Use Stories to Build Relationships with Donors

DO YOUR DONORS KNOW YOUR organization’s history? Do they understand the impact of your work? Do they feel their donations are being used effectively?

Communicating with stories is the best way to make sure your donors answer yes to these questions. Human beings are hardwired to better remember and comprehend facts when they are presented in a story format. From prehistoric man passing oral histories from one generation to the next to today’s politicians telling personal narratives on the campaign trail, stories activate parts of our brain unaffected by statistics and data.

Take a look at your organization’s proposals, mailings, reports, and newsletters. Are you incorporating narratives into your presentations? What about in donor meetings?

Annette Simmons describes six kinds of stories in her book, Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins: How to Use Your Own Stories to Communicate with Power and Impact. Below are descriptions of those story types, adapted to apply to nonprofits:

Who I Am: Stories are an excellent way to build trust and credibility with your donors. Think about the identity of your organization. What makes your organization special and what earned your organization the right to influence others? Do you have a compelling story about your organization’s history, founders, or a major donor? Weave these stories into a persuasive narrative to show the uniqueness of your organization.

Tell your donors what the world will look like in the future if your work is successful.

Why I’m Here: Fundraising is about relationships. You represent the organization. Donors need to trust and identify with you before they’ll listen to what you have to say about the organization you represent. Why did you get involved in the free-market movement? What compelled you to work for this organization? Only after discussing that will you have the credibility to explain why you’re meeting with prospective donors, or why you’re asking them for support. Tell donors what their gift will accomplish, who it will help, or how it will promote positive change. Frame the challenge, and explain how your organization will overcome it.

Vision: What is the vision of your organization? Tell your donors what the world will look like in the future if your work is successful. Don’t use numbers. Use imagery. A vision story should be metaphorical and create an emotional response. And remember, make sure you can deliver what you promise.

Values in Action: Look at accomplishments that demonstrated your organization’s values. For example, if you hosted an intern, profile her in a story to your donors and highlight the value she received from your organization. Then, profile her again in five or ten years to show how your organization influenced her life and career. Don’t be limited by your own stories. If one of your core values is self-sufficiency, tell a story about one of your donors who has a “Horatio Alger” background.

Teaching: Stories are the best way to teach lessons. There is a reason that Jesus taught using parables. If a donor is considering increasing his support but is somewhat hesitant, tell him a story about another donor who went through the same decision making process and ultimately decided to give more. What did that increased support mean to the other donor? Did he feel closer to the organization? Did he feel like he was making a bigger difference? Teaching stories are a non-confrontational way to show, rather than tell, donors why they should increase their support.

I Know What You Are Thinking: Donors have objections, but they may not tell you what they are. Give voice to those secret objections by confronting them through a story. “I know what you are thinking” stories are designed to validate the objection, and then address it. If you suspect a donor is concerned about the long-term viability of your organization, for example, you can bring up the objection and explain why it isn’t true. Did your organization recently introduce a planned giving program? Does your organization have a sizeable endowment? Is a major donor or the members of the board particularly committed to the organization? These types of stories effectively demonstrate the strength of your organization.

Annette Simmons’ book will help you with the mechanics of storytelling. You can apply those mechanics to grant writing as well. For that, consult Storytelling for Grantseekers: The Guide to Creative Nonprofit Fundraising by Cheryl A. Clark.

Mr. Kiel is a senior consultant at A.C. Fitzgerald and Associates. This article is reprinted from their monthly newsletter, The Nonprofit Partner. For more fundraising ideas for nonprofits, visit