I attended a great session at the Nonprofit Technology Conference earlier this month called "It's Not You, It's Your Stories: Why Fundraisers are Failing at Storytelling and What They Need to Change," presented by Steve Daigneault of M + R Strategic Services and  Sue Citro of The Nature Conservancy.

Plenty of research shows us that stories are a very powerful way to communicate, and yet M + R's research with many of its clients found that stories did a terrible job in fundraising appeals, compared to the more straightforward institutional approach of presenting a need and accomplishments. In fact, in some cases the institutional approach raised four times as much as the approach with the personal story.

So what was going on?

Steve says it boils down to this: Is the donor in the story or not? 

Personal stories of one person's situation can be very good at explaining and educating, but that doesn't mean that they will compel readers to act.  For the reader to act, they have to see themselves as an essential part of the story, as if something won't happen unless they act.

Steve recommends you get at this in one of four ways, based on why people give:

1. To Feel Happy

“You’ll not only fund our work – you’ll know you changed a life.”

2. To Feel Important

“Give today to become a member and get insider info and updates.”

3. To Feel Like Part of a Success Story

"We saved the savannah elephant. We can save the Asian elephant too.”

4. Because Everyone’s Doing It

“From Martha L., a grandmother in Tennessee to Jim T., a construction worker in Florida, Americans everywhere have already committed to our fight.”

In other words, in stories that compel action, the donors can change the ending of the story with their actions.

Sue shared some wonderful guidance too, as she outlined how The Nature Conservancy has shifted their approach to storytelling over the last year or so.

Details Matter

Details make your story credible and suprising - it's what catches people's attention.

Use the Right "We"

When you use We or Us, you should be referring to your organization and your supporters jointly.

Create a Donor Identity

This goes back to Steve's point -- donors need to know their place in the story. Sue suggests that you frame giving as a chance "to be that special kind of person."

Make the Consequences Clear

Present giving as  choice that has consequences. Donors have a choice to join in as a hero -- or not.

Thanks Steve and Sue for showing us how to transform our storytelling into fundraising that really works!

Want More?

I am teaching a two-part webinar series on nonprofit storytelling for All-Access Pass Holders starting today (4/26/12). The recordings will be available in our Webinar Archive for Pass Holders through July 2012.

M + R has a free e-book and additional training on this topic that I highly recommend: Storytelling and the Art of Email Writing.

This article appeared in the April 26, 2012 edition of Kivi's Nonprofit Marketing Tips weekly e-newsletter. Get your free subscription.