Storytelling for Fundraisers: How to Tell Compelling Stories that Make Donors Want to Give

Donor Acquisition and Retention

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If you follow Qgiv on social media, you may have noticed we recently shared a video telling the story of one of our customers, VISTE (Volunteers In Service To The Elderly). This video does a great job of putting a face to those helped by this organization. Beneficiaries and volunteers tell you how this organization helps Lakeland’s seniors. Their story doesn’t directly ask donors for support, but the importance of their work and the smiles on beneficiaries’ faces make you want to give. This project was a collaborative effort between VISTE and another Qgiv customer, GiveVisuals. They are a nonprofit using visual storytelling to highlight the important work of nonprofits worldwide. They don’t charge participating nonprofits for their services and the results are high-quality and inspiring. You can check out the video here!

Just because you don’t have a film crew’s help doesn’t mean your nonprofit can’t be amazing at storytelling. Use the following tips to write stories that will inspire your donors to give.

Write your story like you’d tell it

You don’t need to be Mark Twain or Jane Austen to be a successful storyteller. In fact, writing too much like a novelist may even have a negative effect! Telling a story that sounds like fiction will leave a lot of readers thinking it is. Excessive details, melodrama, and exaggeration can make your appeals an entertaining read but not a compelling appeal.

Instead, approach storytelling like you’re telling a friend a story. You want to give them the details and have them connect emotionally to the story and be engrossed in it. Conversely, going off on tangents or adding too many details is a good way to make your friend lose interest or be too distracted to follow along.

You can still be creative when writing your appeal. Sometimes, writing from an unusual perspective can draw attention to your appeal. Check out this blog post to determine who should write your fundraising appeals.

Write your appeal so it appeals to your audience

Rather than focusing on writing a good story, it’s important to think about what your donors care about first. Then, craft your story to make your donors WANT to read it. Your storytelling should be laser-focused on your donors’ priorities. For instance, if you’re an animal shelter sending an appeal to dog lovers, focus on a dog in need. In your appeal, tell donors the dog’s story. What’s the problem the dog is facing? What will happen if she doesn’t get help?

Approaching your appeal by introducing the story’s main character, the problem, and the consequences is a good start. These elements will get supporters emotionally invested. Here’s a great example of this from our customer, The Education Cooperative. Their story got their supporters emotionally invested and that led to them reaching their fundraising goal.

But those elements alone aren’t enough. Your story still needs a hero (your donor). By this point, you’ve spelled out the consequences your subject faces by not getting what they need. Next, your donor must play the role of the hero. One reason many stories fall on deaf ears is the reader isn’t involved in the story. They’re just a passive observer. Instead, ask your hero to make a choice. Do they save the day by donating or must the subject remain at risk?

You don’t have to tell the whole story at once

Before novels were printed in their entirety, stories were released in parts (Fun Fact: these were called serials). Serial novels are the birthplace of the cliffhanger. Its purpose? Leave readers in suspense until the next installment. Your appeal can have a cliffhanger, too. Your storytelling should treat the appeal as a work in progress. What happens to your subject becomes dependent on your heroes. Will the dog get enough support to find a forever home and better life or not? Its fate is entirely in the hands of the story’s heroes. Their actions will determine the outcome.

Your first appeal asks your readers to make a choice. Your follow-up should be in response to that choice. Did the donor give and help the dog? Or, did they not give? If yes, update them on the dog and give them the happy ending that they made possible. Let them know it was only through their help this happy ending was possible and there are other animals still in need. If your donors didn’t give, let them know there’s still time to help and ask again with a reminder of the potential consequence of your donors not stepping up to be the hero.

Visual storytelling is worth a thousand words

With direct mail, you have the luxury of length. In fact, longer appeals, if done right, perform better than shorter appeals. Most donors skim the letter rather than hang on every word. Use visual storytelling to direct your donors’ eyes to the most important parts of the story. Use the right picture (or pictures) to set the mood for the appeal as well.

In the example provided about an animal shelter seeking help for a rescue dog, include a picture of the dog looking sad in the first appeal. It’s even more effective to use a photo of a dog looking directly at the camera.

Use something like this:


Sad Dog Visual Storytelling Example


Remember, the dog needs help. If she looks happy, donors don’t register that there is a need for them to address. Instead, they see a happy dog that contradicts your message. Place images near bold lines or important paragraphs. This increases the odds donors read those messages.

In your second letter, if the donor supported your first appeal, show a happy version of the dog to match the happy ending. A picture of a happy dog sets a completely different mood for your letter. It’s a visual that works well in a number of other places! You can use an image of a happy, well cared-for dog toward the end of you appeal. This helps donors visualize what their gift can accomplish. If you’re using these images in a direct mail campaign, use the second photo on your remittance slip to make donors feel amazing about giving. If your appeal is online, you can use this image on your donation form and thank-you pages.


Happy pug visual storytelling example


Looking at a picture like this makes readers happier. The brighter image and energetic expression set a positive tone visually.

Pro tip: Use images of people and living things and make sure they’re looking directly at the camera. When looking at the image, your readers will begin feeling a connection to the subject when they look into their eyes.

If you’re sending an appeal via email or want to write a compelling appeal for social media, brevity is important so don’t overuse images. This makes your messages load longer. By contrast, one powerful image or the use of an embedded video can serve your appeal much better. Want more advice on visual storytelling for social media? Use this webinar recording to start.


Storytelling should do more than entertain your audience. A great story not only informs your readers, but inserts them into the story and asks them to take action. By focusing on what your donor needs to hear, using the right images to help donors connect with your subject, and splitting your appeal into two parts so that donors decide the story’s ending with their actions, your appeals will motivate donors to give in order to make the better outcome a reality.

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