4 Steps to Creating Powerful Stories that Increase Donations

Imagine that it’s January and you’ve just finished your year-end fundraising efforts. Congratulations! Your regional community Give Day is in the spring – months away. And then all of a sudden, it’s weeks away. You need your mailing list. You need to build the emails, register with your community foundation and make a plan for social media. Oh, and it would be great to send a print appeal too. 

You also need a story to tell – with a call to action. And you need to make a compelling case that stands out from all the other nonprofit organizations working to grab your community’s attention. 

Give Day campaigns can be a lot of work. But, done right, they can also be a catalyst. Here’s a roadmap for how to create a Give Day campaign that attracts first-time donors, renews support from your existing donors and gives everyone pride that they’re helping advance the work you do.  

Step 1. Choose a single story for your Give Day Campaign

The goal of a community-wide Give Day is to create a sense of urgency and excitement around philanthropy, and focus people’s attention on the needs that nonprofits help fulfill. Just like seasonal or long-term campaigns, Give Day campaigns leverage print, digital and social media marketing and communication strategies to engage donors and inspire giving. 

The most successful Give Day campaigns use a human-centric storytelling approach. This means the content is centered around one person’s story – your “hero” – and their experience with your nonprofit. 

To get started, brainstorm about all the possible people your hero story might feature. 

Your Give Day story could focus on many different types of story heroes including: 

  • A client
  • A staff member
  • A volunteer
  • A board member
  • A family member of a beneficiary 
  • Another donor

Then, zero in on the one hero that best showcases what’s different and special about the way you deliver services, meet needs and fill essential gaps. 

Focus your story and establish your message

Nonprofits often share beautiful, inspiring stories. But sometimes, they focus too much on integrating buzzwords and stating and restating their mission or values. This can distract your audience from feeling your organization’s true impact by connecting them to a real person’s story.

Remember to focus your story on how your organization has specifically changed the life of your hero. This will help “show” your impact rather than simply “tell” people about it. This is a big focus of our philanthropy communications work at Message Lab. 

Here are some questions to consider as you begin to shape your hero’s story. 

Give Day Campaign Hero Story Outline

Who is my story about?

How is this person connected to our nonprofit?

What challenge did our nonprofit help them overcome? (Or: how are they helping the nonprofit fulfill its mission?)

What positive outcome has this person experienced or helped create? 

What is the one key message that we want everyone to know about the work our nonprofit does? 

Call to Action: How will Give Day gifts help our nonprofit achieve more success like this story? 

Western Washington University Give Day Case Study

For the 2023 Western Washington University (WWU) Give Day campaign, we created a story about a student who was working toward a double major – one in the arts and another in computer science. Our team developed the key messages and a storytelling strategy that emphasized WWU’s culture of encouraging students to think beyond the norm and fearlessly pursue their full potential. This helped WWU raise more than $1.1 million – handily beating their $750,000 goal.

Discover how our work propelled their campaign.

Step 2. Interview your hero and write your Give Day Campaign feature story

If you take the time to write a full feature story about your hero, you’ll be able to use it as the foundation to develop every piece of content you need for your entire Give Day campaign. You can also repurpose it in newsletters, annual reports and web stories. When you look at it that way, it’ll be well worth your time! 

Before you start to write, arrange an interview with your hero so they can tell you their full story. Record your interview so that your follow-up questions will be strategic and can fill in small gaps.

Key questions to ask the hero of your story

  • How did you become connected to our nonprofit?
  • Why is this organization important to you and others? 
  • How does it feel to be part of our nonprofit’s community? 
  • Why should someone make a gift to our nonprofit? 
  • What do you wish people knew about this organization that they don’t fully understand? 

Make the tone of your story positive

Many people think that a story that makes people feel bad or sad is the best way to connect donors with the need to donate. But writing stories, emails and social media posts that give people hope and showcase impact are often more inspiring.

How to structure your story

Feature stories aren’t news stories. Instead, they bring the reader on a journey with a beginning, a middle and an end. 

When you open your story, put the reader in a place and a time and then present a problem or an opportunity. A compelling opening with a strong visual description will draw your reader in and capture their attention. 

Here are some examples of how to start strong:

  • Daniella was getting ready to graduate high school when she heard the words, “You have cancer.”
  • Cameron’s first steps into his 3rd-grade class changed his life.
  • I spent 20 years working at a desk, but in my second career, many of my meetings involve hikes and my office has a dirt floor. 
  • On my first day as a social worker at the shelter, I cried twice in the bathroom before lunch. I still cry sometimes with my clients, who tell me they’re grateful to know I care. 

Concerned about privacy?

Many nonprofits work in spaces where privacy, anonymity and trust are essential. If this is your case, consider telling the story of someone who works with your clients, patients or community members, rather than featuring a fictional or “composite” character. 

Step 3. Plan how to use your hero story in your Give Day campaign 

Once you have your hero feature story, it’s time to use it to map out each of your Give Day campaign communications. Our Message Lab team likes to break the story into a series of milestones and divide those throughout the campaign.

Here’s what that could look like:

  • Landing page: Even if your Give Day Campaign is being hosted on a fundraising platform, publish the full feature story on your website – before and after the campaign – and link back to it in your emails, social media posts and on your homepage. 
  • 5-7 emails: Print your story and use a highlighter to identify the milestones so you can see the natural breaks and high points of your story. Then use each of those milestone sections to draft your emails and social media posts. Remember: The emails can (and should) be short. Focus on one (and only one!) milestone per email to keep the story going. 
  • 1 thank you email: Summarize the story you told and the future change that will happen because of the community’s giving in your thank you email. 
  • 5-8 social media posts: Using the same feature story, design social posts around the most emotional pieces of your hero’s experience. And follow the same strategy, using your story’s milestones to craft your posts. Use pull quotes from your hero story and support the quote with an impactful statistic or short summary about a program or service you provide. 
  • 1-2 print appeals: Some nonprofits make their Give Day campaigns fully digital. If you’re including a print appeal, it’s okay to send just one or two, similar to your year-end efforts. 
  • 1 thank you card/letter: Saying “thank you” is an essential part of donor engagement. Continue your hero’s story and voice in your thank you. This is a great opportunity for your hero’s voice to make a final connection back to the larger vision that donors are helping achieve. 
  • 1 tax receipt: Whether you send a digital or print tax receipt, capitalize on the opportunity to thank the donor again and recognize how their giving has made your hero’s story possible. 

Step 4. Write your Give Day emails and supporting communications

Give Day Campaigns are a great opportunity to welcome new people to your organization and renew your donors’ support. With your hero story in hand, writing your emails, print appeal and social posts will be much easier.  

Here are a few strategies our Message Lab team uses to help Give Day campaigns stand out from the crowd:

Write a thoughtful introduction

How many inspiring nonprofit summaries have you read on a Give Day platform? Chances are, not a lot. But many organizations receive first-time gifts because they took the time to write an inspiring introduction that caught someone’s attention as they were scrolling (and comparing!) a list of nonprofits on the community Give Day platform. 

Go beyond copying your mission and vision and spend the time to thoughtfully and creatively complete the prompts on your community Give Day’s website.

Write a Give Day print appeal

If you choose to do a print appeal as part of your Give Day campaign, use your same hero story and use their signature at the end. Have the hero acknowledge that they are the representative for this year’s Give Day fundraising effort. If possible, include your community’s Give Day logo on the printed appeal as well. 

Try writing your emails in first person

By writing emails directly in your hero’s voice, you can help bring your readers closer to the emotional impact of their experience. Writing in first person also allows you to keep your emails shorter.

Limit emails to about 250 words

Email campaigns that are long with large blocks of text rarely capture your audience’s attention. Instead, write a shorter email with 1-2 sentence paragraphs. Use the milestone sections of your story and craft an email around each of those, connecting it to your nonprofit’s work and the opportunity to give. 

Write creative email subject lines

Most nonprofits use similar, predictable email subject lines. But those can quickly blur together – and get deleted together(!) – by potential donors. Pique your audience’s interest with a creative subject line. 

Write creative CTA (call-to-action) buttons

Almost every nonprofit will have a “Give” or “Donate” button in their emails. We love to turn a CTA button into an invitation for donors to become part of your nonprofit’s mission.

Here are some descriptive CTA buttons we’ve crafted:

    • “Support early childhood education in our community” 
    • “Help us maintain safe and accessible trails” 
    • “Your gift ensures patient-centered healthcare for all”

Example: WWU Give Day Subject Lines and Donate Buttons

Some of the best open and giving rates have come from emails with subjects that don’t even mention the campaign! Here are some creative ones:

  • E-mail subject line: “You have the power to open the doors of education”
  • E-mail subject line: “Let’s welcome more students”


Many default CTA buttons are simply “Donate now.” But what if you got more specific and creative about what a donor’s contribution will do?

  • Donate button: “Make room for more future leaders”
  • Donate button: “Accelerate access to higher education”

Include a photo and a signature

Humans are visual creatures and photos are a powerful tool to help you bring the audience closer to the real-world, real-person impact of what they’re being asked to support. By adding a photo of the hero and a picture of their signature at the bottom of each email, your emails will feel more genuine.

Make use of e-mail forwarding

Emails from nonprofit leaders are rarely compelling. To integrate their voice, we recommend utilizing the Email FWD. How? Pick one email and send it again as a FWD with a short message from the leader about the hero’s meaningful story below. If there is someone else in your organization who has a close relationship with the person telling their story – a teacher, nurse, program leader, or coach –  use that person as the personalized voice of the email forward. 

Here’s an example:

“Hi (Name), 

I’m Anthony’s basketball coach and history teacher. I wanted to make sure that you saw Anthony’s message from yesterday about how motivated he is to earn scholarships for his academic success as much as his athletic achievements. Every day, I see Anthony lead on the court and in the classroom and I can’t wait to see where his future takes him. Thank you for your support.”

Send a personalized thank you card or letter

Your community’s Give Day platform should generate an automatic thank you message to your donors that you can customize. If you have the capacity, send a personalized thank you card or letter from your nonprofit acknowledging your donor’s name and their gift amount – after you’ve tallied the total gifts. Most nonprofits share the overall total dollars raised and also recognize the number of donors who contributed. 

Here’s an example:

“Thank you, Rosemary for making a $50 gift to our foodbank during Townsville Give Day. You are one of 114 donors who collectively gave $3,155.00. Your gifts will ensure our school summer lunch program is accessible to every child in our community who needs us.” 

Give Day Campaigns: The Big Takeaways

  • Harness the power of an emotional story from a “hero” on the receiving end of your organization rather than a predictable/stale/lifeless letter from your executive or development director.
  • Take the time to write a longer, feature “hero” story so you can strategically use pieces of it to fuel all of your Give Day campaign communications.
  • Use a positive, hopeful tone. (Negative stories aren’t usually motivational.) 
  • Make all of your e-mails short.
  • Avoid buzzwords or long explanations of your mission and vision. 

Need help with your Give Day Campaign?

As a leading nonprofit content marketing agency, we’ve led writing and storytelling for Give Day campaigns, both large (20,000+ donors) and small. And we know there’s a lot to do besides the writing. We’re ready to collaborate and take the pressure off you to write meaningful appeals – so you can focus on everything else. 

Fill out our How Can We Help? form and we’ll get back to you within a day or so. Feel free to add links, share challenges or ask questions. 

Learn more about our expertise in nonprofit communications and our nonprofit content marketing services


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