During my time as a leadership and fundraising coach, I’ve helped thousands of nonprofit leaders clarify their fundraising stories. Nearly all make the same mistake: they forget the audience – the donors.

Take hospitals for instance. Have you ever asked hospital leaders and fundraisers what the most important story they should be telling to donors? If you do, you’ll get lots of talk about quality measures and safety awards. You’ll hear the pride in their voice. And the passion.

So they craft these “stories.” Stories about provider excellence. They share these at staff meetings and get even more statistics on quality improvement data.

Then they share these with the board. Their board loves them. You see, their board has been saying for years that “if people just knew about how good we were, they’d come here.”

And therein lies the problem.

Fundraising isn’t Marketing

Marketing is not bad. It’s important. Talking about quality and awards and metrics is important for a hospital. But those information points do not drive donations.

How do I know? By talking to donors.

Ask a donor why they give and you won’t hear metrics and quality data terms. (Unless the donor you are talking to was on the board.) You’ll hear surprise at how good the care was. Or the fear they had when facing an illness. Or the sadness of losing a loved one.

You might even hear about anger at other providers getting it wrong. Or disgust with care they’d received in other places.

And you’ll usually hear the happiness they experience knowing such a good hospital is in their community.

Did you catch that?

The donations are attached to emotions. Not to statistics.

Create Stories for the Audience, not the Authors

Marketing is crucial for all nonprofits. For hospitals, it is vital to show patients and prospective patients that their care will be high quality. No one willingly gets health care from an institution with a reputation of filth and failure.

So these stories need to be told – when the audience is prospective patients.

But if you’re working hard to create the best fundraising stories exclusively by talking to your staff, these data points and healthcare acronyms will dominate your talk. You’ll feel passion and pride. But will your donor? 

Too often, we create stories for the authors, not for the audience. In this case, the authors are the staff and boards. But the audience is the donor or donor prospect.

How do you know if the story will resonate with donors? Ask them! Ask them how they first came to donating to your nonprofit. And out of all the many things your nonprofit does, ask them what they are most proud of helping make possible.

As you ask them, take note of the emotions that moved them. Thanks to fundraising letter guru Tom Ahern, I have a list of the “6 Core Emotions” on a post-it note at my desk. The six are: happiness, surprise, anger, disgust, sadness, and fear. (Look in the previous section above and you’ll see those are the bolded words in the stories donors tell.)

But Marc, We’re not a Hospital

I know, I know. Not all readers of this blog are hospital leaders. So test this for yourself. In your stories, do you talk about data and insider language or do you use the language of your donors? For libraries, most donors I’ve worked with aren’t concerned about “literacy.” They’re just wanting community members and workers who can read and write. Same thing, but different words to describe it.

When are “data points” right to use? I can think of two cases:

  1. You’ve tested “data point” stories and they work better for your organization than other stories.
  2. You’re donor audience understands the terms. For example, if you’re trying to move physicians to give to the hospital, quality awards might work.

The best way to know what moves people to give is to ask them. If you haven’t done this, you’ll be surprised at how rewarding this can be.

Don’t believe me? Ask your donors!


An earlier version of this, including exact wording for three questions, was sent to Fundraising Kick subscribers. To sign up for weekly fundraising coaching tips like this, go to http://FundraisingKick.com/

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