4 Ways Not to Choose a Hero for Your Next Fundraising Appeal

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(This post has appeared on my LinkedIn and at Achieve’s website.)

In nonprofit fundraising, telling the story of someone who has directly benefited from an organization’s services is the most effective way to move a potential donor to action. Finding such a story can be difficult, of course, but that doesn’t mean you should take the easy route.

No matter what kind of time crunch you’re in:

1. Don’t use a board member’s story.

Maybe a member of your board of directors was once a beneficiary or an on-the-ground volunteer. But if they’re on the board during the fundraising campaign, find someone else to feature in your campaign. Telling a real person’s story gives your organization credibility, so don’t run the risk of negating your authenticity by using an insider.

2. Don’t select a subject by consensus.

Your internal team is not the audience. Each of you is too invested in your own viewpoint to be objective. You also may be biased because you know the candidate or for any number of other reasons. Given all that baggage, getting everyone to agree too often devolves into selecting the lowest common denominator. Seek advice from outside your inner circle.

3. Don’t use a story simply because a big donor suggests it.

Donors, staff and volunteers undoubtedly are your best sources for finding story subjects. However, that doesn’t mean you should select a particular subject simply to please them. Doubling your fundraising results from last year will please them much more than using a story that doesn’t move your audience to action.

4. Don’t let communications and development work in silos.

I could write an entire post about why communications and development departments that work together get the best results. In the 2017 Nonprofit Communications Trends Report, only 34% of communications staff reported being consulted about fundraising decisions. These organizations are missing out – and giving yours a chance to get ahead. Be the nonprofit that keeps territorial fights out of the discussion, and you’ll see truly stunning results.

All this boils down to one thing: Don’t let too much of an internal focus derail your fundraising efforts. Keep your target audience and the behavior you want them to exhibit at the forefront when you’re selecting someone to feature in your fundraising materials.

3 Reasons Why a Professional Should Write Your Cause’s Story

Chalkboard: What's Your Story?

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Your communications and development teams are brainstorming approaches to your next fundraising campaign. Fueled by collaboration and multicolored markers, they’re excitedly filling big Post-It wall pads with phrases and sketches, reconfigured and brand-new ideas. Then someone (usually in development) 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 retreat into their departmental territories.

To development staff, 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, communications is tense. They thought development was finally getting it: credibility, consistent messaging and all the rest of the principles they build their outreach on. Instead, they’re about to watch all that go 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.

I couldn’t disagree more with your co-worker’s suggestion for executing this idea.

Here are my three top reasons why a copywriter, not a client or donor or board member, should tell a client’s story in your nonprofit’s appeal:

1. MOST PEOPLE ARE NOT STRONG ENOUGH WRITERS.

By asking someone to write a coherent, cohesive 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?

2. THEY KNOW THEIR STORY, BUT NOT YOUR MESSAGE.

A woman who escaped years of abuse with the help of a nonprofit shared her story with me in a two-hour phone interview. If she’d written the appeal, the message would have been lost in the details of what happened to her. My job as a copywriter was to share her story (her real, authentic story) in a way that also showed how donors help improve the lives of women just like her.

3. YOU LOSE ADVANTAGES INHERENT IN AN INTERVIEW.

When you’re actively listening to someone, you can guide the direction of the story 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 the point home. As the writer, you know what you need to end up with – so you can make sure you get there.

One argument I hear often is this: “But we have videos of our clients talking about what happened to them, and people love them!”

Yes, videos can be powerful motivators. However, the most effective ones are planned and/or edited.

A talented copywriter can take the best of a client’s story and put it into context: This story is possible because you helped, and we can create more stories again with your support. The end result will be a powerfully persuasive appeal designed to elicit audience behaviors that will move your organization toward its goals.