Successful organizations tell their story in a way makes it a story about their donors, too. Here’s how to help your donors identify with your story.
Every sentence contains a subject and a verb, an actor and an action. Jesus wept… It’s late… The San Mateo Plutocrat Foundation leverages transformational technologies to disrupt social change… etc. Distilled to its most basic elements, a good fundraising pitch transmutes a sentence about your organization and its activities into one about your audience and its values.
In other words, it’s not enough for your audience to accept the validity or importance of your sentence; they need to identify with it—to hear it as being about themselves, their beliefs and actions. Instead of “Organization does mission,” we must say, “You and I believe in and pursue mission together.”
Stories can help us perform this alchemy by placing organization and audience within certain implied, recognizable narratives. I group them into two basic categories: stories that consolidate common identity (turning “org” into “we”), and stories that inspire participation (turning org activities into shared mission). It’s not an exhaustive list. But the fact that these examples are familiar is also why they’re effective, and can give compelling shape to your fundraising copy.
The Band of Brothers
In Shakespeare’s Henry V, things are looking grim for the English army. Massively outnumbered by the French, the King’s officers lament the lack of reinforcements. In one of the Bard’s most famed speeches, King Henry rebukes this wish. Their undertaking is so daunting, so heroic, he says, that when they prevail, they will share an immortal bond of glory.
The power of the St. Crispin’s Day Speech lies not so much in its evocation of heroic enterprise but in its declaration of shared identity and united purpose. Gone are distinctions between king, officers, and common soldiers; there remains only “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.” “For he to-day that sheds his blood with me / Shall be my brother,” the King proclaims. We are the blessed ones, lucky to be a part of something great.
Notice also what’s conspicuously absent in the St. Crispin’s Day Speech: Any hint of desperation. As has been covered in these pages before, desperation is rarely a good look in fundraising. At best, you seem pathetic, not up to the challenges of your work. Worse, though, the scent of desperation quickly sours into the reek of manipulation, particularly if you use it repeatedly.
Imagine King Henry stealing a page from the end of year appeal favored by some nonprofits:
Dear Friends, I don’t usually make extraordinary appeals to my soldiers, but frankly I do not know what else to do. We barely have resources enough to keep the lights on, let alone defeat the Gallic hordes. I am a proud man, but today I am begging you: I need each of you to renew or extend your commitment to the English army. Please give all you can! It’s the only way we might survive…
These are not the words that ring across centuries. They would not inspire men to risk their lives against the odds, and they will not inspire your donors to risk a gift on you. So, like Henry V, put away the sackcloth and ashes in favor of stories that inspire a sense of comradeship built around a shared enterprise.
The Shared Enemy
“What joins men together, he said, is not the sharing of bread but the sharing of enemies.” The words come from Cormac McCarthy’s great Blood Meridian, a novel in which almost every alliance from beginning to end is rooted in the annihilation of some third party. It’s a grim depiction of human nature, and well might we wish it an unfounded one.
But survey the American political scene, where oppositional narratives rule the day. If Obama rose on Henry V-style calls for unity (his was an abridged version of the St. Crispin’s Day speech: “Yes we can!”), our current president amply illustrates the power of the shared enemy—be it Hillary Clinton, Mexican rapists, or the lamestream media. For what else, exactly, does Donald Trump have in common with most of the people who vote for him?
One need not villainize individuals to put the shared enemy to work. Cholera or standardized testing can be a villain just as readily as IRS auditors or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. What matters is to have a clear villain, doing villainous things as all good villains do. Who, then, are we? We’re the ones who aren’t going to let them go unchecked!
The Contrarian Underdog
Adjacent to the Shared Enemy is a peculiarly American form of oppositionalism that pits “us” against a nebulous entity we might call “the World”—not enemies, per se, but rather doubters, haters, naysayers, those enthralled to conventional thinking and the status quo. We share the instinct or insight to do things the right way; everyone else is part of the prevailing headwinds. We witness the persistence of this phenomenon in sports. Time and time again, the most successful athletes and teams in the world, in the moment of their triumph, spout clichés like “Nobody believed in us!” and “They said it was impossible!”
At first glance, it seems absurd. Who exactly doesn’t “believe in” Tom Brady, or the Golden State Warriors, or the U.S. Olympic Team? But such is the power of the narrative of the Underdog for giving shape to human endeavors. It tightens the bonds of shared purpose, imparts dignity to effort and sweetness to victory. Everyone—particularly citizens of the scrappy, self-made, non-conformist U.S. of A—loves a good underdog. Show how your organization is bucking the trend, fighting the odds, making possible that which the doubters dismissed; it’s a stamped invitation to board the Underdog Express.
Those are three basic narratives that invite audience identification with an organization.
Here's a quick run-through of a few other stories that inspire participation in a nonprofit’s activities:
The Trailblazer: Just as we love an underdog, so also do we love to look askance at conventional wisdom and give naysayers their comeuppance. Defying the status quo is as American as hot apple pie. So while the techy buzzwords of innovation and disruption threaten to render this trope unbearably passé, still it persists. Who wants to stay with the sheep, when foxes are blazing a path forward to vistas yet unknown?
The Tipping Point: It seems to me that stories about the value of democratic participation traditionally appeal to examples of elections decided by a single vote. If this one farmer hadn’t trudged five miles after work to punch his ballot, the lives of thousands would have been altered (for the worse, we presume). This one vote is singled out of all the others in its import. Shouldn’t a similar legerdemain go into fundraising? Donations can’t feel fungible to the giver; there must be a clear sense of exactly what will become possible, what will be realized, by their specific gift.
The Little Dutch Hero: You no doubt remember the Hans Christian Anderson tale about the little Dutch boy who saves his country by plugging the leaking dike. Through the long night he stays his post, giving his life to avert catastrophic devastation. If the previous two examples play to our vanity or desire to accomplish things, this instead shines a light on the consequences of inaction. It needn’t trade unduly in fear or guilt, either—for who among us wouldn’t want to lend a hand to such heroic dedication?
It’s a Wonderful Life: Clarence Odbody might be a lousy guardian angel, but he’d write killer direct mail copy. He persuades the drunk and suicidal George Bailey to renew his commitment (so to speak) to his own life by showing him not just what he’s done but also what difference it’s made—showing him what life in Bedford Falls would look like without his contributions. In this angelic vision, we get results and averted consequences alike. It’s a powerful combination—and, as Capra’s final scene shows, it’s one all of Bedford Falls understands and wants to support.
There’s another thing that’s powerful about Angel Clarence’s appeal to George, involving who and what he depicts, but we’ll save that discussion for next week. For now, the takeaway is this: A good fundraising story is never just about the organization; it’s also about the audience, about what they want to be and do. Through narratives that cultivate a sense of shared identity and purpose, one can create that sense of “we.”