4 min read

Are your fundraising appeals as strong as they could be? How happy is the story they tell? The first in a two-part series.

What if I told you that your fundraising efforts were hurting the very people you’ve set out to help?

You might react with disbelief, or assume a defensive crouch. But please—put those reactions on hold for a second. Hear me out.

Because it’s quite likely that you are telling stories about your organization in such a way as to discourage donors from giving. You’re telling stories that depress how much and how often people will give.

If I’m right, it means you’re leaving money on the table . . . which also means you are hamstringing your ability to help the people your organization is devoted to helping.

The reason why I suspect this is because I’ve seen the fundraising letters you send. Well, maybe not your letters, but an awful lot of letters playing the same sorry tune. See if it sounds familiar—it goes something like this:

When Jill woke up in a bathtub full of ice, her confusion turned a horror as she realized her kidneys had been harvested. She panicked. Who had done this to her? Was she about to die? 

Fortunately, Jill called 911, and they put her in touch with the Kidney Harvesting Victims’ Aid and Justice League. In no time at all, we got Jill the life-saving kidney transplant she needed. And that’s not all: using our expert forensics and undercover intelligence, we also brought to justice the baddies who had done it!

“I don’t know what I would’ve done without the Kidney Harvesting Victims’ Aid and Justice League,” says Jill. “They truly saved my life!”

Tragically, however, Jill’s story is not unique. So many other victims of kidney harvesting go unaided. Today in the USA, almost 4000 people suffer this catastrophic crime yearly. Will you help us bring aid and justice to people like Jill? Please give generously to help us continue fighting kidney harvesting today.

Now, your organization probably doesn’t deal in bathtubs full of ice. But you do tell stories about people in need, and the help you give. So please look carefully at the story above, and allow me to highlight several serious flaws. I want you to see and understand why it has no business being in an appeal letter.


Nonsense, you exclaim. That appeal is great! It has good elements, sure. But there are a couple of big, fundamental problems with it that make it fundraising kryptonite.

Problem #1: The appeal tells the donor that Jill’s problem has already been solved.

Jill may start the story in a bathtub full of ice, but by the time the prospective donor gets to the ask, her life has been put back in order—kidneys, justice, and all.

Sure, the story talks about the unsolved problem abstractly (“so many other victims go unaided,” etc.). But the real message—the message your reader will hear loud and clear—is this: Don’t worry, Jill was saved.

That’s the message your reader will hear, because Jill’s specific story is what speaks loud and clear to your donor’s imagination, and their heart. It’s memorable, personal, vivid . . . and resolved. And this brings us to the second problem with the appeal:

Problem #2: The appeal relies on reason, not emotion or imagination.

Whereas Jill’s happy story engages our imagination and heart, the ask itself—the part that actually addresses the unsolved problem—is little more than a whisper to your donor’s rational mind. Yes, Jill’s crisis was solved, it says, but other statistics remain unaddressed. The reader is asked to extrapolate, to imagine thousands of unnamed, hypothetical, unsolved problems.

So let’s be clear about something: For an appeal to be successful, it must speak to the imagination and the heart, not the rational mind. Heart and imagination spur action; the rational mind stands little chance in translating an abstract problem (“almost 4000 people suffer”) into concrete action.

Chip and Dan Heath help illustrate this point in their endlessly useful book, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. In it, they discuss a message test conducted for Save the Children. Appeal A described the magnitude of the problem—the scope of poverty and hunger in Angola, Ethiopia, and so forth. Appeal B put a face to it: it said, the money you give will go to Rokia, a seven-year-old girl in Mali who is in desperate need of food and education.

Predictably, the latter appeal crushed the former. But here’s the truly fascinating part: the appeal that just focused on Rokia also received doubled the returns on a “combo appeal” that discussed both the specific girl AND the scope of the problem.

In other words, engaging the rational mind in calculation about a large, abstract problem did not increase gifts—it measurably decreased giving. Why? Because that rational calculation actively interfered with the heart and the imagination’s desire to be the hero for that child. All this is to say that if your appeal hinges on the donor making the inferential leap from “specific story, solved” to “abstract problem, unsolved” . . . good luck. You’re shooting yourself in the foot.

Problem #3: The appeal doesn’t give the donor a heroic role in the story.

There’s a third major shortcoming to this story that merits our attention. As previously mentioned, Jill has already been helped. By whom? By you. Your team has already rescued her and brought the evildoers to justice. Nice work.

That leaves the donor applauding on the sidelines—a “supporter” of the action, perhaps, but not the actor in the story. So they’re not going to feel that resolving the problem depends on them, because it doesn’t. The organization has things under control.

I’ve written elsewhere in these pixels about the problem of peacock fundraising, and here that problem raises its luxuriously foolish tailfeathers once again. The Kidney Harvesting Victims’ Aid and Justice League is the hero of the story, and the appeal asks the donor to give it money so it can do more heroic things.

It’s not a story of need. It’s a story of your organization’s accomplishments.

The problem is, your donors want to be the heroes. They want to feel that their gift will make a difference in rescuing someone like Jill. That desire to make a difference is what inspires people to give. They won’t just throw their money at “impressive organizations.”

Bottom line: if you want your reader to give money, you need to engage their imagination, and you cede the heroic limelight.

Stay tuned next week: we’ll consider how to tell stories that DO motivate donor action.

1 thought on “Stop telling happy stories”

  1. Michael Harder says:

    Excellent reminders. Thank you!


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