Nothing Brings in Donations Like a Heartfelt Story

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In the science fiction classic "Blade Runner," renegade androids roam the Earth. It is up to special police to identify them. The police cannot accomplish this through physical exams because the androids are perfect human replicas. Intelligence tests also are useless because the androids are just as smart or smarter than humans. Only one test separates the androids from people -- an empathy test. Only humans can feel empathy.

As direct mail fundraisers, you can use empathy to track your quarry: generous and loyal donors who believe in your mission. A great way to do that is to tell a story. Stories work in fundraising because:

· They are entertaining. Everyone loves a good story.

· They put a human face on the organization's cause or mission, replacing statistics with flesh-and-blood people.

· They emphasize the benefits of giving because the donor sees the gift in action.

· They make the donor feel as if he knows the people the gift is helping.

· They make donors feel like they know the person doing the asking.

The last two points are critical. Sharing a story with your donors helps create the powerful effect of intimacy, even in an acquisition package.

To understand the effectiveness of storytelling it might help to address the difference between empathy and sympathy.

Empathy, according to J.P. Chaplin's Dictionary of Psychology, is the "... projection of one's own feelings into another person's feelings, needs and suffering."

Contrast that with the definition of sympathy: "... feeling with another person who is undergoing an emotional experience." When you sympathize, you feel badly about another person's misfortune. When you empathize you feel that person's pain.

Which do you think is the stronger motivation for a donor to give?

A story gives the donor an opportunity to pitch in and share empathy with those being helped, and those doing the helping.

Consider the classic fundraising acquisition package from years ago mailed by St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. The handwritten blue ink teaser on the outer envelope reads simply: "Inside: the story of the $7 miracle." The four-page letter looks like the personal stationery of Danny Thomas, a longtime St. Jude celebrity spokesman. The letter begins:

"Dear Friend,

Do you believe in miracles?

As a younger man, I'll admit I was a bit skeptical -- until one day, a miracle happened to me ..."

The letter recounts Thomas' tribulations trying to get established in show business. At the end of his rope, he went into a church to pray and learned about St. Jude, the patron saint of impossible causes. Danny dropped $7 -- all the money he had -- into a prayer box and his luck immediately changed. From then on, St. Jude became his patron saint.

The letter continues telling Thomas' rags to riches story as a first-person narrative, building to its compelling offer: that surely the reader can match Thomas' original $7 gift to St. Jude. Such a small amount, or more if the donor is able and willing, is a wonderful way to show gratitude for achieved success, ask for desired success and help innocent children in the bargain.

The story works on many levels to motivate the donor. And always there is empathy. Who hasn't been in Danny Thomas' situation as depicted in his letter? The reader is right there with him in that church, as, chances are, the donor has been in his own place of worship at a time of personal challenge.

Even better, this story captures the essence of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital's mission in Thomas' personal parable. That the storyteller was a celebrity at the time builds credibility.

Charisma quotient checklist. If your storyteller is someone the donor wants to know and help, you give your donors a major reason to send a gift.

When it comes to a colorful, charismatic, fundraising storyteller, no one compares to Sister Mary Rose of Covenant House, which bills itself as the largest privately funded child-care agency in the United States providing shelter and services to homeless and runaway youth.

Read a Covenant House appeal and you will utterly believe that Sister Mary Rose is at the front door of her shelter welcoming in wayward children. In addition to all the charisma quotients already mentioned, Sister Mary Rose's award-winning, lucrative appeals use sharp, concise dialogue to tell a story.

Covenant House's appeals are almost entirely crackling dialogue that immediately pulls the reader into the story that she is telling. Consider this opening line:

"Dear Friend,

'Please help us, Sister,' the first crying kid said. 'It's awful out there.'"

Or this one:

"Dear Friend,

'I know I'm really gross and ugly,' the girl with the misshapen face told me."

Every one of these lines teaches us that it is possible to paint a complete picture in the reader's mind with a mere handful of words.

Getting started telling stories. Most organizations have tons of true stories kicking around to inspire you. You can discover them by talking to volunteers, caseworkers and public relations people. Give it a try and you will soon find that just a situation, an anecdote or aside will inspire you to come up with a story you can shape to put across your organization's mission and offer.

Here are a few guideposts to keep you on the right track:

· Keep the story tightly focused. It is not about, "... thousands of homeless Americans," it is about, "one homeless guy named Joe."

· Keep the language simple. Do not get carried away with description. It is, "I found her lying on the floor," not, "I found her lying in a tangled heap on the cracked, scuffed, linoleum."

· Do not feel your story has to have an ending, happy or otherwise. Often, the most powerful fundraising stories are those that segue into an appeal without resolving themselves.

If you are still not convinced about what a good story can do for your cause, look at what has been called the most successful direct marketing letter in history -- to the tune of more than $1 billion. It is not for a nonprofit. It is for The Wall Street Journal. It begins:

"Dear Reader,

On a beautiful late spring afternoon, twenty-five years ago, two young men graduated from the same university. They were very much alike these two young men. Both were good students, personable and, as young graduates are, filled with ambitious dreams of the future.

Recently, these two young men returned to their university for their 25th reunion."

The story tells how while both worked for the same company, one became only a manager while the other was company president. Reading the Journal made the difference. Beginning this letter with a story helped make the difference between this offer and many lesser direct mail appeals.

By telling a story, the author took a shortcut to reach the prospect, bypassing the reader's brain and going straight to the heart, tapping into the prospect's fears and aspirations. In this way the writer found the Holy Grail - an irresistible direct mail offer.


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