How nonprofit storytelling grows donor relationships

Have you ever heard this old nonprofit chestnut?

“It’s not about you, it’s about the mission!”

Nonprofit staff, especially fundraising folks, aren’t usually encouraged to draw attention to themselves. Common wisdom tells us to focus on the organization’s impact and tell the inspiring stories of the people and causes we serve. This is good advice, but it leaves out one important thing: Why do you care? 

Your personal connection to your cause is a powerful story to tell your donors. It makes things real, deepens your relationship, and can motivate them to give.  Sharing your story can take your donor relationships to the next level. 

Less “Us and Them,” More “Us!”

As a development professional, you probably know a lot about your donors. After all, you’ve got a CRM full of information about them. You know their giving history, which campaigns resonated with them, and whether or not they open your emails. If you do wealth screening and prospect research, you may know even more about them. 

Conversely, what do your donors know about you? Your name…maybe. 

Nonprofits often cultivate one-sided donor relationships. The nonprofit does all the talking, the donor does all the listening. The nonprofit does all the asking, the donor does all the giving. The nonprofit knows all about the donor, the donor knows nothing about the people running the organization. This can make the donor feel more like a target than a person. No good. 

I’m not saying you should give your donors your cell phone number and tell them all your secrets. Obviously, donor relationships need boundaries too.. But if you hide your personal passion for the cause, you make it too easy to say no to you, ignore your messages, or leave your organization. 

It’s very easy to say no to a stranger.  But a living, breathing person who is personally passionate about a cause? That’s someone you might just want to listen to. So don’t let yourself be a stranger.

Getting Real To Improve Your Donor Relationships

In this era of short soundbites and curated perfection, people are craving authenticity more and more. Sharing your why is a way to make things real. Instead of a faceless organization, you become a real person to your donors. 

Shouldn’t the relationship be with the organization, not one person? The answer is both yes and no. The organization is the basis for the relationship, and the reason you’re all there. You’re an advocate for the organization, not yourself. The donor is a supporter of the organization, not you personally. But that doesn’t mean you should be anonymous. 

What are the benefits of cultivating authenticity in your donor relationships?

Peer Influence

“The donor cares about the cause, they don’t care about me,” you may be thinking. This is a little bit true, and a little bit false. Sure, the donor probably doesn’t care a great deal about your kid’s soccer tournament, but they definitely care about why you’re involved with the cause. 

One of the strongest things to influence our decisions is what we see other people doing. People are incredibly influenced by peer recommendations when they make purchase decisions, and there’s no reason to think donation decisions are different. Another person’s story of why they support an organization can be very convincing.

Donor Engagement

Without a human connection, it’s hard to get attached to an organization. That’s because an organization is not a person. What we call the donor’s relationship with your organization is really a combination of their history with the organization and a collection of relationships with the people of the organization–the volunteer coordinator, the CEO, the development director, the receptionist. 

When you invest in these personal relationships, the donor’s overall connection to the organization deepens. When they know your story, they can become invested in your personal success in accomplishing the mission.

Donor Retention

Personal connections become even more important when you start thinking about donor retention. There are many organizations fighting for your cause, but there’s only one you. The cause alone is not enough to keep your donor, but a real relationship might be. 

What’s Your Why?

So, why do you work where you do instead of somewhere else? What’s your connection to the cause? Why do you care so much about it? 

Once you have your answer, it’s time to turn it into a story you can share. Your story doesn’t have to be big and dramatic, something simple, short, and heart-felt can have just as much impact. 

A sample script might be, “XYZ organization helps provide clean water to developing communities. I visited Rwanda with a volunteer group and saw first hand how people get sick from contaminated water. We know how to prevent this, but people die. I don’t think that’s something I can ever be okay with, so that’s why I work here.” 

Or, less intensely, “If my little sister hadn’t had a volunteer tutor, I don’t know that she would have graduated from high school. I saw what a difference organizations like XYZ Nonprofit make, and I wanted to be part of it.”

Or even just, “I can’t imagine what it would be like to give up my entire life because of war or persecution, so I want to do whatever I can for refugees who are resettling in our city.” 

Remember, you don’t have to have personal experience with the cause to be a passionate advocate for it. Those stories are certainly impactful, but the most important thing is to share a little bit of your heart. 

Wait A Second, This Seems Very Vulnerable

It’s impossible to be authentic without at least some vulnerability, but being personal doesn’t mean you have to share things you don’t want to talk about in the name of fundraising.

In fact, if your true connection to the cause is very emotional, it’s advisable to choose carefully what you share. You want your donors to join you in supporting the cause, not feel like they need to take care of you. Stay true, but don’t feel compelled to share everything. 

You can be personal without sharing vulnerable information. You could say, “I’m passionate about finding a cure, because cancer has touched people I care about.” You don’t have to say it was your mom if you don’t want to. You could say, “It’s important for people with addictions to have safe people to talk to,” without talking about your own sobriety if that makes you uncomfortable. That’s not dishonest, it’s taking care of yourself and your donors.

5 Easy Ways To Share Your Why

Once you’ve determined your why it’s time to share it. Look for ways to feature your why, from conversations to communications projects. Think about:


This is the simplest thing that you can implement right away, without any expense or fuss. When you meet donors in person, ask them about their why, and share yours. This is a great way to move beyond pleasantries and into the big picture in your donor conversations.


If you have a compelling story, use it in a fundraising appeal. A story is a great way to hook the reader, engage their imaginations and emotions, and make your appeal memorable.


When a staff member is speaking at an event, encourage them to share their own reasons for supporting your cause. People listen more carefully when they know a speaker really cares. 


Feature staff members and their stories in your newsletter. This gives your donors people to root for, and recognize over time. 


Interview staff members about why they care, and make a video with their responses to share. Add it to your website and social media channels. 

Start Building Better Donor Relationships Today

Once you’ve determined your why and ways to share it, you’re well on your way to creating long-lasting, deeply-connected donor relationships. Next, you can work on personalizing every donor experience — it’s what donors want, but so few nonprofits deliver. 

What you should do now

Below are three ways we can help you begin your journey to building more personalized fundraising with responsive technology.

See the Virtuous platform in action.  Schedule a call with our team for personalized answers and expert advice on transforming your nonprofit with donor management software.

Download our free Responsive Maturity Model and learn the 5 steps to more personalized donor experiences.

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