The Power of Donor Stories

Stories play an incredible role throughout our lives. We use storytelling to preserve our history, teach us right and wrong, help us explain complex topics, and inspire action. In fundraising, we are constantly looking to create content and appeals our donors and prospects will identify with. Donor stories are a great way to use storytelling to connect with your community and share your mission. 

Discovering Donor Stories

According to Dr. Russell James, compelling donor stories trigger social emotion through identifying with another (i.e., perspective + empathy), aided by visualization and uninterrupted by rational error detection. It is a powerful formula when approaching our creativity. 

A few years ago, I was in a conversation with a group of colleagues trying to come up with compelling content for a mid-level donor segment. We were discussing how to bring transformational/major giving approaches to mid-level donors at scale. The idea of a discovery interview was something we wanted to pursue. 

Then it struck me, what donor wouldn’t identify with their “own” story? Why aren’t we using what they share in an interview to inspire them to give? After all, our role as fundraisers is to play matchmaker. We want to present opportunities to solve difficult problems to donors who care deeply about creating change. What if we began approaching donors about the impact they wish to have? It was from this concept that we created StoryCause to change the way we inspire donors.

The Impact of Donor Stories

As we look to identify a donor’s potential, data plays an important role. We want to understand something about demographics, capacity, and their giving history. The other half of the profile that we really need to understand is why do they give. What impact do they want to make? What is their current state of consideration? Understanding these characteristics is incredibly important as we play matchmaker with our strategic objectives as development professionals. Donor stories allow us to capture all of these elements. The potential uses of donor stories are limitless. Here are some approaches for you to consider:

1. Ask a donor if there was an event or influential person that motivated them to make their first gift to your organization. 

This information will uncover that specific donor’s “why” and provide a basis for building a lasting relationship. Also, donor stories that help you understand what motivated someone to make that first gift to your nonprofit organization provide invaluable insights to drive your acquisition and creative decisions.

2. Ask a donor about the impact they wish to have with their philanthropy. 

Knowing what is most important to that donor gives you the opportunity to create targeted future appeals and report an impact that matches your strategic planning to their intentions. Personalized appeals based on the impact donors want to have is a winning combination.

3. Understand how life events drive donor behavior. 

Did you know that most donors write their first will at age 43? This is motivated by life events like marriage, having children, advancing careers, growing wealth, buying a home, or taking care of aging parents. All of these events will have a positive or negative impact on that donor’s ability and desire and plan for current and future giving. Capturing what is happening in your donor’s life will allow you to be more responsive and deepen your relationship. It also improves your understanding of when to talk to the donor about gift planning.

4. Use donor stories to understand a donor’s state of consideration. 

What type of giving are they planning in the future? What types of gifts would they consider? What are the times of the year and channels they prefer to engage with you? All of this information will enable you to create those deep one-to-one relationships.

5. Take the opportunity to immediately identify qualified leads for major, planned, and mid-level giving opportunities. 

Asking a donor if they would like to learn more about gift planning options while they are sharing their story and contemplating their legacy is an ideal opportunity to identify hand-raisers. Matching capacity information with donor intent, life stage, desired impact, and state of consideration leads to perfecting the time to ask for a meeting.

6. Donor stories provide a wealth of data for future marketing content

It is always a struggle to pull together content for monthly newsletters and profiles on your website. First-person donor stories are so powerful when included in appeals. Having a library of this content at the ready is something every marketer wants.

Engaging Your Donors

Something else important happens when a donor tells their story, they become more engaged. We collected donor stories for a couple of universities we partner with. The initial goal was to understand the impact their experience had on their career, relationships, and impact on their lives. We looked back a year later at their giving lifecycles and measured the impact of the interviews based on their giving behavior. The results were clear. Donors who engaged in an interview increased giving across the board. 

Donor Stories and Donor Reactivation

Donors who participated in an interview reactivated at dramatically higher rates in the 12 months post-program than those who did not participate. While our team had no role in the reactivation activities, the data points to the fact that had more emphasis been placed on reactivation in the period immediately following the interview, these numbers could have been even more dramatic. The donor stories program clearly boosted reactivation rates for lapsed donors.

Institution #1

Institution #2

Donor Stories and Donor Retention

For both institutions, post-interview retention was significantly higher for donors who participated in a donor stories interview vs. those who did not. Using the program as an effective engagement tool contributed to increased donor retention in both the second year from new and multi-year donor segments.

Institution #1

Institution #2

Donor Stories and New Donor Acquisition

The last area we focused on in our analysis was how those who provided an interview made a first gift compared to both six months post-interview and 12 months post-interview. Again, our team did not have any influence on the acquisition campaigns conducted. This is simply a comparison of new donors who participated in an interview vs. those who did not. 

Institution #1

Institution #2

The power of stories can have a tremendous impact on your donor behavior. By inviting and capturing donor stories, we are touching on powerful memories and motivations that bring your mission to the forefront with your donors and constituents. The power of a one-to-one conversation and getting donors to articulate why they give provide fuel for continuing engagement. What we discovered in our research is when donors share their story, they become closer to you. 

How to Implement Donor Stories

Integration into your current campaigns is entirely achievable. We begin our process with the interviews and capture of stories then apply our learning to effect mid-level campaigns, gift planning lead generation, major gift discovery/moves to portfolios, and customized one-to-one annual campaigns which leverage the donor’s own story in the ask. Here are some examples we have seen: 

50 Donors Offer to Be Interviewed

In a recent mid-level campaign, we interviewed donors about their “why,” desired impact, philanthropic priorities, and interest to engage in a one-on-one relationship. From a group of 300 interviews, 50 donors raised their hands to engage in a one-on-one meeting with a relationship manager. Interviews focused on strategic planning and a future appeal will be generated around the impact each specific donor indicated they desired.

Donor Stories of Long-Time Loyal Donors

In another recent campaign of long-time loyal donors, we were able to uncover why they gave so consistently throughout their lifetime. The answers were all different. Some were focused on faith, some were influenced by an event in their lives, and still others find the mission aligned closely with their values and they believe solutions are possible. At the end of each conversation, we asked about their state of consideration to engage in the gift planning process. A group of individuals either divulged for the first time that the organization was already part of their planning or indicated they are definitely planning on including the organization in their will or estate. Based on their average bequest we were able to uncover almost $2,000,000 in new planned gifts.

Using Donor Stories to Build a Culture of Generosity 

For a healthcare partner, we interview patients about their experiences. The stories we capture are extremely moving. We are able to share back with staff and build a culture of generosity. We are also able to acquire new patient donors at a 6% conversion rate, more than double the historical average direct mail gift. In fact, 25% of new donors are opting for a monthly giving relationship.

Key Takeaways

A formalized interview and story capture program for your donors can set the table in so many ways for future engagement. Use these programs as part of your strategic planning process for acquisition, reactivation, and retention. By intentionally creating marketing and communication streams around the interview process, you can have dramatic impacts on your giving results. Additionally, these stories provide a foundation for transformational giving. Understanding how a donor wants to have an impact today and into the future will create meaningful opportunities to engage. Stories also provide a wealth of content for communications, campaigns, and impact reporting to your donors. I encourage you all to get started today.

What you should do now

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

Take a self-guided tour of Virtuous, where you can explore the platform at your own pace and see if Virtuous is right for you. 

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