News & Articles

From the vault …

Type & Layout

Are you communicating or just making pretty shapes

By Colin Wheildon

This is a book for anyone who has a say in what appears in print and needs to know whether, as well as looking good, it will do its job by being easily read by your donors – particularly your older donors.

One of the seminal books about the basics of readability and design, it was first published in 1984. Out of print for several years, this expanded and updated edition is based on research carried out by the author in Sydney.

This book is not about opinion; it reports the results of nine years of hard-nosed, rigorous research. And the orientation is toward effectiveness rather than beauty.

Colin Wheildon has found conclusively that would-be communicators pay a massive price whenever they depart from the perhaps conservative standard of: serif type of a reasonable size, appropriate leading and line width, printed in black on a white paper background.

When you break those rules, you can predict how many readers you’ll lose as a result.

International fundraising expert Mal Warwick was the editor and publisher of the first edition of ‘Type & Layout’. He put Colin Wheildon’s guidelines into practice – and his monitoring showed that they did work and work well. Mal measured improved type and layout choices in big fundraising income.

Sorry, but you’re just not my type!

And it’s not just Mal Warwick that has championed this book over the past three decades. Ken Burnett also reviewed this book for SOFII in 2009.

As Ken said, ‘this is the book that, perhaps more than any other, should be on every fundraiser’s shelf’.

Tall praise indeed from the man who brought us the book that changed most fundraiser’s lives … Relationship Fundraising.

As Ken wrote:

“Typestyle and typefaces may seem unlikely fare for readers of SOFII opinion pieces but not so if you want to communicate effectively with your donors.

It has been said that communication is the key to building donors’ trust and confidence, and also that fundraisers lose at least half of the potential readers of their printed materials simply because they squeeze in too many words and set the type too small.

They probably lose most of the other half because, unknowingly, they set their important messages in the wrong kind of type.”

You can see the full review on SOFII.

Effective fundraising is not about how pretty your printed material looks – it’s about how many donors respond to it.

Put this book into your tool kit of reference materials and your donors will love you for it – particularly your older donors.

How type and layout can help you raise more money

Type and layout – what could that possibly have to do with building great relationships with your donors?

If you’re serious about communicating in the best way with your donors, then it’s critical that you create material that your donor can read.

Think about your older donors. They may be in great shape but many of them don’t see as well anymore.  Bifocals anyone?

When was the last time that you looked at all your communications materials through an older donor’s eyes?  If you’re losing half your readers because you’ve set your type too small, it’s white on black or you’ve squeezed in far too many words on a page, then that’s the wrong message to send to your donors.

For examples of great messages,  take a look at the materials produced by marketers of products for older consumers – and you’ll see what we’re talking about. Or, in the not-for-profit world, take a look at the websites of charities whose mission it is to support those with vision impairment.

Smart fundraising is thinking about readability online and in your printed material.

The late communications and advertising legend David Ogilvy wrote:

“If you write advertisements for a living, as I do, it’s a matter of life and death that what you write should be read by potential customers.  It’s the headline and the copy that do the selling.”

As a fundraiser, you may not produce many advertisements. But this lesson applies equally to 4-page appeal letters, newsletters, donor updates, emails and so on.

Donor-focused checklist for older eyes

Fundraisers, on average, are pretty young. Donors, on average, are pretty old. So there’s an interesting gap to overcome in connecting fundraisers and donors.

Because most of your donors will be older than you, they won’t see your communications, online or offline, like you do.

And if they can’t see it, they can’t give.

Central to truly being donor-led and investing in relationship fundraising is your ability to make your fundraising big, bold, beautiful and unmistakably clear.  These are the principles of good design and communication.

And those qualities make your message appealing to donors of all ages – not just your older audience.

This checklist for printed material will help you design for older eyes. Proper formatting goes a long way towards building a great donor relationship!

  • Use larger type (12-14pt). For older eyes, larger type is a good customer experience. Small type isn’t – so don’t use it.
  • Use appropriate typefaces. Traditional typographic wisdom holds that serif typefaces are easier to read in long blocks of text. For older eyes, the finishing stroke helps to distinguish one letter from the next.Choose a font that works effectively in the medium you are using for your donor communications. Some fonts render well onscreen while others are better for printed material.
  • Have reasonable line lengths (no more than about 65 characters wide). Really wide line lengths tire the eye.
  • Flush left, ragged right (instead of justified) allows the eye to find the next line easily. This makes for natural reading.
  • Use normal letter spacing or ‘tracking’. Don’t space your letters too close together as that becomes difficult to read. Make line spacing larger than usual. Single space may be too hard to read so try 1.5 or double spacing.

Make sure your type is clean and easy to read. Copy needs space to breathe on the page – if it looks too hard to read it generally will be.

  • Use caps, italics and underlining sparingly: this doesn’t mean never use it, but in general, avoid all caps if you can, even in headlines. For older eyes, use upper and lower case and limit the use of italics, script and ornate typefaces.
  • Good colour choices, well-contrasting elements. Black type on a white background will always be beautiful – and pick a bright white. Minimise or preferably don’t reverse type out at all.
  • Break it up. Write short paragraphs and use subheadings, in bold to break up the long copy. Make generous use of bullets, numbered lists, sidebars and pull-out quotes to help break up your pages.
  • Make it easy to read: don’t use glossy paper, as the light reflects off the gloss, making it difficult for the reader to see the print. Use a matte finish.

Older donors are enthusiastic readers.  Follow these guidelines and take advantage of it.

Or, as author Colin Wheildon says in our book review for this month ‘Type and Layout’:

“Now there is nothing left to argue about. When you break the rules, you can predict how many readers you’ll lose as a result.”

The secret digital lives of older donors – it’s not what you think!

At Pareto we come across many fundraisers who target the younger demographic for online giving. That’s great. A larger percentage of younger people do give online.

Pareto Benchmarking data also shows that donors who are 60 years and older are increasing their online giving. They’re embracing the digital life and their numbers continue to grow.

And once they begin to give online, they keep giving that way – and give more than younger donors.

According to the ABS, as at June 2015, Australians aged 65 and over spent seven hours online, on average, in any given week. This compares to 9.9 hours for the national average of Australians aged 15 and over, and 16.5 hours for people aged 18–24.

Of their online usage, email communication is the most common online activity for older Australians.  According to ACMA, 76% of the older Australians use email regularly.

That’s fantastic news for fundraisers. The older donors who provide the bulk of the income to charities are moving into the more cost-effective, digital channels.

And they’re using a range of devices like desktop computers, tablets and mobile phones to do it.

But that doesn’t mean we can dump all our other fundraising channels in favour of the cheaper, online world. What it means is this …

Operating in multiple channels and providing many ways to give is the key to reaching donors of all ages.

To increase your online giving you need to continue to invest in direct mail and other traditional sources of fundraising revenue. The more integrated the messaging across channels, the better fundraising results you will see.

Tom Ahern, one of Pareto’s favourite international fundraising experts, last year released a FREE downloadable e-book for fundraisers.  In the book, Tom and other fundraising experts weigh in on the top 20 answers to the top 20 questions about best practices in donor communications.

What Tom and the experts had to say about multi-channel fundraising is this:

As Jeff Brooks noted in 2014, “Direct mail sends more people to give online than any digital medium like Facebook or email does.”

Boston-based expert, Tina Cincotti, said that 15% to 37% of online gifts are prompted by a letter. “Plus,” she cautions, “donors are three times more likely to give online in response to a direct mail appeal than to an email appeal.

“Direct mail not only isn’t dead. It’s more important than ever.”

Tina makes another point, this time about multiple touches. “By receiving a letter and then giving online, that supporter has become worth more to you. Donors connected to you through multiple points give at least 20% more than donors connected through only one channel. They also have better conversion rates. And higher retention rates.

 So you’d best be fundraising both online and offline.”

So, to be a great fundraiser, be like your donors. Get comfortable with both channels. And make sure your donors are getting the same messages – with the same look and feel – at every touch point.

That’s how you will maximise your fundraising income.

Are younger donors worth the investment?

The idea of getting donors in at a younger age, so that they will support us later, is not without its merits.

Face-to-Face (F2F), for example, has achieved something that no other channel has – getting younger people to donate in large numbers.  And by younger, we mean under 60. Before F2F, the average age of a donor was around 70.

F2F brings in donors with an average age in the early to mid 40s. This is remarkable, and the volumes have been huge.

But what about younger?

Consider this:

Those under 35 comprise the smallest percentage of donors. NAB data shows that annually, in 2016, those aged 25 – 34 years gave $228 on average to charities. Those over 65 years gave $466 on average.

Donors over 65 and older comprise (by far) the largest slice of the Australian charity pie. Those under 35 comprise the smallest.

It’s great to have young donors for your charity, and great to see them engaged with your mission. But set the right expectations around this demographic. The younger the donor, the more difficult it is to sustain their giving. And obtain a strong lifetime value.

Generally, using past performance as an indicator, older donors are:

  • Usually less expensive to get a first gift from in the first place
  • More likely to give a second gift
  • Less likely to cancel regular gifts
  • More likely to give a higher average donation
  • More likely to become a major donor
  • More likely to leave you a bequest – and for you to receive that bequest sooner.

This is what makes older donors better.

Smart fundraisers are focused on older donors

They’re not focused on Millennials. They’re studying the baby boomers because that’s where the future fundraising gold is. And will be until 2044, when the last of the boomers turns 80.

Boomers are:

  • Born between 1946-1964. Today, the oldest boomer is 71, the youngest 53.
  • They’re Australia’s largest adult generation – 5.6 million strong.
  • They’re Australia’s wealthiest and most influential generation. They hold just over half of the nation’s wealth.
  • They are the nation’s biggest givers of time, talent and money.
  • They volunteer at a greater rate than any other demographic.
  • They give more money to charity than any other group – by far. Boomers over the age of 50 years are responsible for half of all donations to charity. Those over 65 years make the highest average donations (this excludes bequest income).

But if you’re busy chasing Millennials – then your fundraising is going to suffer! Whatever you do, don’t forget about baby boomers! They’re one of the biggest opportunities for financial growth for non-profits.

It’s older donors who make the not-for-profit world go round.

So should you write off young people then?

Not at all. But again, be realistic about this demographic and your charity’s ability to sustain their lifetime giving.

Let’s look at the Ice Bucket Challenge as an example.

In 2014, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge raised over $115 million from 2.6 million donors. Over 600,000 people were new donors who ticked the ‘opt in’ box.

The challenge also lowered the average age of ALS donors from 50 to 34.

But what happened was that the Ice Bucket didn’t last forever – or even for very long. By September 2014 (after starting in June), donations had dropped to near pre-challenge levels. By Christmas 2014 they were only slightly higher than they had ever been.

Attempts to repeat the phenomenon have not come close. Why? Because you can’t build a fundraising strategy around an independent viral sensation.  And younger donors move on quickly from cheap, quick and fast fundraising challenges.

Today’s ALS donors remain those who are older, deeply engaged in the cause, and have given over many years.

If your challenge, as a fundraiser, is to maximise net revenue through sustainable channels, then it’s about building regular giving, middle and major donor giving and bequest streams.

If you want to lower the average age of your donor, do more digital fundraising … more social media. More face-to-face. Those things will get you a younger donor.

But remember, if you really want to get better results, across all age segments, smart, multi-channel, transparent, donor-loving fundraising will get you more donors every time.

Do this for your donors and you will have your own Ice Bucket-like fundraising success. And it will last.

So when should you go after the younger donor?

  • When you have exhausted your recruitment of older donors – and their slightly younger friends.
  • When you have excelled at smart, multi-channel donor-loving fundraising.
  • When you have a great mid and high value donor program.
  • When you have an excellent bequest program.
  • When you have established a sustainer/monthly/regular giving program.


  • Having younger donors is critical to your mission.

Only then … think about going after young people.


With acquisition costs rising and retention rates falling, retaining the donors you have is one of the most important things your charity can do. Dearne Cameron explores why you should steward first, ask second.

Back in the good old days of fundraising, donor acquisition seemed easy… the more people a charity could get to give, the better. Right?

Those days appear to be behind us. Today we are experiencing a different environment, with finding new donors to replace those we have lost becoming increasingly expensive. Charities are asking Pareto Fundraising, “What’s the ‘next big thing’?”

Those charities that are investing in their existing donors and providing an amazing donor experience are the ones that are more likely to gain donor loyalty.

The figures from Pareto’s 2017 Benchmarking Report confirms the importance of lifting the second gift rate: the average second gift rates within 12 months for offline donors is 26.3% – and for online donors, it’s 20.5%. What this means for a direct mail acquisition program is that only 26.3% of new donors will give again within 12 months. It’s also important to note that if a new donor gives a second time, 42% (or two in five) will make the third gift. And then they are likely to give again and again.

To make new donor acquisition pay off, it takes some serious effort on the part of the charity to get that second gift.

Adrian Sargeant is the leading researcher on donor loyalty in the world today. As he says, as little as …a 10% increase in donor retention can increase the lifetime value of your donor database by 200%. Imagine what an impact that can have on your charity’s fundraising program.

There’s lots of research about why donors give. There’s even more research about why they stop giving. The most common reason given by donors is that they can’t afford to donate any more. That’s fair. Donating to your favourite charity is discretionary – and it can’t compete with buying food, paying utility bills etc.

A lot of the research also tells us that donors stop giving to charities because they:

  • were never thanked.
  • didn’t know how their donation was being used by the charity.
  • thought the organisation no longer needed their donation.
  • couldn’t remember donating (happens more than you imagine).
  • received poor service from the charity.

What’s most interesting about why donors stop giving is that most of the reasons are the responsibility of the charity itself. But the good news is that here at Pareto we’re seeing many charities taking decisive, effective action to stem donor attrition, and we’re proud to be working with them to build stewardship programs that will cultivate longterm donor loyalty.

Getting donor retention right is a worthy challenge for all fundraisers. But there’s a lot to get done. It takes commitment and focus to understand and put this one key formula to work: retention plus commitment equals increased lifetime value.

To make the change, start with your data. You’ve already got a great base to work from – a group of loyal supporters. You may have thousands of potential donors from the data you are gathering from your various fundraising and communications channels.

Capturing the right data is important and making sure you are communicating with your donors via the channels that appeal to them makes a difference.

In its simplest form, four steps underpin a successful donor stewardship strategy: Ask your donors for their help. Thank them for their help.

Report back to your donor on what you did with their donation. Repeat this process.

Do these four things and you have a much greater chance of seeing a substantial lift in loyalty and financial support.

Fundraisers who are committed to building their donor stewardship process do the following well:

1 SAY THANK YOU PROPERLY There can be no question about this. Saying thank you to your donors is the most important part of your donor stewardship plan. Not only is it the right and polite thing to do but a thank you sets the stage for all communications to follow.

The faster a thank you is received, the more likely the donor is to give again. So make it a priority to thank your donors within 48 hours of making their donation. And a telephone call thank you is likely to give you greater returns in the long run.

2 STAY TOP OF MIND Keep in touch with your donors constantly – not just when you need a donation. It’s very rarely the case that they will give more if they hear from you less. In fact, the more donors hear from you, the more they’ll like it.

The key to this is to work hard at creating personalised, compelling content that reflects the donor’s interests and aspirations. Target all your communications to reflect your charity’s breakthroughs in the areas that your donors have supported.

Make sure your communication is genuine and engaging:

  • send only intelligent communications.
  • design it right and make it look good.
  • get the grammar and punctuation right – you’d be surprised at just how many of your donors notice this!

3 TELL YOUR DONORS HOW THEIR GIFT MADE AN IMPACT If you want real loyalty from your donors, tell the stories that show them the difference they are making; stories that connect the donor and the cause.

These could be stories about individual donors and what their help accomplished or stories about beneficiaries and how their lives have been changed for the better because of a donor’s generosity. Empower your donors through your communication: You did this amazing thing because of your donation”, Thanks to you…, Because of you… or Your help did this….

At the end of the day, no donor just wants to make a donation. They want to make the world a better place.

4 ASK YOUR DONORS TO GET INVOLVED IN OTHER WAYS It’s not always about just sending a donation. Ask your donors for non-financial involvement or to complete your donor survey to find out about their interests in your organisation or to boost their commitment. Continually offer opportunities for your donor to have more personal engagement.

Invite them to face-to-face gatherings or use teleconferencing technologies for donor briefings. Where possible, invite donors to volunteer or take direct action to campaign for a change in laws, for example.

A donor who takes the time to become involved in some other way is far more likely to make another financial donation.

5 ASK FOR A DONATION – AND DO IT QUICKLY Don’t forget to ask for another donation. And make your second ask quickly. Don’t spend your time building the relationship and then just assume your donors will donate again. And be confident about making that ask: if you have put the time and effort into your donor stewardship program then the donor:

  • already feels part of your charity.
  • has already said yes to something else.
  • knows your charity uses their gift to make real and lasting change.
  • feels comfortable if they can’t afford to donate right now – keep up the relationship building and hopefully a donation will come soon.

But the only way to know how your donor stewardship program is going… is to ask!

Learn about building a bespoke stewardship program by emailing deane.cameron@

Dearne Cameron
Deane is CEO of Pareto Fundraising. She has more than 18 years’ experience in the not-for-profit sector, extensive experience in the commercial sector and has held a variety of director and advisory board positions.

This article was first published in Fundraising and Philanthropy Magazine 2017


If you’re serious about your organisation’s sustainability, having a bequest program is essential. Yet many charities are underperforming in this area. Here Fiona McPhee shows you how to get started on this significant form of fundraising.

When you consider how much effort and investment many charities put into different areas of fundraising, bequest fundraising often comes in last or is left out of the mix completely, most often because the return on investment cannot be realised in a 12-month budget.

Yet Pareto Fundraising’s Benchmarking results show that, year after year, bequest income is the largest growing income source from individuals (with 161% growth since 2007). Our 2017 benchmarking results show that the 82 participating charities combined received $408,346,208 in bequest income, representing 27% of all individual giving. By comparison, cash gifts (including appeal income) accounted for $331,897,916, regular giving (monthly gifts) accounted for $692,900,512 and events (including peer-to-peer) delivered $90,127,987. With the average bequest in Australia today over $59,000, just think of the future possibilities for your cause.

While it might feel like ‘big brands’ or major health concerns benefit the most from bequests, any charity that offers a solution to a problem that is going to impact on society in a positive way has the potential to solicit bequest income. In fact, the data shows us that organisations that have invested in bequest marketing over the past 10 years, regardless of cause or brand awareness, have grown their bequest income substantially against those that have not.

You must invest and commit to a longterm program. Although many bequests are reported as coming from people we have had no previous association with, the data shows us that more and more bequests are realised from known donors, with over 42% of 2016/2017 bequest income attributed back to a donor record (and we believe this is under representing due to insufficient data tracking).

There are a multitude of ways in which you could approach the development of a bequest program, for example having staff on the road making face-to-face asks, or direct response programs using mail, phone, press, digital or a combination of these.

There are some highly successful programs and there is no one magic formula. However, there are some things you can do to maximise your chances of success. Having had the opportunity to analyse and work on a broad range of bequest programs, these are the mustdos that underpin each successful program.

When it comes to getting started, the most frequently perceived challenge with bequest marketing is around raising this delicate subject with donors.

Don’t be afraid to bring up the subject – your best bequest prospects are the people who have supported to you loyally for years (be they donors, volunteers or members). They are engaged with your cause and want to know the best way they can help. Making a bequest is one of those ways.

But you need to get out there and ask. One of the reasons why donors don’t put a gift in their will to your charity is because it didn’t occur to them to do so. As fundraisers, we happily ask for donations. We need to ask for bequests too. What you can do Engage your organisation to support bequest fundraising and support the ask being made. Then push the organisation to commit to a long-term bequest fundraising strategy. You need to show donors this is important year after year.

The diamonds are in your database. You need to think about your data for a few different reasons:

  • data will help you determine what your typical bequest donor looks like.
  • it will help you identify bequest prospects.
  • thinking about how you will track bequest data will help your efforts in a systematic and organised fashion.

Like all fundraising areas, bequests budgets are not infinite – and most often they are the lowest proportion of our expenditure budget. It’s important that we spend our money with the best return possible.

The our bequests don’t seem to be coming from our donors insight often leads organisations to invest their bequest dollars in mass advertising or ‘wills days’ targeted at older audiences not necessarily already affiliated with the cause.

We know that not all bequests come from donor records already on your database – our data shows us that. But it’s increasing. And most importantly the biggest conversion of bequest prospecting comes from known donors.

The data also tells us that those most likely to put your charity in their will are your current supporters. These are the people who know you. They care about your cause, they believe in your vision and, as a result, they give you donations. And potentially a bequest.

What you can do Ensure you are searching for every possible connection between a realised bequest and a past supporter (or service user). Learn who bequests are from and why they are being made today to inform your activity of the future. To do so target your best prospects first (segmentation and scoring models can be developed to aid this) and track all bequest interactions. Conversion can take years; use your data to help manage these long-term relationships.

Leave us a bequest is not enough of an offer – you need an appropriate bequest proposition, which needs to be emotive and compelling, showing the benefits of leaving a bequest to support your ask. When developing or assessing your bequest proposition, consider:

  • whether it presents a visionary proposition – this is your opportunity to be less tangible and more big-picture and future thinking in your approach.
  • timing – a bequest is for the future, not now.
  • presenting a benefit to the donor.
  • whether it is emotional and unique.

What you can do Approach your bequest program development like you would any other fundraising or marketing campaign – right message, right audience, right channel and right timing.

Use jargon-free language. And don’t drain the emotion from your messages. Fundraising that works is emotional – and bequest fundraising is no different.

Often the legal side of bequests overtakes our usually accessible fundraising speak. Your great acquisition approaches and successful appeals are based on simple, understandable language, as should all of your bequest communications.

What you can do Have someone external audit your bequest collateral. If it’s more than three years old consider redeveloping it as the market has changed and so have your supporters. We are finding that refreshed creative can aid in the conversion of prospects who may have seen previous collateral a number of times.

Just because one channel or approach has worked in the past does not mean it’s the only one available to you. Your supporter base is changing shape, your current donors are getting older and your new donors might be from a different generation to your historical support base.

What has worked for years could benefit from the testing of new approaches, which may appeal to those your current strategy has not yet motivated.

What you can do Perform a profiling, behavioural, demographic and motivational analysis on your best donors. Audit your bequest promotion, prospecting, conversion and stewardship activity. Or plan for each if you are starting from scratch, with consideration for your current donor preferences.

I have a will and three charities are in it. All three asked me to consider leaving them a bequest, each via a different channel, and each gave me a compelling reason to do so. I’m 40 – hopefully my bequests won’t be realised for many years to come but I expect over time more charities will find their way into my will as the charities I support continue to develop their bequest approaches to me.

Fiona McPhee
Fiona and the Pareto team work to review, analyse, benchmark and implement holistic strategies to improve fundraisers’ supporter service, donor journeys and donor care. For information about developing a better understanding of your supporters, driving better experiences and improving loyalty, email fiona.

This article was first published in Fundraising and Philanthropy Magazine 2017

Telling your non-profit’s story

Like any professional field, storytelling is a craft. And can be really hard to do. But that shouldn’t stop you from getting started on your storytelling journey.

Our tip is to hire a professional copywriter, or use an agency like Pareto. We offer programs and training that can help your charity become a stellar storytelling organisation.

If you’d prefer to do it on your own, then our recommendation is to find the best writers from within your own charity to help you craft your organisation’s storylines.

To help you out, here are a few tips that we’ve learnt at Pareto from interviewing hundreds of people who have received help from charities.  We hope they inspire you!

Collecting your stories – tips learned from lots of interviews

It’s a conversation, not an interview

Interviews can run the risk of being dry – or they can give people stage fright. So, make it a conversation, or ask if you can have a chat for a few minutes.

One of life’s great joys is hearing other people’s life stories. Use your questions as a guide only and enjoy the conversation instead. Don’t be afraid to go off script.

  1. Do your homework

You can’t do enough research. Know your subject, know the issues and know what your audience would like to hear.

Begin your research with the end story in mind and backtrack from there to draft your questions.

  1. Remember your audience

Know who they are, what they care about and what is likely to move them to take action.

If you start your planning from where your audience is, you’ll have better interviews.

  1. Share your own stories

Sometimes – not always – to make your interviewee open up their heart, you need to reveal something real and true about yourself.

It’s about both parties showing their vulnerability and connecting.

  1. Truly listen

This can be difficult to do, as you always want to know what your next question will be.

But by truly listening, you may veer off in a different direction – and you’ll be surprised and delighted where the conversation may go.

  1. Ask open-ended questions

Try to start your conversation with questions or commentary with words like “how” and “why”.

It’s hard for your interviewee to give you just a yes/no answer when you use these words.

  1. Use a recording device

“Would you mind slowing down so that I can get this all written down?” If that doesn’t kill an interview, then we don’t know what will.

To be able to truly listen, use a recording device. And don’t forget to always ask if it’s OK to record your interview.

Invest in a good recorder so that you never run out of batteries – or storage space. And then get on with your conversation.

  1. Be curious

All of the above are tried and true, but they won’t work without one simple quality on your part: curiosity.

A true passion for knowing more about the people around you goes further than any formal communications training.

  1. Relax

If you’re stressed or focused on your list of questions, everyone around you will be too.

Take a deep breath, relax and remember that the best conversations are the enjoyable conversations.

  1. Keep going

The more conversations you have, the better you will get at finding those amazing stories.

Interview your staff, clients and beneficiaries all year round, so you can capture good material as it happens. Build a storybank and create a steady flow of stories to tell your donors

And one last point to remember – be prepared for anything. Interviewing for non-profits is unique.  You’re talking with people who have been – or are – in crisis. Listen actively and be prepared for lots of different emotions like anger and tears.

Always be empathetic and prepared to change direction to keep everyone comfortable.

Once upon a time … the power of storytelling

One of the most powerful tools in a fundraiser’s bag is the ability to tell a great story.

Stories are the best way to show your donors what you do. They are also the best way to show them the impact of their gifts in a way that statistics and facts just can’t.

Why do stories matter?  It’s because people respond differently to stories than to any other type of information they receive.  Stories make us feel something.

Humans have been telling stories since the beginning of time and long before we could even write them down.

Stories have existed in all forms – parables, poems, tall tales, myths, novels, plays, songs – throughout human history. There has never been a society on earth that didn’t have storytelling at its core.

Scientists have drawn down decades of research in neuroscience, psychology and biology to prove that our species is literally hard-wired for storytelling:

  • We are a storytelling species. We were BORN to tell stories – we just can’t help it. We turn everything into stories, even if there isn’t a story there.
  • We LOVE stories. Stories engage us, entertain us and we use stories to build our memories.
  • Stories SHAPE our perceptions and they communicate our values. Stories help us make sense of our world, in a world that often defies logic.
  • We RELATE to people who tell stories and relate their stories back to our own personal experiences
  • According to anthropologists, 70% of everything we LEARN is through stories.

And what does the power of a good story mean to fundraising?

  • Great stories INSPIRE ACTION.

Stories influence our decisions

Stories matter because they do something important – they trigger the emotional centres of our brain.

This is important as science has now shown us that people make decisions emotionally. Then they will rationalise that decision.  In that order.

This includes making decisions on giving.  In the main people don’t support your charity because of a well-researched, calculated decision.

They’ll give because you’ve touched their hearts. They’ll give because they can help someone. And they’ll make a donation because it makes them feel good.

And it’s true at every donor level – from a donor that gives you a small cash gift, through to a major donor who might give you tens of thousands of dollars.

That’s why storytelling is so powerful. Reason leads to thinking, but it’s emotion that leads to action.

This finding, subsequently confirmed in recent years by many other studies and experiments, has radically changed the way advertising and marketing is done.

As international direct marketing expert and well-known author Seth Godin says: “People do not buy goods and services. They buy relations, stories and magic.”

Just as they’ve done in the commercial sector, these findings have also changed fundraising.

We now have the scientific evidence that emotions will decide if a donor will press a button to donate or “Like” something on Facebook; dial a number to sponsor a child; send a text message, or send in a donation by mail.

So for all of us as fundraisers, the challenge is there – to tell great stories, at every donor level, on every fundraising platform – every time.

Interested in the science behind emotions?

Then here are two great places to start:

Read ‘Emotionraising’ by Francesco Ambrogetti.

There is science behind emotional fundraising – and that science is fascinating. If you want to excel at it, then this book is a great place to start.

Head to SOFII’s ‘Commission on the Donor Experience’ Project 6: the use and misuse of emotion.

This series of six reports will show you all the opportunities and responsibilities that come with using emotion in your storytelling. And how to use power and passion to move your donors to action.

Onward to storytelling success – two books that lead the way

The Storytelling Non-Profit A practical guide to telling stories that raise money and awareness.
By Vanessa Chase Lockshin

The good news, according to author Vanessa Chase Lockshin, is that all of us are storytellers. It’s how we as people naturally communicate.

The bad news is that often, this magic gets lost when you translate the concept of storytelling into our non-profit organisational setting. Our professional voice takes over – and our story gets lost.

But, as we all know, every charity needs good stories. And in this book, you’ll learn how to tell great stories, create a storytelling plan, find stories to tell, and improve your writing and speaking skills to tell great stories.

It’s all explained through twelve packed chapters and of course, dozens of transformational stories.

Consider these chapter headings:

  • The foundation of great storytelling
  • How to understand the audience you want to communicate with
  • The keys to finding and collecting great stories.
  • How to create a 12-month plan for storytelling
  • How to measure the results of your stories.

Plus, Vanessa’s 31-day storytelling kick start plan will get you started on your storytelling journey – and show you one action you can take everyday

that will impact the culture of your organisation to become a story telling non-profit.

A great book that’s an invitation to change the world with a story!


Storytelling can change the world
By Ken Burnett

Another classic book from one of our favourite international fundraising experts – Ken Burnett.  If you’re new to fundraising and haven’t read any of Ken’s books then rush out now and buy all of them.

In this, his latest book, Ken explains how you can become a transformational storyteller within your organisation. It sounds daunting but with Ken’s book as a guide, it’s not as hard as it seems.

Ken teaches you what to do, what not to do and everything in between.

He breaks it all down for you in his classic, readable style, complete with extensive examples so that you not only come to understand what transformational storytelling is, but what it does.

And we’re not alone in our praise.

Tom Ahern, veteran fundraiser and a masterful storyteller in his own right, has this to say:

“I love this book … not only is it about how to effectively use storytelling to raise funds and hone your craft, it’s also deeply about the GLORIOUS history of the raising of money for those in need. Refresh your humanity here.”

‘Storytelling can change the world’ also comes with a bonus for all fundraisers. The Online Story Bank aims to create a free, permanent collection of surprising, engaging and informative stories. It’s a showcase of the best ‘change’ stories from around the world to inspire writers, storytellers or anyone hoping to influence anything at all.

The Online Story Bank is twinned with SOFII – the Showcase of Fundraising Innovation and Inspiration, which also has many examples of storytelling to change the world.

So what type of questions should I ask ?

If you’ve already read Collecting your stories you’ll know that one of our recommendations is to use your questions for reference only.

Your questions/notes should help you guide someone through their story so that they can tell it well and you can get:

  • A beginning – that outlines the problem or struggle.
  • A middle – that includes the difficulties faced to overcome the problem.
  • An end – that offers your audience a call to action so that they can help to solve the problem.

Without this as a guide you might walk away from your interview and find out that you don’t have any useful information to build your story. So always make sure you do your research so you can ask the right questions.

To help you on your way, we’ve listed a few of the key questions that we often use as a guide.

They’re not a firm set of questions that you should always ask – think of them more as a cheat sheet that you can scan for reference.

Closed-ended questions will give you what you might expect – one-word, dull answers.

Ask open-ended questions instead Use words like ‘how’ and ‘why’ and ‘what’. It’s hard to respond to those three words with just a ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

Ask questions like:

  • What was it like before you came to ‘Charity A?’ Where were you? What was your situation at the time?
  • How did you feel when you first came to ‘Charity A?’ Why did you come there?
  • How did they help you? What did they do? How did that make you feel?
  • What are you hoping to do next?
  • If you had the chance to sit face-to-face with the donors who support the program that helped you, what would you like to say to them?
  • “Is there a question that I haven’t asked you today, but is something that you might like to add?”

These questions can help you get a feel for the type of story that you may want to capture.  But of course, use them as a guide or template only.

Be prepared to put your notes aside and follow the conversation into more interesting territory if you feel that that’s where your interviewee wants to go!