All stories are not the same.

In fact, if you're a nonprofit, your stories should be different - very different - depending on your audience.

When I lead grant writing workshops, we always talk about storytelling. We talk about the importance of using data to help tell the story in your grant proposals.

However, writing for individual donors is a whole lot different than writing for foundations and grant reviewers.

So, what are some of the differences?


One of the most important pieces of your grant proposal is where you define the problem or need.

In your need statement, you talk about the problem itself. How did the problem come to be? What's the impact on your community? Why is that important? What will happen if this problem isn't addressed?

In some grants, you might tell a descriptive story about a person, a place, even a principle, to illustrate the problem and its effects. Narrative can be an effective way to humanize the case you're making to a foundation.

However, almost all foundations look for the story that numbers tell. Data can illustrate the scope and scale of the problem. How big it is. How much worse it is your community, compared to other cities, states, or even the country.

In some cases, the numbers are so big, that it's hard to imagine them. As a grant writer, use context to help your reader put the numbers in perspective.

For instance, remember the rains that fell in Houston during Hurricane Harvey? That was about one trillion gallons of water - or enough water to flow over Niagara Falls for 15 days.

And the wildfires that raged in California. When the blazes reached 200,000 acres, that was about the size of New York City.

Another staggering number is how many adults lack basic literacy skills. When talking to local funders about this problem, one nonprofit I know explains that, in their own community, it's enough people to fill the local stadium - twice.

Comparisons can help paint a picture. And numbers can tell a powerful story.

And oftentimes, that's the story a foundation wants to hear.


When you're writing an appeal directly to your donors, remember that numbers numb. But stories are stored.

We're hardwired to tell and remember stories, but most of us forget data. And that's why you should avoid data when writing directly to your donors.

Unless that number is "one."

When you're telling stories to individual donors, you want to tell the story of one person. (Or one family, or one animal, or one river... you get the idea.)

An individual donor can't end hunger or cure a disease. But she can address weekend hunger, by making sure a child gets a healthy take-home snack pack. She can make sure a family has accommodations near their child, who's hospitalized and receiving treatments.

Donor psychology studies support this theory of "one." Consider these factors among the many that motivate giving:

The Identifiable Victim Effect. The idea of showing or talking about one person, for instance, "this hungry child."

The Similarity Effect. People may feel connected to one person because of their shared nationality, gender, religion, age, or any number of similar characteristics.

(Want to learn more about how psychology factors into fundraising? Download Classy's Pocket Guide to Fundraising Psychology.)

One more consideration in your storytelling. In the last year, we've seen a lot of "rage donations" from people seeking to right a wrong or correct an injustice.

That said, a recent report from Network for Good found that donors are far more motivated by "empathy and altruism" and "hope and optimism" rather than by "anger and sadness" and "fear and anxiety."

[Emotions that motivate donors to give]

Make sure your stories to donors are heartfelt and hopeful. Remind your donor that she is the hero. She's the reason your story can have a happy ending.

Image credit: Network for Good


Chances are, you're working on your next appeal right now. Before you seal those envelopes or press the Send button, read your appeal, and consider these questions:

Are you telling emotional stories? Or are you spouting mind-numbing statistics?

Are you telling a story that I can "see," or are you talking generally about the need?

Are you telling your individual donors how they can be part of the solution? Are you offering specific ways that her gift of $20, or $50, or $100, or more will make a difference?

Will your donor know that her gift will have an impact, no matter how large or small?

Or are you explaining how big the problem is, and why it will take many gifts - and large ones, at that - to achieve to achieve real change? (Here's a tip: Save that story for your grants.)


No donor ever made a decision to support a nonprofit based on a number alone. Data may tell, but it's stories that sell.

Donors' giving decisions are driven by emotion. They may use logic to justify their decisions; however, the decision to give is an emotional one.

Make sure you're telling emotional stories about real people, places, and principles.

Always remind your donor of the important role she plays in your story...and the happy ending that she makes possible.

Photo credit: Mabel Amber and Pixabay

Need help telling your nonprofit's story through grants or appeals? Laura Rhodes can help.

Send a message to start the conversation, and learn how Laura can help you and your organization.

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