I’ve been working as a volunteer board member with Positive Wellness Alliance (PWA), a small nonprofit that serves low-income people with HIV/AIDS, to incorporate more storytelling and more gratitude into their donor communications. If you’ve been reading this blog for long, you know how strongly I believe in both storytelling and thank-yous as powerful nonprofit marketing and fundraising tools.

Lest you have any doubt about this magical power I’m talking about, let me share what just happened with PWA’s email newsletter.

At our February board meeting last Tuesday, Julie Meyer, the executive director, told us about one woman, Shonda, who had received gifts for her child and herself through our “adopt a family” Christmas program. Julie was clearly touched by Shonda’s gratitude, and so I told Julie she should write up Shonda’s story for our e-newsletter, but that she needed to do it soon, because mid-February is a little late to be talking about Christmas.

Julie jumped right on it and asked her administrative assistant Mary Berkley Whitley to work with Shonda’s case manager Kelly Newsome to write up the story. They whipped it together and emailed it to our supporters on Friday. Here’s the story. The subject line was “Hearts Were Touched During the Holidays.”

I’m sharing this with you for two reasons. First, it’s a great example of how to combine storytelling and gratitude into one email newsletter. PWA protects the privacy of both its clients and the “Secret Santas” through this program, so we can’t really connect grateful clients and generous supporters one by one. But by telling Shonda’s story of gratitude for PWA and its supporters, we as an agency can pass on our gratitude to everyone who participated in the program this year (more than 60 children in families affected by HIV/AIDS were adopted by PWA supporters as part of the program). All of the Secret Santas on the email list can see the good they’ve done by hearing Shonda’s story. It’s exactly the kind of feedback that donors want after giving. It’s worth sharing with you for that reason alone.

Now here’s the second reason, and the one that really drives home the power of this approach.  As soon as I saw the email newsletter on Friday, I emailed Julie and said “I bet someone will want to pay for Shonda’s nursing exam.”  In the story (read it now if you haven’t yet), Mary Berkley and Kelly mentioned Shonda’s inability to take the nursing exam simply as a way to set up her financial situation and how, despite her best efforts to support herself and her son, she was still falling short and desperately needed the help of PWA and its supporters to provide for her baby, especially at Christmas. There was no covert attempt on their part whatsoever to ask for additional support for Shonda.

This morning, the next business day after the email newsletter went out, Julie received email messages from two people on the mailing list, offering to help pay for Shonda’s nursing exam. One was a nurse herself and the other has many nurses in her family. I don’t know how this story will eventually turn out, but the fact that two people responded to the email doesn’t surprise me at all. Donors respond positively to real stories about real struggles and to gratitude, especially gratitude from someone like Shonda, who’s struggling with problems that many of us can’t imagine. The nursing connection was obviously a very powerful motivator for these donors too.

Would these same two supporters have responded to an email from PWA that asked point-blank for someone to help Shonda with her nursing exam fees? Maybe . . . or maybe not. By asking directly for something in a thank-you note, I believe you risk diluting much of the goodwill you create with your gratitude. I think the fact that this was a pure “thank-you” email actually made it much more likely that donors would respond in the way they did.

I want to point out that Julie, Mary Berkley and Kelly are not professional writers nor do they consider themselves natural-born storytellers. In fact, it’s taken a quite of bit of coaxing from me to get them to embrace this approach, but now that they have, they are writing wonderful stories about the people PWA helps and their stories are touching PWAs supporters in new ways with every piece of communications the agency sends out. You do not need a professional communications staff to make this work for you! (I’m teaching our popular storytelling webinar this Thursday if you want to learn how).

I’d love to hear your reaction to this story I’ve now shared with you . . .  what’s your take on using storytelling and gratitude as nonprofit marketing strategies?

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