Applying Social Storytelling to Strategic Online Fundraising


This is a preview of tomorrow’s Millennial Donors Summit presentation on “Connecting with Social Media” at 11:30. There is still time to register for the telesummit! Join us!

The fundamental skill of social is applying traditional relationship development savoir faire in the media. Meaning, the tools are the tools, but the actual interaction between people should be the focus for those seeking to cultivate donors. Your communication must convey a compelling story and a means for the donor to participate.

From this year’s Millennial Donors report: “Like last year, millennials said they gave most often as a result of personal, traditional giving requests, with popular technologies such as online and email giving coming in at lower percentages. However, the respondents also suggested that they prefer to give primarily through online tools. The message here? They might give more often through personal asks because many organizations have not caught up with technological giving options.”

Here’s another juicy tidbit: “65% want to know how [their dollars] makes a difference.” Further, “84% of millennials said they are most likely to donate when they fully trust an organization, and 90% said they would stop giving if they do not trust an organization.”

Trust is the basic currency of human relationships, and online is no different. Most are worried on how to rock Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Tumblr and other tools. Technical proficiency is important, but it comes with practice over a period of weeks. Ironically, the most common mistake nonprofits make with social is to treat it like another medium, and simply publish solicitations and marketing.

Instead focus on how to interact with people and compel them to 1) believe in you and your cause; 2) invest in you (via donation, advocacy or other means); and 3) sustain that relationship so that it has a chance to be more than a transaction. Understanding how your community interacts online will determine the tools. How you use the tools is the issue.

Connecting with Millennial Donors via Social Media

This requires compelling storytelling and interactions within social. As the study says, 85% of millennials pointed to a compelling mission or cause as the primary reason for donating. The report offers some additional insights on how to cultivate trust: “1. Friends or family endorsement 2. Report financial condition 3. Opportunities to meet leadership.” These are intrinsic elements to good storytelling for content and interactions. But there is more.

Compelling storytelling requires a a few story elements. A recent phone conversation with Network for Good’s Katya Andresen crystallized the fundraising “perfect storm:” An authentic tie between the person asking for the donation and the cause; a truly engaged community; and an impassioned ask as opposed to a posted request.

The authenticity angle is critical. You can’t just ask someone to give based on stats and the nonprofit’s mission. Instead, show people why you care, why it is important to you, and why you believe they should care. How has this issue impacted your life? As a nonprofit find a person to tell this story as opposed to communicating from the ivory tower.

With the community, this is the basic blocking and tackling of social. You can’t turn the lights on and simply ask for money. Participation and interaction for months and years prior to fundraising creates a strong community, one that is tied to the personality or organization. When relationships are in place — a result of mutual investment of time and value — the community responds.

Lastly, you can’t just drop a link and ask people to donate. Make it a drive, a series of compelling asks. Show them ways to donate and participate. Try to make them feel like heroes, and their donations are making a difference. Keep them updated on the drive.

As noted in the report, a critical aspect is to sustain the relationship after the donation. Donors want to be informed about how their investment made an impact. These people believed in you, now tell them what you are doing with their investment. One more statistic from the study to back this up: 79% of donors want continued outreach to include updates on programs and services.

Case studies will be included in the Milliennial Donors Summit presentation. A follow up to the Summit will be posted on the Inspiring Generosity blog.


  • You point to so many great suggestions here, Geoff. This question of how is my money going to make a difference is what has driven the success of micro financing with organizations like Kiva, or It’s an amazing feeling of knowing that you just helped someone in a developing nation by a cow, or a teacher create a specific art project. Bigger non-profits, need to get better at the storytelling part, getting donors to associate to the impact that he or she is specifically making.  Not just communicating the facts, but presenting the impact in an emotionally moving way. That’s the key.

    • Thanks, Al.  I agree. I am not sure social is the revolution, but just the tool that causes us to see this eye sore more prominently.  Hopefully, people will take on the challenge as time moves on to tell better stories and be more accountable.

  • This great article reminds me of times working in a local university’s annual giving fund, where we tried to follow many of these same suggestions. For many school spirit is just not compelling enough to give back, especially for recent grads and parents. You have to include how a greater cause needs their help. For example, how despite tuition, the school needs their help because tuition only covers x%, or we’re trying to increase our participation percentage, so even small gifts make a big difference. Gifts that could be directly given to specific clubs or activities on campus were also compelling for previous members of said clubs or activities. Sometimes we even had to ‘verify’ that we were actually calling from the school like we said, generally by taking a verbal quiz given by the potential donor. Basically if we just called and asked for a donation very few would give, but these additional little things make a huge difference.

  • I think what you wrote about Millennials applies to donors of all generations…I think one of the hardest things is to bridge the gap between an org’s mission and the effect when there’s not an immediate answer. Online fundraising works around natural disasters and political campaigns, but does it work in other areas without a celebrity endorsement?

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  • I just stumbled across this post. Thank you for the information. Research like this helps me persuade my clients about the importance of storytelling.

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