The Power of Beneficiary Storytelling: Tapping Into Elemental Human Emotions

As a donor, I love to actually “hear” the voice of those I support. I love to hear their narratives; I love encountering the sweeping drama of their movement from struggle to stability. And that’s not just because I want to know my pound has accomplished something. It’s because it touches elemental human emotions. I know that I can’t speak for every donor but I know I can speak for many.

We actually love stories for two reasons: (1) they SHOW us what our money has accomplished and (2) they make us feel less alone in our struggles with common human emotions: insecurity, anxiety, fear, depression – and on the flip side – stability, courage, and joy.

I was having a conversation with a friend of mine recently who is organising an event fundraiser for Womankind Worldwide. We met because I volunteered to do an opening talk about Womankind’s work in Afghanistan. And a couple of interesting bits came out of our conversation

As I told her the story of a Womankind beneficiary named Farida, she exuded energy about the event as a whole. She interrupted with questions and input. She smiled. Hearing the story of this young girl’s triumph over the bullying and intimidation of an unscrupulous suitor seemed to infuse my friend with excitement for the cause.

Perhaps, then, our stories carry within them a very precious gift for donors – emotional refueling. Perhaps they are one way to help prevent donor fatigue.

For more on the power of narrative, I suggest perusing Women for Women International’s December 2007 issue of Critical Half.  It focuses, of course, on gender equality in conflict areas but one article in particular is an excellent example of the power of beneficiary storytelling…..

If you need examples of the kinds of testimonials you should get from beneficiaries, here’s one. It pays to craft specific questions, to conduct interviews and to take the time generally to elicit such powerful stories.

In this article, Honorata tells the harrowing story of living peaceably in a Congo village one day to the next becoming a sex-slave to marauding soldiers for 14 months. Here’s an excerpt of an incredibly powerful testimonial.


In the ‘down time’ between busy seasons, why not use the Story Portfolio Tool ?

How can you increase donor engagement through storytelling? A beneficiary feature in your newsletter? Or perhaps a thank you letter to donors from the perspective of a beneficiary?


3 Inspiring Story Ideas You Can Use Today in Donor Communications

From the NSPCC's 'Little Book of Change'

Your mission is a story.

Your organisation exists because someone saw real people (or animals) experiencing real conflict and decided to do something about it.

If your charity communications can focus on a specific person and a specific conflict, and if you can invite the donor in as a hero, then you’ve got a better chance of donor engagement.

So without further adieu, here are three story types you can use today to revive donor communications. These examples of high-performing, results-yielding stories are from And they’re excellent examples of what it means to hone in on a specific conflict and then to make the donor a helper, a nurturer and a hero.

Story Type 1: Triumph of the Oppressed

Example: Womankind Worldwide Direct-Mail from

“The mailing focused on the story of Aberash, a 13-year-old girl from Ethiopia. Aberash endured female genital mutilation at the age of three and a forced marriage at 12 to a man who subjected her to sexual violence until WOMANKIND’s partners enabled her to leave him safely and obtain a divorce. Now, she travels the country with their support to tell her story and encourages other young women to speak out against harmful traditions.”

Results: “The mailing’s results far exceeded targets. It achieved a response rate of 2.41 per cent, average gift level of £26.35 and generated income of £17,078 (beating its financial target by 300 per cent)

Story Type 2: Inspiration in Suffering

Example: Association of International Cancer Research Direct Mail (Legacy)  from

“The Good Agency decided to begin by asking donors about their experiences with cancer. Initially they were sent a mailing asking them to share their cancer stories. The cover letter was written by a member of AICR’s staff, where she talked about her own experiences of cancer and encouraged the reader to do the same.

It was a real, personal, one-to-one communication and the response from donors was phenomenal. AICR received hundreds of moving, heart-breaking and touching stories.

They then produced a book featuring some of the most inspiring, funny and moving stories about people’s experiences with cancer (available here: and by talking about legacies in the covering letter and asking about pledges.”

Results: “The AICR legacy campaign phase has elicited 114 pledges, eight responses indicating the intention to leave a legacy and 59 requests for further information. Based on an average legacy gift of £20,000, the pledges will be worth over £2.2m, if they are all fulfilled.”

Story Type 3: Nurturing the Weak

Example: NSPCC’s Little Book of Change (Major Donor Thank You) from

The Little Book of Change was designed to bring to life a range of outcomes for children that had previously been presented in a statistical report. Individual stories of children and families are shown through letters, poems, stories, magazine articles and drawings. All the words are authentic and show a range of ways in which the supporter’s money has been used to ultimately make children’s lives better. A hard-backed version for donors who had given £100k or more was hand made with materials stuck-in like a scrap-book. The cheaper printed version for other supporters demonstrates the versatility of this product.”

Results: “The Little Book of Change did not ask for a donation, we have received good feedback from those that received it who felt that valued and that their donation had made a difference.”

4 Simple Steps To Get Your Story Portfolio Ready NOW For Future Appeals

In the launch article for this series, I talked about the Dog’s Trust’s Harry Potterised fundraising appeal – and their extraordinary 1:12 ROI (for every £1 spent by charity there was a £12 return in donations). (By the way, while this article is focused on storytelling, always remember the importance of analysis and data.)

I also talked about the £7.5m legacy eventually left by the donor who was recruited by that campaign.

Again, it was no accident that this appeal used commercial creative writing principles.  The same storytelling principles that helped make Harry Potter so phenomenally successful.  These are the techniques that authors of creative fiction and non-fiction use to guarantee a hooked audience. And, wittingly or unwittingly, fundraisers have used these principles in successful fundraising appeals.

Now, amongst the five principles discussed, ‘Show! Don’t Tell!’ is one of the most important.

As I mentioned before, this principle is simple. Rather than telling someone what your organisation does in a vague and general way, show them what that actually looks like through imagery and detail. For a quick example, take a look at this letter in a Womankind Worldwide direct mail package:

Because “Show! Don’t Tell!” is central to all good storytelling, I wanted to start with that in helping you create your story portfolio.

I’ve created a writing tool that will help train your brain to think more like a storyteller. And it will help you form the core of the stories that will eventually make up your portfolio.

By the way, be sure to sign up for email updates for the creative writing series. You’ll have a story portfolio at the end of this series. Powerful tales to help you Harry Potterise your appeals.

Here are the four simple steps to getting your story portfolio ready:

  1. Complete this chart & send to colleagues (email me at for the Word version)

You may need to read through past case studies, newsletters, blog and website content and even annual reports to find the images and details you need. You could even interview beneficiaries.  It’s definitely labor intensive. But it’s worth it. Remember, through this effort you are bringing the donor into the experience of the beneficiary through imagery and detail.

2. Set-up a meeting to discuss the contents of your charts

Finding your organisation’s high-yielding stories should (preferably) be a community effort. By talking through these stories, others can add important details or contribute ideas to make the story that much more powerful.

3. Assign a story to each person to develop for the story portfolio

Set up a Microsoft Word document and put it on a common drive so that everyone can contribute their story. And then you’ll have the beginnings of a dynamic story portfolio

4. Sign up for email updates from the Fundraising Creative Writing Series

Once a week, I’ll send writing tools like the one in this article to help you revise and refine the stories you’ve started.

Donate a comment or a Tweet.
I love providing free helpful content to charities. But I also want to make sure I keep motivated given my other responsibilities.

A comment or a Tweet (@CopyPhilanthrop) would make my day.

Not Just Another Gimmick – Commercial Creative Writing Principles

A content editor from SOFII asks about commercial creative writing principles and “Harry Potterising” appeals

Q1: I’m not sure what you mean by ‘commercial creative writing principles’. Do you mean the type of writing that some authors use when they want to be sure they will have a blockbuster?

A: That’s precisely what I mean. And after having reviewed numerous successful appeals, I’ve come to realize that these appeals often use these principles. The Fundraising Creative Writing Series will provide examples and tools so that fundraisers can apply them to their own appeals. Read the launch article for more detail on the five principles:

  • Imaginatively engage with your reader while you write
  • Keep the structure simple and elegant
  • Tap into elemental human emotions
  • Uncover the conflict and make the donor the protagonist
  • Show! Don’t Tell!

Q2: Shouldn’t we just be advising fundraisers to start telling their own true stories and then show them how to do it? Using words such as ‘commercial creative writing techniques’ seems to me to be likely to send them scurrying off to follow a formula.

A: Excellent question! Ultimately, that’s exactly what I’m doing. Here’s the thing. I remember having a conversation with Liz Loudon on the telephone some months ago about the surprising lack of good storytelling in the Third Sector. There’s some. But there should be more. I’ve done a lot of thinking about this lack and my conclusion is this: many fundraisers lack the practical tools to know how to tell a good story.

By pointing out the creative writing principles that work well for the public, I’m providing the how of storytelling. And I suppose at the end of the day that does mean providing formulas. But that’s because formulas work. Formulas, especially as far as creative writing is concerned, provide the framework for creativity to be effective and focused.

By using the phrase “Harry Potterise” I’m simply referring fundraisers to greater cultural phenomenon that reveals the deeper needs of donors at large. And I think it’s important to think widely and creatively in our approaches to understand donors.

Also, by using that phrase, I’m not suggesting that charities write fiction. I’m simply referring to the creative writing principles that are already used in successful appeals (as well as other forms of storytelling intended for mass public consumption). These principles apply to non-fiction as well. I’m not referring to genres; I’m pointing towards the creative writing techniques that are employed in popular non-fiction and fiction – and that can be used to add persuasive power to appeals.

Thanks again to the editor who took the time to ask such insightful questions! It made me think more deeply about the purpose of the series.

I’m hugely grateful to for their showcases of donor communications. I’ve used their content for examples on numerous occasions.

If you want to be a better writer, put it on your calendar to go to SOFII’s website once a week to review examples of high-performing appeals etc.

Donate a comment or a Tweet.

I love providing free helpful content to charities. But I also want to make sure I keep motivated given my other responsibilities.

A comment or a Tweet (@CopyPhilanthrop) would make my day.

5 Ways to Harry Potterise Your Internet & Direct Mail Appeals….And Get Donors Giving When Times Are Tough

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>Series Launch<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<

What do high performing appeals and Harry Potter have in common?

And in both cases, what makes donors give and readers buy even when they’re going through a rough financial patch?

The answer? Reader-hooking commercial creative writing principles. The principles that make commercial novels like Harry Potter phenomenally successful.

And as Cheryl Clarke puts it in Storytelling for Grantseekers, “I believe that storytelling is at the very core of all successful fundraising.”

The Dog’s Trust Harry Potterized an appeal….and the result was millions.

It’s no accident that the Dog’s Trust used commercial creative writing principles in the appeal that recruited the donor who later left a 7.5 million legacy to the charity. The direct mail letter, for example, was written from the perspective of a poor abandoned dog: “I was really scared and hungry and in the end I curled up in a ditch to keep warm.”

This excellent piece of creative writing formed the core of a direct mail package that helped Dog’s Trust’s income rise exponentially, with ROI’s as high as 1:12 (for every £1 investment, there was a £12 response from donors)

With that said, I’m offering a series of FREE templates, mind maps and tutorials to help you use commercial creative writing principles in your appeals. Free short lessons that will fit easily into your day. So why not sign up for email updates?

One important caveat here – this article is based on the assumption that it’s not just finances that cause donors to stop giving. According to a recent article in Third Sector, 80% of donors who cancelled their direct debit giving did so because they no longer felt a connection to the charity.

Economic realities matter, certainly. But the emotional and psychological factors matter just as much. And storytelling via the use of commercial creative writing principles is an excellent way to forge emotional bonds with donors. (Of course, never forget analysis and testing

So, with that said, do you want donors to be emotionally engaged enough to give even when they’re a bit short on cash?

One sure-fire way to improve your chances of that kind of engagement is to Harry Potterize your appeals by using the following commercial writing principles:

1. Imaginatively engage with your audience while you write

You often hear the old adage that you need to know your audience. But I would go even further. You need to actually think about and consider your audience while you write. In Relationship Fundraising Ken Burnett suggests visualizing the donor as they pick up the envelope that’s been pushed through their mail slot. To try to imagine what they’re thinking and feeling as they open and read the headline or the first sentence.

 2. Keep the structure simple and elegant

Try to fight the impulse to tell the reader everything your organisation does. Focus on one story or one aspect of your work; focus on one way your donor can change the world through you. I know this may seem a bit counterintuitive but if you cram an appeal with too much information, you’ll lose your reader’s interest.

Consider that one story, that one simple angle, a portal to your larger work. By keeping the structure of your appeal elegant and simple, you’re likely to arouse a natural curiosity within the reader. And then they’ll feel compelled to find out more about you by going to your website or finding you on Facebook.

For upcoming templates to guide you in integrating stories into direct mail and internet appeals, subscribe today (top right hand corner)

 3. Uncover the conflict & make the donor the protagonist

Here’s an excellent example from Alan Sharpe’s letter for Street Kids International:

“In Kazakhstan, in the city of Almaty, in a bustling neighborhood of that city, the locals don’t look to Ted Rogers or Bill Gates for their inspiration, but to a local lad called Jamshed. He’s a business hero, thanks to you.”

The letter goes on to describe Jamshed’s struggle: his father abandoning the family, leaving him as the family’s sole-provider. The letter uses Jamshed’s own testimony to present the conflict. But the letter is also peppered with details about Jamshed’s triumph and phrases like “thanks to you” and “with your continued help.” Here, the donor is the protagonist, a major figure in a tale of empowerment.

For an up coming tutorial on applying this to appeals, sign up for email updates.

 4. Tap into elemental human emotions

In his book The Power of Personal Storytelling, Jack Maguire suggests that you ask yourself two questions repeatedly when doing any community-oriented storytelling:

  • What gifts do my personal tales have to offer: what joys, cares, values, interests, and special life experiences do they convey?
  •   Where, how and why in my community might these gifts be needed or appreciated?

Answering these questions will help you approach your story with the emotional motivations appropriate to your audience. And you’ll be surprised by how that then comes out in your writing.

5. Show! Don’t Tell!

I left this tip last because I think it’s one of the most important. In fact, any creative writer worth his or her salt will have had this principle rammed down their throat, either through self-training or through more formal creative writing training.

And what does it mean? Well, rather than just telling your audience about an event, you show them what it actually looked like through imagery and detail.

Here’s what that looks like in a fundraising appeal example.

Telling: “As a charity, we help the elderly overcome social isolation by organising outings and social events.”

Showing: If you were to visit 80-year-old Bill in his small flat a week ago, most likely he would have been alone, watching television or sitting silently. In fact, Bill’s only visitors would have been his social worker and his visiting nurse. But that was only for an hour, perhaps once a day. But thanks to supporters like you, yesterday was the first day of a new life for Bill. A bus came to pick him up and when he emerged through the door, a chorus of “hello, Bill” from his peers greeted the lonely man. He went for a stroll on the beach and struck up a conversation with another man who was a WWII veteran. Then, he companionably ate fish and chips, feeling the glow of being a part.

The difference is huge. Number one is fine for your elevator speech. But number two brings the donor directly into the experience of the beneficiary. And the beauty of this principle is that it can transform ALL your donor communications: direct-mail appeals, email appeals, newsletters, blog posts etc.


No more procrastinating. No more blank-page dread. Write high-impact ROI yielding stories in half the time with the templates and writing tools that will be available through the Fundraising Creative Writing Series.

This kind of course content would normally cost you. The Institute of Copywriting Course is about £500. Fundraising Skills courses run from £200 – £400. Institute of Fundraising Day Courses run from £60- £100,

And  I’m offering similarly in-depth content for free!

Why not sign up for email updates at the top right hand corner?

Are there certain writing tools, templates or tutorials that you’d like to see in the future? Please leave a comment and let me know. I want to help in any way I can.

Or just feel free to say hello or get a discussion going:-)

Blog Launch: Simple Reminders & Tools for Donor-Hooking Communications


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