You Don't Have to Have a Story to Tell a Story
Once there was a fundraising copywriter who liked nothing better than to sit at her desk and help her clients save the world. She knew that the work they did was as important as air and water to the people who needed their services. So she poured her heart into every word she wrote.
But she also knew that good fundraising results depended on more than just her own passion. If she wanted to inspire readers to open the envelopes or e-mails or blog posts she wrote, and if she wanted them to make generous and consistent gifts to the organizations she represented, she needed to make them feel the same way she felt.
After thinking about it for only a moment, she knew what to do. She realized one thing that made her feel so strongly about her clients was that she had learned as much as she could about their programs. She had learned a lot about the people who helped and the people who were helped.
So she said to her clients, "Send me real stories about men, women and children you've helped. Give me a chance to talk with some of them if possible. Let me tell their stories with as much realistic detail as I can. If you do that, I'll write appeals and acquisition letters that make your supporters feel as strongly about your work as I do."
So the clients sent stories. Stories of people who had faced terrible trials and challenges. Stories of suffering and loss and grief and fear. And, just as important, stories of people whose lives had been changed — or even saved — by her clients.
She wrote those stories using all the talent, art, craft, knowledge and experience she possessed.
The stories were good. And the results were good. Her clients prospered. And the world was a little better for it.
Then one day one of her clients said, "I'm sorry, we don't have a story for you today."
The writer knew this was not good news. She had seen again and again that well-told, emotional stories made a huge difference in how people responded to appeals.
She thought about the organization. She knew it benefitted from having a very charismatic leader. A caring, committed man who was well-known and widely respected. She looked at a sentence in the appeal-which-had-no-story. It read, "Today, there are so many in our area who need food and shelter." It was a good transition sentence. But it was not enough.
Normally, this was the part of the letter where she would help readers see those suffering people as real human beings by telling the story of someone who had been helped by her client.
She put her elbows on her desk, rested her chin on her hands and thought. She drummed her fingers on the polished wood of her desktop. Then suddenly she realized that, actually, the story she needed was right in front of her. She just had to find it.
Then, in a flash, there it was. She started writing:
"I've been working at my desk all morning (the voice was the leader of the organization). A few minutes ago, someone came in to ask me a question, and I realized I'd been sitting behind my old-fashioned rolltop desk for almost four hours. I decided to get a cup of coffee.
"Walking across the street to Starbucks, I passed a man sitting on the sidewalk dressed in rags. I knew he was homeless. And I thought he might ask me for some change. But he didn't. He just turned his face away. It was a shocking, powerful moment. I realized that, even though he had nothing, he still had a sense of dignity."
The writer began to get excited. She knew this was pretty good. The trick would be to use enough personal details to make it a story but be general enough that the facts would be likely to fit a typical day for that leader.
She finished the letter. It was strong. It was real. It was a moving story. And by the time the results came in a few months later, it was clear that it had been effective.
Of course, the writer knew, just as you and I do, that there's nothing quite like having a true story that puts a human face on an organization's mission.
But she also knew that stories like that might not always be available. And now she knew that that doesn't have to spell the difference between success and failure. Because now she understood that you don't have to have a story to tell a story. You just have to find another one. One that's already there.
Willis believes in expressive writing, exceptional fundraising, and exuberant living.
Willis Turner is the senior copywriter at Huntsinger & Jeffer. He was an experienced writer and creative director in the traditional advertising world for more than 20 years before making the switch to fundraising nearly 15 years ago. In his work with nonprofit organizations and associations, he has written thousands of appeals, renewals and acquisition communications for every medium. He creates direct-response campaigns, as well as collateral materials and communications, that get attention, tell emotional stories, and persuade people to take action or make a donation.