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7 Steps for Compelling Online Donation Narrative

We are living in unprecedented times. How we adapt, respond and reinvent our organisations in this global pandemic, have the power to strengthen or shatter the organisations we lead and manage.

Public donations represent a significant income stream for many non-profit organisations. Many non-profit organisations organise large-scale events like charity dinners, performances and marathons, to raise funds. As we reduce social interactions to a minimal to limit the spread of the SARS-Cov2 virus, non-profit organisations, including charities, have put to halt their fundraising plans. There are, however, alternatives to fundraising through events such as making use of charitable crowdfunding or digital fundraising platforms.

A recent data published by over three periods – February 2018, Feb 2019 and Feb 2020 observed a significant spike in online donations between Feb 2019 and Feb 2020. Donations surged in Feb 2020 to exceed $2.2 million representing a 67% increase against Feb 2019.

Our present global pandemic had fuelled the surge in donations and volunteerism. Additionally, charities that conducted fundraising campaigns under the banner, #SGUnited, raised more than $344,000 in February this year alone.

A secret sauce to effective fundraising online is a compelling narrative or story. Here are the seven ingredients to crafting a compelling narrative for your online donation appeals.

Begin with your donors in mind

Online donation appeals tend to target many individuals who each gives a little to support your cause. They are individuals sourcing to gift to a meaningful cause, people like you and me. To begin crafting your narrative, you must first identify the who. Who are you producing the narrative for?

Crafting a narrative that will appeal to donors online is akin to the 3Cs model of brand positioning. The 3Cs involve analysing the customer, competitor and company.

The first “C” is for the customer. For non-profits, your donor is your customer. Unlike for-profit firms where customers are their source of revenue when they pay for the value created, the programme and service offerings to the beneficiary by non-profits often do not yield enough funding. Therefore, your donors are your customers in your online donation appeal. Donors provide one of your organisation’s income streams.

Your value proposition to your beneficiaries does not apply to your donors. Instead, you will need another value proposition to appeal to your donors. For a compelling value proposition or narrative, you, therefore, need to understand to whom you are appealing for donations and analyse your desired group of online donors or customers. Your donation appeal narrative should be relevant and believable to your group of potential donors. Your story should resonate with their needs, value system, personality, and worldview.

Give them a sense of belonging

#SGUnited and Covid-19 are pushing individuals to give. We are giving more because we are helping one another which brings us to the second ingredient, a sense of belonging.

We want to feel belonged. We want to be associated with a group. We wish to affirm our identities. People are giving because they feel a part of the community and feel compelled to do their part.

Your narrative should thus appeal to their sense of belonging like the alumni they belonged to, their local community or neighbourhood, or any other groups.

Besides the need to feel belonged and the social pressure to give to support a family member or friend, research also suggests that online donors are motivated to act on projects that are attention-grabbing especially projects that are relevant to the current context. Interestingly donors online like online shoppers are susceptible to casual and impulse donating.

Stir emotions

The third ingredient is to stir emotions. Most narratives focus on what the organisation do. To stir emotions, address “why you do what you do?”.

Use your story to stir positive emotions like awe, wonder and pride. Warm people’s hearts. Not make them feel anxious, ashamed, guilty or sorry. Like how some of us dread our annual health screening to avoid feeling anxious. Making people feel anxious, ashamed, guilty and sorry, threatens their identity, value, and worldview. In response, they avoid and flee.

The “Sayang Sayang Fund” launched by the Community Foundation Singapore, to care for vulnerable individuals affected by this pandemic crisis received overwhelming support from both individual and corporate donors. The Fund has far exceeded its donation target. Majority of us in this part of the world can relate to “sayang”. The name of the Fund simply warms our hearts. How you name your campaign can stir emotions too.

Imprint an image through your story

The fourth ingredient is to imprint the image of your story. The purpose of your narrative is to raise funds online. Not merely to raise awareness. In the customer journey, users on crowdfunding platforms are at the purchase decision stage. They are shopping for a campaign or cause to donate and give; one that they have a feel towards.

Draw the image you wish to create in the minds of your potential donors. Use your campaign narrative to tell your story and imprint the image of your story in the minds of your potential donors.

Use real stories, make them personal and believable. Use your voice; write like you are speaking to a trusted friend. Your stories can be about people, event or place. It can be a story of one’s recovery. How you or the hero in your story overcome a great challenge. A challenge that involves a descent into the abyss of despair, to a crisis, to recovery.

It can be a story of discovery. Most of us, like CSI (crime scene investigation)-type stories, uncovering the facts to get to the truth. A story about one of your beneficiaries, and how your cause inspired him or her. It can also be a story about a place. A place that offers insights into our values and our sense of belonging. Give your story an image, so that people can connect with your work.

It can even be a story about food. A fundraising campaign for Marymount Centre needed donations to buy chicken rice for children at the Centre. The chosen image was chicken rice. A simple local treat that many of us take for granted but delights the children. The target for this campaign was $3,000, and the campaign has far surpassed the target!

New and fresh perspectives

The fifth ingredient is to tell better stories through new and fresh perspectives. A better story is one that helps the audience see things from a new perspective.

Montfort Care launched a donation appeal online to support outreach to individuals and families who have lost their loved ones. Through the online donation appeal, we learnt about grief and bereavement support. Most of us fail to realise how grief caused by the loss of a loved one can cripple us and our lives. The outreach by Montfort Care to bereaved persons or families can enable them to move on and forward in their lives.

Impel user action

Now that your narrative has captured online users’ attention, feed their motivation, get them to act! In the sixth ingredient, which is to impel user action, you want to express your needs to potential donors. How much do you need from them? Show them how they can make a difference with each donation tier. You can even go a step further. Besides giving money, what else can they do? What is it that you want your potential donors to do?

By donation tier, we can take reference from how Serving Persons with Disabilities (SPD) designed their online fundraising campaign. In their campaign to “Fight Covid-19 – Help Keep Our Programmes & Services Running”, SPD identified by donation tiers of $100, $300, $600 and $1,000, which is the difference in value created to their beneficiaries. Donors can choose how they want to make a difference. Example, $1,000 would provide a laptop for a child with special needs to receive home-based learning now that special needs schools are also closed. A potential donor with $100 to give would be able to make a difference to a beneficiary who would require specialised transport to access services at SPD.

Additionally, stay connected with donors and new donors to keep them informed of what you are doing for the community. Monitor your online campaign regularly. Update your narrative when you are getting close to your donation target. There is a phenomenon called the completion effect in charitable crowdfunding platforms. Donors tend to make significantly larger donations, more frequently, and at a faster pace to personally reach fundraising targets.

Act fast to build your online presence

The last and seventh ingredient is to act fast to build your online presence. The current situation is driving many of us online to search for information, to shop, to connect with friends, and so on. Even non-users are beginning to learn to use the world wide web. This is the best time to build and develop your fluency and capability with social media.

Some studies have identified donors on charitable crowdfunding platforms to be younger, unlike donors from traditional sources. They also tend to spend lots of time online. Studies have shown repeatedly that online fundraising success is related to your charity’s network of online followers like your Facebook fans. Increase the size of your followers online by building your organisation’s website and presence on social media.

Cultivate the relationship with your database of donors and new donors. Keep them informed of what you are doing for beneficiaries. Inform them of what you are doing for the communities in your neighbourhood and how you are giving hope amidst this period.

Desired donor profile

A compelling narrative will grab attention, motivate and move users emotionally to act. However, this is not enough. Your desired group of donors should be consistent deep connectors. Their consistent and sustained giving will ensure the continuity of your programmes and services. As you cultivate your capability in crafting compelling narratives, you should also continue to measure your programme impact, collect evidence on how you are meeting and fulfilling our community needs. Donors especially savvy and sustained donors still want to ask hard questions.

There’s another segment of donors whom you should actively pursue – the techie followers who are contagious givers. This group of followers are highly contagious who will transmit and spread the word about your cause. Their influence on social media platforms will “infect” more prospective advocates, volunteers and donors for you.

Effective online fundraising campaign

There is a concept in epidemiology, R0. R0 refers to the basic reproduction number of a disease. It measures the average number of people who would catch the disease from a single infected person. A high R0 suggests a highly infectious virus.

Public health experts identify four factors that feed into R. These four factors can be abbreviated by “D.O.T.S “where “D” stands for the duration for which an infected person is infectious. “O” is the number of spreading opportunity during the infectious period. “T” is the probability that the opportunity leads to transmissions and “S” is for susceptibility, the susceptibility of the population to the infection.

You want to aim for a high R0 for your donor profile. D.O.T.S also sums up the ingredients to an effective online fundraising campaign.

  • “D” stands for the duration of your campaign and its relevance to the context and climate.  It also stands for your database of supporters including donors and volunteers.
  • “O” for your online presence to deliver your narrative or message across different social media platforms that will create an echo chamber.
  • “T” how you would turn feelings of your followers into giving. and
  • “S” would be to seize your donors’ motivations for sustained giving and support.

Get ready for the new normal

In summary,  to aid recall of the seven ingredients to craft a compelling narrative for your online donation appeal, think ‘Dossinia’ – which is also a species of orchid, commonly found in Borneo.

Always begin first with the group of donors you are appealing to for funds - “Do” for donors. What will be relevant to them, and what are their needs?

  • The first “S” in Dossinia is for a sense of belonging, appeal to the donors' sense of belonging.
  • The second “S” is to stir emotions like pride, and wonder, through your narrative.
  • “I” for imprinting in potential donors’ minds an image of your narrative.
  • “N”– Tell better stories by offering “N” new perspectives.
  • “I” Impel action. Use your narrative to impel the act of giving.
  • Last but not least, “act fast” to build your online presence. There are numerous tools to use that are open source, and there are so many high-quality webinars that are free of charge.

The world will be dramatically different when this crisis finally ebbed. By then, many more would be so familiar with the world wide web and have learnt new technology skills. Use this time to try and discover what works best for your organisation to more effectively raise funds. Act fast to build your online presence.
This article is contributed by Dr. Caroline Lim, Head of Organisation and Leadership for Non-Profit Programmes at the S R Nathan School of Human Development, Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS).


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