The Primary Purpose of the Story in Your Appeal

everyone has a story

Last week I blogged on a type of story about the “toxic parent.”  It’s a specific story type from fundraising for children that reduces how much money an appeal or e-appeal will raise.

But the “toxic parent” is an example of a larger lesson to be learned in storytelling in fundraising…

What To Watch Out For

Watch out for anything in your fundraising that takes the reader’s focus off of what’s happening today and what the reader can do about it.

What To Do

In the story you tell, here are the most important elements, in order of importance:

  1. The problem your beneficiary faces
  2. What will happen if the problem is not solved
  3. What will happen if the problem IS solved

Notice that HOW the beneficiary came to be in the situation – how they came to have the problem – is not even on that list!

I realize this is super conceptual, so here are some examples…

Example Time

You see a story like the following all the time in fundraising for refugees.

  • “There was an amazing couple in Syria.  They were both doctors.  But because of the geopolitical situation, the bombings started.  One parent was killed, the other escaped with the children and an uncle. 

  • Their town was turned into dust and rubble, the color of sandstone at sunset.

  • Their months-long journey to the refugee camp was arduous.  They had to leave with only what they could carry.  Though one of the things they carried was the key to their house – because they dream of returning home someday.

  • They are living in a refugee camp.  Will you please send them aid like medicines and clean water?”

It’s an incredible story… but it’s not the right story to tell when asking the donor to send them medicine and clean water. 

90% of that story is about how the beneficiary came to be in the situation.  Precisely 0% of it is about how the beneficiary needs the donor’s help today

The Primary Purpose of Your Appeal Story

  • The primary purpose of the story in your appeal is to establish the need for whatever the donor can do today.

Of course, telling a story has other purposes, too.  Getting the reader emotionally involved, for instance.  But if your story gets the reader emotionally involved but doesn’t establish the need, you’re losing money and donors.

The story above is a good example of that.  It doesn’t establish the need for medicines and clean water.  It focuses on the part of the story that the donor can do nothing about.  That means it’s the wrong story.

Or more precisely, it’s the wrong part of the refugee family’s story.

Here’s what would raise more money: focus the story on the family’s need for medicine and water now.  For instance, talk about the Uncle’s heart condition and how he can’t get his regular meds – but the donor can help provide them.

Or focus the story on how the kids keep getting sick from the contaminated water in the refugee camp – but the donor can provide clean water. 

What To Do, Part II

Go scan your fundraising.  Look at the stories you tell.  Do the stories you tell focus on the need that a beneficiary is facing today?

Or are they focused on how the beneficiary arrived in their current situation?  Or are they focused on something that the donor can do nothing about?

If any of those are true for you, focus the story in your next appeal on the need being faced right now

This might feel like you’re telling the wrong story.  Or that you’re only telling part of the story.

But you’ll be focusing on the part of the story that the donor can help.  You’ll be illustrating what needs to be done today and how the donor can do it.  And you’ll be thrilled by how much more money comes in! 

Poor Name, Great Lesson


My mentors always warned me to avoid a particular type of story.

Here’s why…

They noticed that some appeals for children’s charities would raise a lot more money than other appeals. 

Yet all of the appeals had a story about a child in need – and the appeals all featured the same offer.  What was the difference?

They dug into the appeals and noticed one big difference:

  • In the appeals that raised the most, the stories were focused on the situation the child was in today.  They barely mentioned the parents of the child, or what caused the child to be in the situation they were in. 
  • In the appeals that raised less, the stories spent significant time and energy talking about the parents and their role in the child’s situation.  The stories spent less time talking about the situation the child was in today. 

These Fundraisers came up with a theory to explain why this happens:

  • When the focus of the story is on the child and their current situation of need, readers would therefore focus on the child and want to help the child.  This would cause the appeal to raise a lot of money.
  • When too much of the story is focused on the parent and/or the parent’s actions, some readers would focus on the parent.  This means that fewer readers would focus on the child, and fewer people would give.  So these appeals raised less money.

To describe stories where the parent or the actions of the parent overshadowed the situation the child was in, my mentors used the term “toxic mom.” 

I’ve taken the liberty to rename this the “toxic parent” problem.  This was taught to me in a more chauvinistic time.  Pinning this problem only on mothers is ridiculous.

Example Time

I’m sure you’ve seen this yourself.

The well-meaning nonprofit tells a story like this…

  • “Patrick has been in and out of rehab several times.  Because when he drinks, he occasionally gets violent.  His two young daughters need a safe place to stay, and your gift today will help them.”

Opening that story by talking about Patrick is a great way to raise less money.  Why?  Because some readers will think the story is about Patrick.  And other readers will think Patrick caused these problems for himself, that he’s an addict, and addicts are weak-willed people who can’t keep their act together. 

I’m not saying any of those reactions are correct.  But they are all reactions that take the focus off helping the girls, which is the reason the letter exists and was sent to the reader.  And they all happened because of the way the story was told.

The story would have been more effective if it had been told like this…

  • “Katy and Emma are two young girls in a tough situation.  One of their parents is occasionally violent after drinking.  The girls are too young to be on their own.  They need a safe place to stay, and your gift today will help them.”

All of my experience indicates that the second approach to telling the story would result in more money raised.

Poor Name, But Great Lesson

I was warned to edit the stories so that the “toxic parent” never overshadowed the child in need.  That was a good lesson. 

But the Big Lesson is to keep your reader’s attention in the place that is most likely to cause them to give a gift.

And that place is the problem that your beneficiary is facing today.

The “toxic parent” is not necessarily “toxic” because he or she is evil.  The parent is “toxic” because any time spent in a letter/email/story on the person who caused the problem means time your reader is not focused on the person in need, the problem they are facing, and how the donor can help today.   

Watch out for anything in your fundraising that takes the reader’s focus off of what’s happening today and what the donor can do about it!

“You’ve got some PR in your fundraising”

public relations

Most people do not expect Public Relations strategies to raise money today.

That’s why I’m always surprised when organizations put PR in their appeals and then are surprised that their appeal raises less money than it could.

Short & Sweet

Keep PR out of your direct response fundraising.  That’s your appeals, e-appeals, and newsletters (if you’d like your newsletter to raise money).

Why?  Because PR is meant to increase goodwill between the reader and the organization.  Merriam-Webster defines it this way: “the business of inducing the public to have understanding for and goodwill toward a person, firm, or institution.”

But the appeals that raise the most money are relentlessly focused on motivating the reader to take action now.  That’s a completely different goal and – when pursued – results in a completely different appeal.

Two Places PR Sneaks In

In my experience, here are the two ways PR shows up most often in appeals:

  1. A story of a person who has already been helped
  2. A description of the organization, or its programs, meant to make the reader believe that the organization is good at what it does

In my experience, including either of those things in an appeal causes the appeal to raise less money, not more. 

  • A note on the #2 item above.  I often hear nonprofits say things like, “But we have to tell them how effective we are!”  Here’s the truth as I’ve experienced it: how effective your organization is (and similar sentiments) is something like the seventh-most important thing at motivating a person to make a gift to an appeal. 

    If you’ve done a great job communicating and repeating the six things that are more likely to motivate a person to give a gift – things like a great offer, strong urgency, clear negative consequences to inaction, etc. – then by all means mention how effective your organization is. But make sure you cover the more important stuff first.

The Place For PR

There is absolutely a place for PR in your nonprofit communications toolkit. 

I’ve seen PR succeed at getting nonprofits in front of new, large groups of potential donors.  I’ve seen PR lay the groundwork for successful fundraising campaigns.  I’ve seen PR get nonprofits out of communication jams.

But good PR is always focused on helping an organization raise more money in the future. 

And an appeal or e-appeal is focused on helping an organization raise more money today.

Mind Blown In 3, 2, 1…

Here’s a mind-bender for you:

A successful, hard-hitting appeal is excellent PR.

How?  If successful PR “increases goodwill between the person and the organization,” then a successful appeal is excellent PR because it motivates a lot of people to give a gift – and every one of those donors feels great about giving

If that’s not goodwill, I don’t know what is.

It’s just that the “goodwill” was developed through the act of giving.

This is the secret I wish more small- to medium-sized organizations knew: the best way to increase goodwill among their donors is to get their donors to give more often, not by telling donors how great the organization is. 

So the next time you look at one of your appeals or e-appeals and think, “We’ve got some PR in our fundraising,” take it out.  Focus your appeal instead on your offer and a strong ask.  You’ll increase goodwill and raise more money at the same time!

Embed the Problem in the Solution

problem solution

Doing some head-to-head testing, we noticed something powerful.

The phrase:

  • “Your gift today will provide clean water for a family”

Raised less money than the phrase:

  • “Your gift today will provide clean, disease-free water for a family.”

This little test teaches a couple powerful things that I’ve seen work again and again…

Embed the Problem in How You Describe the Solution

You see this all the time in political fundraising:

  • “Elect Biden for a Trump-free future!”
  • “Elect Trump to save our country from socialism!”

In both of those cases, the copywriter has embedded the problem (or the enemy) in the solution.  The copywriter is making it clear that something bad will happen if the donor doesn’t give a gift. 

This is a powerful 2-for-1 because you hit two buttons in the donor’s brain in one sentence:

  • You hit the “I want to do the positive thing!” button
  • You hit the “I want to stop the negative thing!” button

You already know that the more reasons you can give your donor to give a gift right now, the more likely a donor is to respond to your fundraising.  And the copywriting tactic above allows you to provide two reasons in one sentence.

Where You Can Use This Tactic

Here are three main places we use this powerful tactic:

  • The first time your letter or email describes what the donor’s gift will do
  • The P.S.
  • The headline of your reply card / landing page

Those are the high-profile locations that donors are most likely to see as they scan your direct response letters and emails.  This tactic allows you to use those high-profile locations as effectively as possible.

This tactic works great any time space or attention is limited.  In other words, if you aren’t using this in your Facebook and Google ads, you could be raising more money.

Example Time

Here are a slew of made-up examples to show you how this tactic can work across any sector:

  • You can provide racially-blind admissions assistance
  • You can provide gospel teaching that’s free from relativism
  • You can kill the cancer and save the person
  • You can end the commercialization of our town by supporting the arts
  • You can stop the developers and stand for the land
  • You can stick it to the pharmaceutical companies and fund research that will save lives
  • You can erase the shortfall and protect the kids

You get it. 

Now, go look at your fundraising.  How can you embed the problem in how you describe what your donor’s gift will do? 

Your Mass Donor Fundraising Is “Stewardship” (and here’s why that’s important)


Jeff Brooks recently wrote an incredible post called “Fundraising vs. Stewardship: Which Is More Important?”

You should read it.

I want to show you how the “which is more important” argument – though it sounds academic – is having real-world consequences for your organization right now.

And it’s those consequences that cause some organizations to out-raise their peers, and some organizations to never “make the leap” to the next level. 

Where It Starts

Here’s what I think this whole debate comes from:

  • I think most organizations don’t believe that donors enjoy giving to anything other than events.

Organizations believe that it’s not really possible that a donor could enjoy giving to a piece of direct mail, an email, a radio-thon, etc. 

These organizations believe mass donor fundraising is somehow a negative act.  They believe donors don’t like appeals or emails.  That we fundraisers have to “twist the arm” of donors, or emotionally manipulate them, to get donors to give a gift. 

The Demonstrably Untrue Argument

If you believe that arm-twisting or emotional manipulation is necessary to get a gift, of course you will enjoy stewardship activities more than “fundraising” activities. 

These organizations think something like, “Now that the icky job of fundraising is done, it will be so great to steward our donors.”

There’s even an argument that goes something like this: Stewardship is the way we keep our donors giving to us year after year.  

That’s demonstrably untrue.  How do you explain all those organizations who don’t do any meaningful stewardship, yet they retain a significant portion of their donors each year? 

The Consequences

In my experience, believing that mass donor fundraising is a negative act results in the following tactical mistakes:

  • Asking donors less frequently than you could be
  • Refusing to put a reply card and reply envelope in your printed receipts
  • Refusing to turn your newsletter into a fundraising vehicle
  • Always telling a story of “the good you’ve already done” in appeals and e-appeals

All of those things are done out of a belief that Asking in mass donor fundraising is a negative thing and will – sooner or later – drive donors away.

However, it’s doing the opposite of those things that raises the most money AND increases donor retention:

  • Asking donors more frequently than you think you can
  • Putting a reply card and reply envelope in your printed receipts
  • Turning your newsletter into a revenue-generating machine
  • Never telling a story of “the good you’ve already done” in appeals and e-appeals

Every one of those things, done well, works like crazy.  (It’s why so many of our clients are having incredible years.  Some of them are sharing that they’re embarrassed to talk about how much money they’ve raised to their peer organizations.)   

So I ask you a question: if the definition of “stewardship” is something like “making donors feel good about their giving so that they give again” – then if all of those tactics above increase donor retention, don’t they qualify as effective stewardship?

Donors Love to Give

Donors get joy from giving – whether that’s giving to an appeal letter or at an enjoyable event.

Donors love to give.

In every way, in any form.

They don’t give every time they are asked.  (In the same way, you don’t buy your favorite product or service every time you see it advertised.  And you don’t feel bad about it when you don’t.)

So as an organization, ask yourself if you believe that mass donors love to give to your mass donor fundraising.  Because if you believe donors love to give, you’ll make different decisions about your fundraising.  And those choices will help you raise more money.

And it will bring more joy to your donors at the same time.  

Your Printed Newsletter: The final Big Idea that brings it all together


Your printed newsletter should be raising a lot of money – as much as your appeals and, in some cases, even more.

The goal of this series has been to give you a tested, proven approach to creating a donor-delighting, money-raising printed newsletter:

  • Direct mail experts ran a series of head-to-head tests of different types of printed newsletters. The approach detailed here beat all the other approaches.
  • We’ve used this approach since 2004 to reliably (and sometimes incredibly) increase the money nonprofits raise from their newsletters.
  • We’ve taught this model at conferences, seminars and webinars.  We’ve received hundreds of pieces of feedback about how the approach increased newsletter revenue.  You do not need to be an expert to follow this model and raise more money

So take it this approach and apply it to your organization.  Test it against your current approach, or any other approach.

Be Intentional with Your Newsletter

Figure out what your organization’s approach is.  Discover and name your organization’s underlying assumptions. 

  • Maybe your organization believes that printed newsletters are obsolete.  (They aren’t.)
  • Maybe your organization believes that printed newsletters shouldn’t or can’t raise money.  (Neither is true.) 
  • Maybe your organization believes the way you’ve always done your newsletter is the only way your organization can do a newsletter.  (Not true.)
  • Maybe your organization fears that if you change your newsletter in any way, your donors will leave.  (Also not true.)
  • Maybe your organization believes you could do a newsletter like the one taught here, but you could never do an Ask along with it, because it would offend donors.  (You guessed it, not true!)

I’ve run into all of these beliefs before.  And it doesn’t matter what you believe – what matters is that you identify what you believe that results in your current approach.  Then you compare it with the approach outlined in this series and decide which approach to take.

Great newsletters don’t raise money by accident.  Content is included for a purpose, and content is excluded for a purpose.

And remember: the primary reason donors read your newsletter is not to hear about your organization. They’re reading because they’re hoping to hear about themselves.  Specifically, donors are reading to find out if they and their gift made a difference.

So start with this proven approach that shows and tells donors how they made a difference.  And good luck!

Read the whole series:

The Back Page: How to Turn Those Good Feelings into Donations


The back page of your newsletter is where your donor’s good feelings can turn into another gift… or not.

What’s Happened So Far

If you’ve followed the newsletter approach I laid out starting here, your donor has scanned three pages of your newsletter.  Those pages have been full of stories that show and tell the donor how she and her gift made a difference.

You’ve proven to her that her gift to your organization was a good decision. 

Unlike other organizations who have sent your donor chest-thumping puff pieces about how busy and heroic their organization is, you’ve made your newsletter about the donor who is reading it.

She’s thinking, “Finally, an organization that gets me and what I’m trying to do.”

And she feels great!

Let’s Turn Those Feelings into Action

Here’s how to get a regular percentage of those donors to make a gift right then and there:

  • Feature one story on the top of the back page.
  • That story should be a “story of need” (this is different than the “stories of success” mentioned in this post in this series)
  • The need should be a need that your beneficiaries or organization are currently facing, or are going to face very soon.
  • Describe how the donor’s gift today will perfectly meet the need.  This is your Offer, and you can download this free eBook if you’d like to know more about how Offers work and how to create a great one.
  • The bottom of the back page should be what we call a ‘faux reply card.’ 
    • The faux reply card is not meant to be cut off and sent back.  The separate reply card you include with your newsletter is what will be sent back.  The faux reply card is added because in head-to-head testing it increased the number of people who sent in a gift by 15%.

A successful back page tends to look like this…

Or this…

Want to Get Even More Donors to Take Action?

Pro-level newsletters select their stories to set up the offer that’s used on the back page.

In other words, if the back page is going to tell a story of need about feeding children, the stories in the rest of the newsletter will all be about children who the donor helped feed.  Or if the back page is going to share a need to do advocacy work on an issue, the stories in the rest of the newsletter will all be about how the donor has helped fund successful advocacy work.

Put slightly differently: each newsletter has a theme, and the theme is directly related to the offer.  The greater the percentage of content that is not on-theme, the lower the amount of money the newsletter will raise.

Your newsletters do not need to be perfectly themed to succeed.  But in our experience it increases the chances you’ll raise more money.


It may feel weird to have a story of need and a reply card on the back of your newsletter.

Your newsletter is a Report, after all.

But it works great.  This approach raises more money than any other approach that was tested. 

And there are no negative consequences to doing your newsletter this way.  People do not complain about it.  You do not lose donors because of it.

You simply start raising more money with your newsletters.  And retaining more of your donors. Because remember, your donors love to give.  All you’ve done with this method is proven to your donor that her previous gift made a difference, then given her a reason to give another gift today.

Read the series:

Who to Mail Your Newsletter To

mail you letter

Your donors.  Mail your newsletter to your donors.

More specifically, here’s who to send your newsletter to:

  • If you send three or fewer newsletters per year, send your newsletters to all donors who have given a gift in the last 24 months
  • If you send 4 or more newsletters per year, send your newsletters to all donors who have given a gift in the last 18 months

Who Not to Mail Your Newsletter To

Here’s who not to send your newsletter to:

  • Non-donors
  • Volunteers
  • Local organizations and businesses who are not donors

Why?  Because every time we’ve analyzed the results of sending newsletters to that group we find the same thing: you lose money because it costs more to send the newsletter to that group than the revenue you’ll receive from mailing those groups.

Send Your Newsletter to Your Major Donors

Here’s a tactic we often use to increase the number of major donors who read (and donate to) your newsletter:

  • Instead of sending them a folded newsletter in a #10 envelope, send the newsletter unfolded in a 9”x12” envelope
  • Hand-write their address on the envelope
  • Add a cover letter that thanks the donor for their donation, and tells them that they’ll see how their donation made a difference when they read the newsletter.
  • Hand-sign the cover letter.  You can even write a personal note on it if you’d like.
  • Include a customized reply card and reply envelope

If you’d like to take this a step further, email the major donor on the day you send the newsletter to let them know to look for it.  If that email is sent by your Executive Director, your ED will receive replies from some majors thanking her for letting them know!  It’s a great opportunity to deepen the relationship with those donors.

What Postage to Use

For your Mass donors, send your newsletter using nonprofit postage. 

The only regular exception to that rule is if there’s a deadline to respond to your newsletter and you’re sending it out later than you planned.  For instance, say your newsletter has an offer (on the back page, of course) to write a note of encouragement to hospital patients who are stuck in the hospital for the holidays.  But you’re mailing just 3 weeks before the holidays begin.  Then, by all means, use first class postage.

For your Major donors, use first class postage.  Use a live stamp if you can.  And set the stamp at a slight angle so it’s obvious that a human put the stamp on the envelope, not a machine. (Thanks for that tip, John Lepp!)

This is a Great Beginning…

The recommendations above are a solid foundation for who to send your newsletter to, and how to send it out.

Over time, your system will get more complicated.  You’ll discover things like, “it’s worth it for us to send our newsletter to donors who gave between 24 and 36 months ago, who have given $1,000 or more, because we reactivate enough lapsed major donors to make up for the expense.”

Or you’ll discover things like, “When we have a newsletter with Offer X, it’s worth it to mail all donors who have given to Offer X in the last 36 months.” 

Great.  Love it.  And if you’re not there yet, start here! 

Read the series:

Newsletter Design: Readable and Scannable Above All Else

For the smaller nonprofits out there, who don’t have super-pro Designers creating their newsletters, do not worry.

Your newsletter does not need to have fancy or complicated design to be successful.

In fact, fancy and complicated design usually lowers readability – which lowers the effectiveness of your newsletter.

What you’re going for is “clean and easy to read.”

Here are a bunch of examples – kept purposefully small.  You will be able to tell at a glance which ones are readable… and which aren’t. 

This, Not That

This cover…

Not this cover…

That second cover has too much going on.  I think there are six elements in the header alone.  Too much copy.  Seven different type treatments.

This interior page…

Not this interior page…

That second interior page has far too much copy.  The one photo is too small. 

This back page…

Not this back page…

The second back page has waaay too much “reverse text” (white text on a dark background) which is very hard to read for older donors.  Plus it’s a self-mailer, which raises less money than newsletters that follow the format taught in these blog posts.

The lesson here; look at your newsletter from a few feet away.  Does it look friendly?  Easy to read?  Or does it look thick with information and visually cluttered?

That’s Fine, But What Do I Do?

Here are the general newsletter rules we live by:

  • Not too much text
  • 13 point typeface or larger
  • Headlines, subheads and picture captions should always be in a high-contrast color (preferably black)
  • Use reverse text only when it’s a couple/few words in larger type
  • Black text on a white background is always the most readable
  • Don’t put your text in colors that are low contrast (they are harder to read for older donors). 
  • 2 or 3 text columns max

Know What’s Most Important

The trick is to know what’s most important.

If you’re judging your newsletter by asking, “Does it look nice and use our brand colors?” you’re asking the wrong question.

The first, most important question is, “Is it easy to read and convey our main message in a couple seconds?”

Nail that.  Then add graphic elements and flourishes but keep the text readable. 

Because remember, it’s all about readability.  If fewer people read your fundraising, fewer people give to your fundraising.  So make your fundraising newsletter easy to read!

Read the series: