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February 2015
Published by Lisa Sargent

Welcome, Nonprofit Professionals:

Storytelling is a sexy third sector topic right now.

But one thing irks me about nonprofit storypalooza: It lulls folks into believing if only they tell a great story, people will donate in droves.

And it's just not true.

Because sometimes you can tell the story of the century, and your appeal sputters along like a sad balloon with a slow leak.

That's why I want to tell you about the OAF in your storytelling soup. Read it, heed it. You'll never diagnose an appeal the same way again.

It's in your Loyalty Letter below. Thanks for reading.

Until we meet next time... Write on!

Lisa Sargent
Sargent Communications

P.S. In keeping with my OAF theme, next month I'll talk about how to craft a solid offer. Sound good?

How to Diagnose a Fundraising Appeal:
The OAF in Your Nonprofit Storytelling Soup

When your nonprofit storytelling skills fail to resonate with donors, chances are the OAF is at work...

A little less than two years ago one of my clients came to me with a couple of ideas for their autumn fundraising appeal.

Story One was a riveting interview with a young woman who'd been beaten and held hostage by her grandmother in the years after her mom died -- the girl subsequently became homeless and, thanks to my client, ultimately overcame that plus longterm drug addiction, and changed her life.

Story Two was about mental illness among the homeless. There was no individual story, because my client wanted to add mental health care as a program. They had a seed donation, and some solid quotes from staff, but all of it was wrapped in the massive and tragic stigma that surrounds the mentally ill.

You're thinking Story One, right? Well, I tried to write Story One. I really did. But I kept coming back to Story Two. Why?

There was an OAF in my storytelling soup, and I knew it.

Meet the OAF. Offer. Audience. Format (Creative).

In short, the late great marketer Bob Stone said that the success of any appeal hinges roughly 60% on the audience (or list), 30% on the offer, and 10% on creative.

The percentages don't matter as much as the weighting: audience and offer outrank creative (i.e., story).

This means: send your appeal to the wrong list -- or tell the wrong story to the wrong audience, and the OAF will squash you flat.

Fail to develop a good offer, and the OAF will sap the power of your story like Superman's kryptonite.

Repeat after me: You MUST attend to audience and offer.

Story sample

Here’s how I made my decision to ditch Story One and go with Story Two (which my client courageously agreed to)...


Offer for Story Two: my client had a sizable seed donation. Their Head of Fundraising is a genius at turning these into matching gifts, which can work gangbusters. In short, she knows how to build a dynamite offer. The match enabled me to create a deadline. I also added a layer of specificity to the match that I'm not at liberty to disclose.

Offer for Story One: a more generic ask to support services, no deadline, no match.

Winner: Story Two.

Audience for Story Two: this was trickier. What I knew was that I could tap into a really common emotional experience with the audience, which was that we ALL have felt sad and lost and despairing and alone in the world. I knew I could lead with the donor (aka reader) as the center of the story, before I connected to how crappy it would be to feel like that and have no roof over your head, getting rained on and dehumanized by people passing by. I had staff quotes, beautiful quotes, that talked about the need. So while I didn't have the story of a single person, I had the Story of Us All: and that resonates with an audience, when done right.

Was there a mental illness stigma? You bet: but the trick here is to very quickly establish that it's others responsible for that. These people, these readers, were the heroes.

Audience for Story One: say what you will about me. But we knew from testing that our audience responded better when women were featured in newsletter articles, vs appeals. This isn't to make some sexist, heartless comment about the audience, it's just that sometimes people don't give because the story freezes them into inertia. This girl's story could have gone that way, which wouldn't have honored her at all.

Winner: Story Two (with a caveat: here's where you have to know your stuff as a writer to craft an emotional appeal).

Refer to my blurb about audience in #2, in which I blurred the creative slant for the story. Format for both house appeals was essentially the same: 2 page appeal, reply, BRE, outer envelope. The creative concept for both was equally strong.

No clear winner for format. Sometimes, as in acquisition, there will be a pack format that's clearly better though.


1. OAF Analysis works: The appeal based on Story Two, which again wasn't about a single person and talked at length about a program, went on to pull a 20+ percent response rate, funding my client's mental health program for not one, but three years. (Side note: program is not a dirty word.)

2. You can use OAF to strengthen a control (banker's pack): if you'll send the pack again, fine-tune the offer and list for better results.

3. Always consider Offer and Audience in addition to (and often in priority over) the kind of storytelling you'll do in appeal.

P.S. Subscribing to The Loyalty Letter is easy:
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And lastly, if ever you have a question on donor communications, send it along to The Loyalty Letter. All you have to do is:

Email me.

Or call: +001 (860) 881-7009

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