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It is essential to use stories to cultivate donors, raise money, and strengthen your organizations. Here are tips on the details and tone you should employ in your writing.

Last week we left off with the angel Clarence from It’s a Wonderful Life wooing George Bailey with a killer end-of-year appeal: Here’s what you’ve done . . . here’s how bad things would be otherwise . . . look at the difference you’ve made! Convinced of his life’s value, George—like your donor—is inspired to rededicate himself to it.

But Clarence’s persuasiveness doesn’t simply lie in accounting the returns on George’s lifetime investment. Rather, it derives its affective power from its vivid particularity. That is to say, he doesn’t deal in generalizations (Your life means so much to so many people!), statistics (Thanks to the Bailey’s Building & Loan, small business ownership in Bedford Falls exceeds state averages by 46%!), or abstraction (Your investment in the community has been a force multiplier for neighborliness!). Instead, he takes George to Pottersville and Mr. Martini’s bar. He shows him the homeless Mr. Gower and the grave of his brother Harry.

In other words, Clarence’s story is only tangentially about “impact” or “efficacy.” The driving force is the specific, personal details and the powerful emotions they elicit. It’s a Wonderful Life thus recognizes, as Philanthropy Daily frequently argues, that Effective Altruism—the notion that donors give out of utilitarian concerns, motivated by metrics cooked up to convey “efficacy” and “impact”—is hogwash. Humans are motivated by particular attachments, relationships, and a desire for belonging.

It follows that the stories we tell must speak that language—not the lingua of investment portfolios or office bureacrats. Fortunately, there are a few principles of writing that we can pluck from the creative writing playbook and dust off for effective fundraising.

“Show don’t tell”: Examples lead ideas

A hundred years ago, some American writers were taking a good hard look at our nation’s poetry in an effort to discover why it was so bad. What they found was that it was a poetry of ideas, manners, bloodless abstractions and soulless impersonations. From this observation many a famous poetic dictum was born. “No ideas but in things!” cried William Carlos Williams. One must “present / for inspection,” Marianne Moore famously added, “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” It is through the vitality of real persons, objects, and experiences that words gain descriptive force and life. And thus was born the golden calf of Creative Writing: “Show don’t tell.”

You, gentle reader, are not a modernist poet. But it behooves you nonetheless to include in your fundraising copy plenty of real toads—or, more precisely, client successes, personal testimonies, beaming children, and so on. Ideas are important, no doubt. As our friend TED tells us, they are “worth spreading.” But notice that most actual TED Talks begin not with ideas but anecdotes. These involve specific people, events, situations, and thus engage audiences’ imaginations (and emotions) more concretely and immediately than do abstractions. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a clearly drawn story is worth a thousand insightful observations.

What this means is that it’s far more engaging to tell a story about a family (real or hypothetical) facing eviction than it is to discuss median incomes, the federal poverty line, and cost of living. Focusing a fundraising letter on an individual’s story can serve a double purpose: not only is such personal testimony emotionally compelling, it also lends your audience a more concrete, clearly-imagined understanding of how your organization works, and how and why it succeeds.

But the axiom “Show don’t tell” doesn’t just prompt us to lean on examples. More broadly, it requires us to move from asserting the importance or efficacy of our work to demonstrating it. One can insist on the urgent, transformative, life-and-death-ness of one’s mission until the cows come home; readers hearts and minds require it to be shown with examples.

“Write what you know”: Deal in particulars, not abstractions

Closely connected to “Show don’t tell,” the maxim “Write what you know” urges writers to stick to the stuff of first-hand experience. I’m tweaking that meaning here slightly, to suggest rather writing what’s knowable—that is, what can be quickly grasped, imagined, understood. As everyone’s favorite Joseph Stalin quote goes, “One man’s death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” We remember and repeat this line because it’s true: we depend on imagination to translate raw facts into meaningful content, and the imagination has its limits.

In other words, our writing should draw from the well of particular illustrations, concrete images, and everyday objects and actions. One consequence of this is that it automatically eliminates most trendy jargon. Sailing, digging, or bricklaying conjure up specific images in our minds; synergizing, leveraging, and growth hacking do not—or at least not any images one would wish to conjure in polite company.

The same principle applies, however, when it comes to talking about mission. What does “fighting poverty,” “transforming early education,” or “ending food waste” look like, really? For starters, they don’t look like metrics—your Platinum GuideStar rating, a 28% increase in the favorable learning outcomes, or 200 million tons of food. Who can visualize such things? Those ideas remain abstract, lacking the force of a clear mental image. What they look like, when it comes right down to it, is a family sitting down for dinner together under their own roof; the excited hum of a classroom in which the children are engrossed in learning; a basket of cauliflower going farm to food-kitchen instead of farm to dumpster. Don’t make your audience do the legwork of visualizing your mission in concrete, compelling terms; do it for them.

“Find your voice”: Make it personal

Don’t get me wrong: a housefile appeal is not a personal meditation. Nor should we bring back the 1990s literary fad of the confessional memoir. But a crucial part of appealing to the human side of your audience—the side, remember, that gives for particular, relational reasons rather than calculating ones—is to sound, well, human.

And so we return to Clarence from It’s a Wonderful Life. He cares about George Bailey and about what will happen to him. He has skin (or wings) in the game. That lends an additional sense of urgency to a persuasive message—and implicitly encourages the audience to share in the feeling. For it is not true what the old poem claims: “Laugh, and the world laughs with you;/ Weep, and you weep alone.” If you show your audience that you care deeply about your subject—in plain English, with specific examples and vivid details—you’re offering them a powerful invitation to care too.

As Jonathan Haidt has argued, moral persuasion at root involves engaging a person's instincts, which are prior to and subsequently direct our rationality. Telling stories in the way outlined here speaks directly to an audience's imagination, and hence their emotions and instincts too. It is, therefore, essential to good fundraising. 

This is the third part in a three-part series. Read the first part on the importance of storytelling here, and the second part here.


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