Donor retention: two words that can strike fear into the heart of just about any fundraiser.

To tackle the problem successfully requires a holistic view of philanthropy – not just fundraising. Philanthropy is about so much more than asking for money. It’s about cultivating community, inspiring people with a vision, and getting people excited about change.

Where a lot of nonprofits tend to go wrong when addressing donor retention is by thinking about it through only the lenses of raising money and thanking donors. The key piece of the equation that is left out is communications.

The question to consider here is – are your communications improving your donor relationships?

Communications – especially for annual level donors – are the lifeblood of the relationship. Each time your organization mails or emails something to donors, you are either improving or weakening the relationship. Many organizations are sending out uninspired newsletters, statistical updates that mean nothing to most donors, and jargon filled thank you letters that alienate donors more than they inspire.

After conducting a vast amount of research on nonprofit communications, there is a clear distinguishing factor in communications that support positive donor retention. Those communications tell stories.

Stories are a very different type of content from how many nonprofits have traditionally communicated with donors. The key is that stories actually connect donors to the work that they make possible. Since donors can’t always come and volunteer or see the work first hand, stories allow them to feel like they are on the “inside.”

This finding is reinforced by Penelope Burk’s research in Donor Centered Fundraising. Burk suggests that to write a truly donor centered thank you letter, we must give the donor a specific example of how the gift was used. She came to this recommendation after donors cited they would stop giving to an organization if they didn’t understand how the gift was used.

But we can go one step further than just an example to tell an inspiring story.

Stories Are Perfect For Stewardship

There are numerous types of stories that we can tell about our nonprofits. For example we could tell a story about its founding and why the founder felt this organization was necessary. We could tell a story about a board member and why they felt called to help lead the organization. These are just two examples of stories, but these stories do not work as well for donor stewardship.

Stories that are perfect for donor stewardship are impact stories. These are stories where you communicate the impact a donor has had on an noun (person, place or thing). In an ideal scenario, we want our impact stories to be as specific as possible. For example – one person who was helped in a particular program, or 10 acres of land that was saved from development.

What you want to avoid here is being obtuse or vague. For example – “your gift our this program helped hundreds of people.” How did it help those people? Who was one of those people who was helped? What was their life like before? These are the types of questions you want to answer for donors when telling an impact story.

Sharing Stories With Donors

There are many opportunities to share stories with donors. If your organization is just getting started with storytelling, here are my top 3 favorite places to start:

1) In a thank you letter

Make your thank you letter stand out by surprising and delighting donors. Tell them a great story instead of repeating your mission statement. Here’s a template for a thank you letter that uses a story.

2) On the confirmation page after a gift has been made

Your donor has just made a gift, so what better opportunity than this to remind them of how awesome they are. If you’re feeling extra adventurous, consider testing a short 1 or 2-minute thank you video on the confirmation page.

3) In newsletters

These are one of the more common communications tools that nonprofits use to keep in touch with donors in between asks. It’s also a time to be showing donors their gifts in action. Ballet BC does a wonderful job of this in their newsletters.

Stories are abundant at nonprofit organizations. Our real task is finding them and sharing them with our donors more often. As you do, you will be inviting engagement and inspiring donors for years to come.

How do you incorporate stories into your donor communications? Let us know in the comments below!

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