4 min read

You’re ready to stop telling happy stories in your fundraising appeals, so how should your letters look? The second in a two-part series.

Last week, we considered how and why telling happy stories hurts your fundraising appeals. In our prior example—a fictional appeal from the Kidney Harvesting Victims’ Aid and Justice League—we saw how it discouraged giving by 1) presenting a solved problem (“Jill was rescued!”); 2) engaging reason rather than imagination (“but thousands still suffer”); and 3) assuming the role of hero (“we saved Jill; help us keep fighting”).

Today we’re going to address what you should do instead—how can you tell stories that inspire giving rather than depressing it.  

It’s quite simple: Don’t finish Jill’s story.

Focus on the need . . . and leave it up to the donor to provide the solution. Omitting the happy ending means the problem, not the resolution, remains at the forefront of the donor’s imagination. And by framing that unsolved problem as one that your donor can solve, you give him or her a powerful incentive to act.

That kind of appeal would look more 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?

Tragically, this is a problem many people like Jill face. They are victims of a sick criminal scheme. And if they don’t receive the proper treatment ASAP, they face a slow death . . . made more agonizing by the knowledge that their attackers are still at large.

You can rescue people like Jill. You can make sure that when they call 911, they instantly get connected to the life-saving resources they need. And you can also bring their attackers to justice, by providing the expert forensics and undercover analysis that will identify the bad guys who’ve done it!

Imagine how scared Jill felt in that bathtub. You can be an angel of aid and justice for victims like Jill, by making a gift to the Kidney Harvesting Victims’ Aid and Justice League. But time is running out. The lives of victims like Jill hang in the balance. Please give today.

Now, instead of a happy ending, we have a cliffhanger. The resolution depends entirely on the donor. Hence, in this version of the story the donor’s role has been clearly established: by giving, she will bring aid and justice. She can be the hero of the story.

It’s that simple. Happy stories of organizational successes depress giving; cliffhanger stories that seek donor action increase it.

If you’ve been writing appeals that feature happy stories—stories like the first example—I beg you to stop, for the sake of the people your organization serves. Try the donor-centric cliffhanger instead. These observations are grounded not only in human psychology but in many decades of message testing across charitable sectors. The chances are very high that this change improves your results.


I see you, nodding along to the gist of this piece, yet manufacturing reasons why it doesn’t apply to your organization. With all due respect, you’re wrong. Let me anticipate and tackle your likely objections one at a time.

ONE: It would be dishonest to tell Jill's story and pretend that it hasn’t been solved.

OK, sure, insofar as it’s dishonest for your favorite mystery show to leave you in suspense until the next episode, even though the scriptwriters know how it ends.

But a careful use of language can avoid dishonesty entirely. Look back at the “cliffhanger” appeal: at no point does it say that Jill is still in the bathtub of ice. (What kind of a monster would leave a kidney-harvesting victim to bleed out while they write and mail an appeal package?) Rather, it tells the first part of her story, and then shows how it could be solved by the donor’s gift.

Far from being dishonest, the cliffhanger model effectively uses the specific, unfinished story to bring the real, bigger problem to life. And ask yourself—What’s a more honest depiction of reality: the message that people like Jill really need the donor’s help . . . or the message that the problem’s been solved, so the donor can relax?

TWO: We want to be uplifting, not negative, in our storytelling.

Do you know what’s truly uplifting? The idea that your donor can make a meaningful change in others’ lives, and do something worthwhile with their money. That’s what you’re saying with the second, “cliffhanger” story. The “happy ending” story just gives your donor an excuse to feel good without actually acting.

That’s not optimism. That’s delusion. Here’s your positive message: “while tragedy remains, you, dear reader, can do something about it.”

THREE: We want our donors to see all the good work that we do.

That’s a fine thing to want. But is your appeal asking for accolades or for donations? If you just want praise, stick with the happy endings. Otherwise, go for the cliffhanger. Pats on the back won’t pay the bills.

Also, you can—and should!—frame the good work you do in terms of what the donor can do by making a gift (rather than bragging about what you have accomplished). By being generous in giving your donors the credit and the limelight, you inspire them to give generously in return.

FOUR: Jill’s story is so inspiring, and we have all these great quotes we want to use . . . Can’t we include them?

I have good news for you! There is a time and place to tell the happy story, using all those wonderful quotes: in your newsletters, your thank-you notes, your donor gratitude reports.

In the appeal, use the cliffhanger; then tell the happy story when sending reports and thank-yous. You affirm the good thing the donor did, and show her what a big difference it made. Then everyone can bask in that shared success together.

FIVE: What if we don’t have a newsletter, or donor gratitude reports?

Well . . . Go back and read the opening line of part one of this series. We need to have a talk.

Interested in discussing your fundraising appeals and how they can be made stronger and more effective? Shoot me an email and I would be happy to take a look at your current messaging and discuss how you can improve!

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