5 Secrets to Dramatic Nonprofit Stories that Get Donations

Want to craft an Oscar-worthy fundraising letter to get people crazy about your cause?

Want to put so much Shakespearean zeal into your stories that people donate in droves?

Then it’s time to get serious about your dramatic storytelling skills!

Unfortunately, most of these principles are never taught in English class.

But just five of the basic principles of drama will help you craft great stories that connect with donors.

Ready? Let’s get dramatic.

1. Your Promise

All kinds of writing, from novels to websites and brochures, make a promise to the reader:

This story will make you laugh, this product will make you more efficient, this information will make you smarter.

In dramatic terms, “the promise” lays down expectations about what’s to come.

So, for your nonprofit, what exactly are you promising to do? What will donors get out of your relationship? How will their lives change?

You can find many examples of nonprofit promises in Mal Warwick’s How to Write Successful Fundraising Appeals: 

  • Letting people do something about a problem is a promise of action.
  • Giving them the chance to associate with a celebrity is a promise of status. 
  • Giving people a community of like-minded individuals is a promise of belonging.

You don’t have to promise monetary value, you just need to clearly spell out the “dramatic payoff” to really catch donors’ attention.

2. Your Controlling Idea

Despite all the talk about multiple themes in literature, a dramatic story only has one central idea: Love Conquers All, Greed Leads to Ruin, Hard Work Creates Character.

Not sure you can come up with a controlling idea for your fundraising stories?

Most likely you can:

Love Conquers All: A mother and son torn apart by a natural disaster are reunited thanks to your relief efforts.

Unchecked Greed Leads to Ruin: A local businessperson relates how his life was completely empty… until he found meaning by giving to your nonprofit.

Hard Work Creates Character: A restaurant owner understands the true power of mentoring when he hires youth in difficulty to train in his kitchen.

In all of these story lines, the characters move from one situation to another through an argument: that x leads to y.

The controlling idea is therefore an easy way for you to dramatically explain the impact of your nonprofit’s mission, and without a vague theme like simply “Love” or “Greed.”

3. Your Donor’s Conscious Desire

This idea is similar to the dramatic promise, but the difference is that the promise is about what your nonprofit does, while the conscious desire is solely about what your donor wants.

This desire is the simplest thing to include in your story; so simple, that it’s really easy to leave out!

Where many nonprofits go wrong is failing to connect the dots or explicitly describing how your donor fulfills this desire.

For example, if your nonprofit provides food aid in disaster-stricken countries, you can write about your donor’s desire to get on the ground and help in the field:

“We know that if you could, you’d be here handing out water and blankets. You’d be in the streets offering a friendly hand to a small child with a tear-streaked face. But since you can’t do that directly, you’re donation is the next best thing.”

In your appeal, you can paint your donor’s concrete yearning to do good, which makes them the driver of the story… and that much more likely to give money to be the hero.

4.  Your Donor’s Subconscious Desire

While it’s easy enough to tease out a concrete goal that your donor wants to achieve, the subconscious desire is a more subtle element to pin down.

But you need to get a sense of this desire, because it has a huge impact on why people give.

In general copywriting terms, this desire is known as the “ultimate benefit.”

While a mom of three may say she’s buying Cheerios because it’s an affordable, low-sugar cereal, deep down she really wants to feel like a good mom who cares about her kids.

The problem with human desires is that they’re irrational and emotional. But this irrationality is the stuff of drama, and including this desire puts a strong dramatic turn in your content.

So before writing your fundraising story, think about your donors: Maybe they want to feel like a good person. Or need social approval. Or have a desire for unconditional love.

It may take some time to figure out the correct “button” to push, but at least be aware that tapping into that deep, dramatic need can be the difference between a flat-out “no” and a resounding “yes” to your appeal.

5. Your Nonprofit’s “Internal Genre” 

All stories have a genre, and this goes for marketing content for donations.

Of course, the kind of genre I’m talking about has nothing to do with romance, westerns or crime thrillers.

Your nonprofit “genre” is actually about your donors’ journey and the change they experience because of your nonprofit.

Genre theory can get pretty heavy, but an easy way to look at your own genre is how your nonprofit affects donors’ circumstances, moral outlook or thoughts.*

For example, through you, will your donor have a positive change in worldview? (Education Plot)

Will you help your donor overcome obstacles to become strong? (Sentimental Plot)

Will your donor overcome temptation for material things and give to a worthy cause instead? (Testing Plot)

Overall, your plot and genre don’t need to be complicated, and you don’t have to outline your story like a movie to make a dramatic impact.

A quick method is simply to ask, “What’s changed?” as the answer will uncover the dramatic conflict in your appeal.

Dramatic Stories Are Irresistible

These dramatic ideas go beyond the simple act of “using stories” in your communications, letters and appeals.

Because well-crafted stories are what press the right buttons and get your donor to react.

The more specific your promise, controlling idea, desires and genre, the more dramatic punch your story will have.

Because that dramatic knowledge is fundraising gold.



*Based on the ideas of “status,” “morality” and “worldview” developed by Norman Friedman and adapted by Shawn Coyne.