donors to help solve a problem. What could be better than hearing directly from someone whose life they helped change?
Meanwhile, the communications side of the room is tense. They thought their development friends were finally getting it: credibility, consistent messaging, the principles of great storytelling. In a panic, they think it’s all headed out the window.
I couldn’t agree more with the development staff: Nothing’s better than hearing from someone whose life a donor helped change.
However, I couldn’t disagree more with the suggestion for executing the idea.
Storytelling is an art, and not everyone is an artist. So, here are my top three reasons why a copywriter, not a client or donor or board member, should craft a beneficiary’s story for your nonprofit’s appeal:
1. Most people are not strong writers.
By asking someone to write a coherent, cohesive, compelling story about a crucial event, you’re asking them to use a skill most won’t possess. What do you do when their story needs significant editing at best or, at worst, is unusable? Do you grit your teeth and go forward because you can’t afford to offend the writer or the person who suggested them?
2. They know their story, but not your message.
A woman who escaped years of abuse through the help of a nonprofit shared her story with me in a two-hour phone interview that was emotional, raw and all over the place. If she’d written the appeal, the point would have been lost in the details of her experience. My job as a copywriter was to share her story (her authentic, emotional story) in a way that showed how donors saved her and rescue women just like her every day.
3. You lose advantages inherent in an interview.
When actively listening to someone tell a story, you can guide them with your questions. You can gently move them along if they get off track, ask for details about a particular aspect to make it more vivid, or explore a comment they gloss over but you know could drive home a crucial point. As the writer, you can make sure you end up with the information you need.
One argument I hear often is, “But I’ve seen videos of clients talking about themselves, and people love them!”
Yes, videos can be powerful motivators. However, the most effective ones are planned, shot and re-shot over hours and hours, and carefully edited.
A talented copywriter can take the best of a client’s story and put it into context: This happy ending is possible because donors like you stepped in, and we can create more stories with your support. The result will be a much more powerfully persuasive appeal designed to elicit targeted audience behaviors that will move your organization toward its goals, without any loss of authenticity.
Read my 4 Steps to Great Nonprofit Storytelling, too.