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A Compelling Story By Ron Frey

Learn to tell a compelling story!

By Ron Frey

Every fundraiser knows that a compelling story told extremely well is what makes your cause real to people. Stories help us influence donors to express their love for God and others through generosity. Yet how do you tell the same story over and over without evoking a yawn from your donors?

A child is fed and clothed. That’s wonderful. Another life is saved.

A homeless, drug-addicted veteran is recovered and gainfully employed. Fantastic. A true success.

But after decades of telling this same story, how do you bring fresh inspiration, especially for long-time supporters?

(1) Donor as Hero 

The director of development at a hospital was asking a donor for a $1 million gift to the hospital’s capital campaign, and meeting resistance. A calling partner, who was also a doctor, accompanied the director.

Responding to the donor’s resistance, the doctor said, “John, when you were on the operating table, I held your heart in my hands, and now I need your help.” In other words, “My friend, I saved your life, so what better use of your money than to help save the life of someone else?”

This fundraising story is an example of what I call “Donor as Hero” stories because they are about donors and the extraordinary value they can receive from giving. These stories may be the best way to keep your communication with donors innovative and fresh, something most of us struggle with. They place the donor into the story of our organizations with such magnetic attraction that anyone who hears them wants to be a part of it.

 (2) Who I Am 

Teri Gant is the founder of the Father’s Heart Street Ministry. God called her to help the homeless and she responded in obedience. Called the “Mother Teresa” of Clackamas County, Oregon, she takes a van filled with food and meets the homeless wherever they are. They can also come to her day shelter to get out of the rain, receive food and clothing, and use the phone or a computer to try to find a job. She is building an organization purely on faith, one step at a time, to reach homeless people with God’s love.

Gant’s “Who I Am” story, apart from helping the homeless, powerfully draws people. She grew up on the back end of four generations of poverty. “There were nights when all we’d get for dinner was a biscuit,” she told The Oregonian. “I remember trying to staple my shoes together after they fell apart on the way to school.” She became the first member of her family to graduate from high school, and later became a successful retail executive, but her complete surrender to Jesus Christ changed the direction of her life.

Your “Who I Am” story explains the real reason you are dedicated to your cause. You may be vulnerable in telling it, but unlocking a deeper level of trust occurs when donors know who you really are. You will ask the donor to be vulnerable with you about their charitable concerns and interests. That is a vital part of what creates value in the relationship.

 (3) Why I’m Here 

When I worked for a mission aviation ministry, it was easy to talk about how missionaries working in remote areas of the world needed the airplane to survive. Stories of life-saving flights in response to medical emergencies in the jungle illustrated the need and value of their gift, not to mention the value of flying in crucial supplies. It all made perfect sense because the aviation service they provided was a great solution to a very real need.

But all too often, ministry leaders think that their story is about the need they are addressing, or worse yet, the needs of their institution. Trying to raise funds on the basis of organizational needs is a sure way to make your stories stale and turn them into just another desperate plea for funds. ”

Why I’m Here” stories illustrate the needs of people and the community, and then demonstrate the effective solution you provide in compelling human terms. It has been said that organizations have no needs; they have solutions. Your organization has real answers to problems in society and the world. You have capabilities that can be harnessed to respond to new opportunities. That is the message your “Why I’m Here” stories should convey.

 (4) Vision

Gloria, a compassionate woman living in Nicaragua, saw how young girls living in the city dump were prostituted to the men driving dump trucks. She envisioned a home where these girls could be safe, get an education, and learn a vocation. Her God-inspired vision attracted organizational sponsorship, major donor support, and the collective work of hundreds of short-term mission volunteers who have raised funds and lent a hand to see Villa Esperanza become a reality.

She is a classic illustration of the short story formula of “an appealing character, struggling against incredible odds for a worthy cause.” “Vision” stories inspire donors to walk with you into the future, even if it seems risky. They must believe that when your vision is accomplished it will be wonderfully worth it – that it is worth every penny to see a new gym built for the school, a new dining hall for the camp, or a home for Gloria’s girls in Nicaragua. “Vision” stories help donors see the value of their investment, both today and tomorrow.

 (5) Results

With a micro loan, a beggar woman in Bangladesh created a little business where she bought some small household items at the market and sold them door-to-door in the village on days when the market was closed. She made enough money to buy a little piece of land for a home and a cow, and put her child in school. This woman, who had nothing, now was making enough to move beyond hunger and poverty. The initial investment: five bucks!

With stories like this, a donor can imagine what results would be accomplished with a bigger gift. These stories validate, verify, and prove that you are effective, and in so doing, help donors see the deep satisfaction of giving to your organization. Theirs will be an effective and wise gift, changing lives and communities.

Write down your five stories, and then learn how to tell them at the appropriate time in your conversations with donors. Tell them with passion and enthusiasm so they will stick in your donor’s heart and memory.

Your donors will embrace these stories as their own and tell others. And you will win their desire to hear the next one, and the next.

What stories are you sharing to inspire your donors?


Ron Frey is president of Frey Resource Group, helping nonprofit organizations achieve success in fundraising through powerful storytelling.  This is an excerpt from  Outcomes Magazine, Winter 2011.


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