Sometimes things don’t turn out the way we planned. When that happens, use the opportunity to invite donors to have a closer look at the important work you do.
We love a good transformation story: someone was hurting. Things were all wrong. Then your donors stepped up and your organization did life-changing work. Those stories are powerful and effective, and we love to tell them.
But what if things didn’t turn out so well?
How do we tell a story when it’s just the beginning of a long process of change?
How do we tell stories when we don’t know the ending?
I believe some of our internal conflict over these stories is our fear of giving donors a not-so-perfect picture of our mission. On the one hand, we’re seen as the experts. But really, there are so many factors beyond our control. We cannot fix it all.
I’m not talking about taking responsibility when we mess up (more on that another time). I’m thinking about those interventions where we did our best, and it seemed like things were okay. We saw change. We may have shared a story from a beneficiary who made a radical turnaround because of our work. But a few months later, they were right back in that unhealthy situation. Do you tell that story?
You probably don’t want to (or need to) highlight that person’s personal setbacks. But there are stories you can tell around the experience:
Explain the process of change your beneficiaries go through.
Focus on one aspect of the change process and help supporters understand why it’s such a hurdle.
Share a story about the setting that causes difficulties in the change process.
Feature something in your work that deals specifically with one of those hurdles.
This works for unfinished stories, too. For complicated stories, and for slow change. Use setbacks and the unknown to invite your donors to draw close. You’ll be glad you did.
Your donors are busy. They’re tired. They make decisions all day in a world where everyone is clamoring for attention. Here’s a simple way to help them “catch” your stories.
Have you ever opened an email from a nonprofit and the thing just kept going on, and on? Or it was formatted to look like their print newsletter, and turned into a maze of misshapen text on your phone? Did you fight through and read it? If you did (most won’t), could you recall anything it said?
The idea of sending a regular newsletter is not a bad one. Printed. Sent through the postal service. With a return envelope for donations. The problem comes when we try to send that same newsletter by email. First, the formatting is going to be a bear.
The real problem is when we try to put a bunch of stories into one email, readers can’t “catch” them.
They open the email (maybe), see how long (or crowded) it is, and move along to the next thing in their inbox.
Even if they love you.
Try this instead:
Write your beautiful print newsletter. Include all the key stories a newsletter needs. Then, spread those stories out over several emails.
One story. One email.
If your newsletter has a constituent story, a donor story, and a volunteer story, that gives you three emails to send with content from your newsletter.
Think of storytelling like a game of catch, and each story is a ball. I toss you a story; you catch it and read. If I toss you several balls at once, how many will you catch? Even if you’re super-motivated and nimble, it’s likely you’ll miss most of those balls.
However, when I toss you just one ball at a time, you can easily catch it and respond.
Your donors are busy. They’re tired. They make decisions all day in a world where everyone is clamoring for attention. Balls coming at them. all. day. long. You can be the bright spot in their day by tossing them just one ball at a time.
When you try to cram several stories into one email message, other stories dilute your primary story and your call to action.
Treat your emails like a game of catch. Send one story at a time.
Our stories have the power to move supporters along on a journey: introducing them to a problem, dispelling myths, offering hope, introducing them to our organization, showing them how we solve the problem, building trust, and inviting them to take action.
At any point in time, you’ll have people at different stages along these five levels of awareness (from copywriter Eugene Schwartz):
Unaware – They don’t even know there is a problem.
Problem Aware – They know about the problem, but not about solutions.
Solution Aware – They know about solutions, but not so much about your organization, the work you do, or what makes you special.
Brand Aware – They know about you! But they aren’t convinced you are the right fit for them.
Most Aware – They get it! They know about the problem, what you do to solve the problem, they know, like, and trust you, and they’re ready to join you (just waiting for you to ask).
It’s important to think about the donor’s journey, and where they are in it, when crafting our stories. We must also consider our organization’s goals (increase monthly donations, bust a myth around the problem we solve, attract volunteers, etc.) and position ourselves and the story accordingly.
Address potential donors according to the stage of awareness they’re in. Do this, and donors will be more informed, engaged, and ready to respond when it’s time to ask for their support.
Joy Capps is the author of Joyful Copy—How to Show Up in the Marketplace Ethically and Authentically. We chatted about the book and how as Christians we can look to God for the ultimate in best practices.
There are a lot of copywriting formulas and blueprints, and many ways to reach your audience. But not all ways line up with what we know to be ethical and true. Joy created her Joyful Copy framework to help us write marketing copy that isn’t slimy. Based on Galatians 5:22-23 and Philippians 4:8, her framework filters best practices of copywriting through the teachings of the Bible.
We talked about:
The Joyful Copy Framework
Is there even such a thing as ethical copywriting?
How blindly following the gurus can lead us down a slippery slope
Asking God lead our work vs asking Him to bless our work
I can see why people might be hesitant to allow strangers into their space. We are conditioned to look at people who are not like us as either scary or exotic. Since childhood, most of us have been warned of “stranger danger”.
The ad features a family of shaggy “monsters” enjoying their vacation. It starts where many of us are when it comes to inviting strangers to stay in our homes–it’s a little scary. But then we see a delightful series of scenes: enjoying a beautiful view with a cuppa tea, a family hike, collecting shells, taking selfies, cooking, playing games…
These are simple things we enjoy with our own families.
The shaggy monsters clean up after themselves, straighten a picture on the wall, and leave a thank you note. As they close the door, we finally see them as they really are–a human family, just like us.
Kevin Morby’s song, Beautiful Strangers, provides a relaxed musical backdrop. Not a word is spoken. It’s a beautifully orchestrated story with an important message:
Strangers aren’t that strange. We have more in common than not.
The stories we tell can build bridges
Unfortunately, in our attempts to elicit emotion (or donations), we often emphasize our differences rather than our shared humanity. When we do this, we miss opportunities to present a realistic and nuanced view of the problems we solve. At worst, we reinforce stereotypes and even exploit the people we are called to serve.
Every story gives us a chance to choose. Do we set up a “them and us” narrative, or will we do the work to offer another perspective?