Last month, Vanessa Chase, founder of the Storytelling Non-Profit presented a Nonprofit911 webinar on how to incorporate storytelling in email appeals. The webinar was amazing, and I highly recommend you watch the archived version. Because so many people listened in, there were tons of great questions, but we didn’t have time to answer them all during the Q&A portion of the webinar. I gathered some of those questions and asked Vanessa if she could answer them here on our blog. Read on to hear Vanessa’s tips on donor surveys and her recommendations for how to include visuals in your email appeals.
What was your inspiration for starting the Storytelling Non-Profit?
Vanessa Chase: I’ve been a fundraiser for a number of years, and I absolutely love the profession! A couple of years ago, I was working as a development officer. As much as I enjoyed working directly with donors, what I really loved was donor communications. But I noticed how ineffective donor communications tend to be, so I started to research and test narrative in communications. It led me to find that using stories not only helped us raise more money, it deepened the relationships we had with donors. Shortly after that, I started writing on my blog about what I was doing and sharing my learnings about storytelling with other fundraisers. My main mission continues to be finding ways to help nonprofits improve donor relations through their communications.
In your webinar, you mentioned that surveying donors is a good practice all nonprofits should do. Do you have examples of donor surveys that I can share with our readers?
VC: Surveying is one of the best things nonprofits can do to improve their fundraising programs. Through surveys, we can gauge donors’ satisfaction, identify ways to improve their satisfaction, and communicate with them more effectively.
If a nonprofit’s mission breaks out to three distinct program areas, do you recommend including stories on all three program areas in an appeal, or should you just stick to one area? Does that give donors the full story?
VC: This is a great question. One of the things nonprofits struggle with the most is trying to figure out which stories to tell, especially if they have a lot of programs. In appeals, I think it is always best to make a specific ask for a specific program. These tend to have the best conversion rates, because the asks are very tangible and donors can wrap their minds around what they are giving to. The trick is figuring out which of your programs garners the best response from donors, and then leveraging those stories for undesignated fundraising.
One of the things I recommend nonprofits do is create an editorial calendar for their storytelling over the course of the year. It’s helpful to know what your fundraising plan is, and then decide what stories you will tell and when. That way you can coordinate stories and messages across channels.
During the webinar, we had a lot of questions on the topic of using visuals in emails. There is no doubt that visuals complement stories. Do you have any recommendations for using photos versus using none in email appeals? Are videos worthwhile? Have you seen any research on this?
VC: I’m sure there is research on this topic, but unfortunately I haven’t come across it yet. You can think about the principles of direct mail here. We all know that what is “above the fold” is important. That can make or break the donor reading the rest of the letter. I think the same is true for emails. Once someone opens it, you want to make it easy for them to engage with. I have seen a number of nonprofits use an image above the fold of the email. But it is usually not just an image. They will overlay text on the image—typically the call to action—and hyperlink the image to the donation page. It kind of acts as a giant “donate” button right at the top of the email.
Do you have any suggestions on how to share stories that are specific enough to be moving but not so specific that they risk breaking confidentiality?
VC: Confidentiality is extremely important when you’re dealing with vulnerable populations and issues, so from an ethical standpoint, your organization should prioritize confidentiality. I recommend changing the person’s name and any details that could make them identifiable. Additionally, before you use the story, give the person a chance to read it to make sure they are comfortable with how they are portrayed.
Can you share examples of great email appeals that implement storytelling best practices?
VC: Here are two examples worth reading: This is from Splash, an organization that works to provide clean water to underserved populations, especially children, and this appeal is from Women Against Violence Against Women.
We’re partnering with Vanessa to see how nonprofits are currently leveraging stories in their communications. And we want to hear from you! Please fill out this short survey on your storytelling practices. Thanks! And thank you, Vanessa, for providing great examples and inspiration to help nonprofits tell better stories.