How to diagnose a fundraising appeal: The OAF in your nonprofit storytelling soup

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Credit: Photo by Anne Nygård on Unsplash

When your nonprofit storytelling skills fail to resonate with donors, chances are the OAF is at work. Here’s how to tell…

It was project kick-off time for a client’s autumn fundraising appeal.  They came to me with two ideas.

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.  Traumatized, the young woman subsequently became homeless and, with the help of my client and supporters, worked incredibly hard to overcome that plus long-term drug addiction, and changed her life.

Story Two was about the connection between homelessness and mental illness.  There was no individual story, because my client wanted to add mental health care as a program to better help the people they serve.  They had a seed donation, and some solid quotes from staff.  But all of it was cloaked in the massive, tragic, and very real stigma that continues to surround all people who struggle with their mental health.

So you’re thinking Story One for a fundraising appeal, 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.  But don’t get hung up on the percentages.  It’s the weighting that matters more: Specifically, 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 for your fundraising appeal?  You guessed it:  the OAF will drain the power of your story like Superman in a room full of kryptonite.

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

Here’s how I made my decision to ditch Story One and go with Story Two (to which my client courageously agreed) – and how you can use the OAF to diagnose your next fundraising appeal:

1. Offer:

Offer for Story Two: My client had a sizable seed donation.  Their Head of Fundraising was 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: Generic ask to support services.  No deadline.  No match.

Winner: Story Two.

2. Audience:

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 (a.k.a. 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 judged and dehumanized by people passing by.

I had staff quotes – beautiful, raw, heart-rending quotes – that talked about the need.  So while there wasn’t the Story of One (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 doing the stigmatizing: these people, these readers, they were the insiders.  The people who understood.  The ones who never cast out… never turn away.

Audience for Story One: Say what you will about me here.  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 young woman’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 must know your craft as a fundraising writer to create an emotional, urgent appeal based on an offer and a broad topic.

3. Format (Creative):

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 (business reply envelope), outer envelope.  The creative concept for both was equally strong.

Winner: No clear winner for format.

Takeaways and Results:

  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 plan to send the pack again (and if it performs, you should be thinking about that), fine-tune your offer and list for better results. 
  3. Always consider Offer and Audience in addition to (and often in priority over, because effective fundraising copywriting and creative is also about checking your ego at the door) the kind of storytelling you’ll do in appeal.
  4. Story One, Epilogue: Because we knew Story One needed the space to build out the background and support our young woman relied on to move on after terrible trauma, we featured the story in a supporter newsletter.  It was the right choice: The newsletter achieved a 13.4% response rate with an ROI of 6.4.

About Lisa Sargent

Lisa Sargent is an award-winning fundraising copywriter and story strategist on a mission to transform the way nonprofits communicate with their donors, for visibly better results and retention. Contributing author to acclaimed decision science book Change for Better and upcoming author of Thankology, Lisa’s free Donor Thank-You Clinics were named one of the world’s “top 10 gifts for fundraisers” by SOFII (Showcase of Fundraising Innovation and Inspiration) and remain the most-ever visited exhibit there. Follow Lisa’s no-holds-barred blog Sargent Writes and subscribe to her newsletter, The Loyalty Letter, for free insights on the art, heart, craft, and science of generous stories, fundraising writing, and donor communications.

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