Nonprofit storytelling: 4 steps to create persuasive legacy donor testimonials

Magda Cychowski
April 6, 2021
min read
Nonprofit storytelling: 4 steps to create persuasive legacy donor testimonials

Testimonials are a powerful form of social proof. Research from planned giving expert Dr. Russell James shows that the interest in leaving a bequest increases by 15% when donors believe they’re “one of many supporters” doing the same. Social proof is the concept that people want to behave in ways that are like their peers. And it’s extremely effective — gifts made in a will go up by almost $6,000 when fundraisers use this technique.

However, before getting started, you need to know what even makes a compelling donor story.

What makes a persuasive donor testimonial?

A study from the University of Pennsylvania shows that the most effective form of social proof for charitable giving is telling the story of an individual rather than a group.  A persuasive testimonial will tell a specific story of a single donor. Keep in mind that you’ll want to highlight a range of donors, so you can emphasize the diversity of your supporters. This will also make sure that anyone finding your donor stories can see themselves in at least one of them. Make your donor the hero, explain why they chose to include you in their will, and describe the impact their gift will have on those you serve.

In the story, you should also:

  • Start with a hook: Rather than opening with facts and figures, hook your audience with a line or quote that drops them right in the middle of your donor’s story. Keep it short and compelling enough so that a potential donor will want to read further.
  • Use emotional language: Use powerful, emotionally charged language to help your prospects empathize with the story they're reading. This can inspire a sense of urgency and drive readers to make their own gift. Smartblogger has a great list of power words that you can use when writing your testimonials.
  • Show vs. tell: Use action-oriented language that transports your audience into the donor’s world. Sensory details and strong verbs are key. Instead of saying “Amy is loyal to our organization,” try “Amy is frequently seen with her sleeves rolled up at our food banks. Over the past twenty years, she has volunteered at over 500, and her infectious laugh can be heard ringing through the hallways when we organize our pantries.”
  • Include a call-to-action: The purpose behind nonprofit storytelling is to encourage people to give. End your story with a link to your planned giving page.

These techniques will help readers sympathize with the donor you’re writing about, and, if done well, inspire them to make their own planned gift.

Before you begin writing, you’ll need to find a donor excited and willing to tell their story. Follow these four steps to get organized:

1. Decide how you’ll use the testimonial before asking donors.

Before you begin asking legacy donors for their story, you’ll need to decide how you’ll use it. Most likely, they will ask you that question themselves, and you want to be clear about where it will go and why.

The great thing about donor testimonials is that they’re versatile. You can use the same one in multiple locations and forms of outreach. Since the goal is to inspire others to make a gift in their will, ask your marketing team which forms of outreach have brought in the most planned gifts in the past.

If you’re not sure where to start, consider these options that other nonprofits have used. You or your team can decide which will bring your donor’s story in front of the most prospects:

  • Your planned giving page: Including donor stories or quotes on your page is a great form of social proof, especially for those who may head to that page to learn more about what a planned gift is, and how it impacts your organization.
  • Email: Include a donor story in your mass outreach and targeted planned giving marketing. Make sure you include a link to your planned giving page.
  • Social media: If you have an active social media presence, a donor story can be a great way to engage with your audience and direct more people to your planned giving page.
  • Newsletters: Newsletters are a great opportunity to educate prospects on all the ways they can make an impact. A testimonial can also be a refreshing way to break up impact updates and fundraising statistics.

Second Harvest has a great example of a moving testimonial that they included in their email newsletter. It tells the story of one of their long-time volunteers and legacy donors, Maria. They include details of her past involvement with the organization, why she values the work they do, and her motivation behind wanting to include Second Harvest in her estate plans. It also does an effective job of describing why planned giving is so important, and how it can secure the future of the work they do.

Sharing donor testimonials can be effective for gaining new donors.

2. Ask for a donor testimonial shortly after they’ve made a gift.

You should ask your legacy donors for testimonials within a couple of weeks after they’ve made a will leaving a gift to your organization. This is when the motivation to give is still fresh in their minds.

Your donors are probably pretty busy, so you should try to make this the lowest lift possible for them. You or someone on your planned giving team can conduct short interviews (think ten minutes or less) with donors who express interest. You can also send them a list of questions over email if your donor finds that easier.

For example, in a follow-up email, you can say:

“Thank you so much for your gift. I was wondering if you’d be interested in telling our other supporters why you chose to include us in your will? If you have time for a ten minute conversation, I’d love to chat with you. I can also send questions over email, if you’d prefer.”

If a donor agrees, let them know how you’ll use their testimonial, and make sure you have their permission to share it.

3. Ask the right questions to get the most compelling answers.

To write a great story, you need to ask questions that will encourage unique, specific, and genuine answers when you or your team interviews your donor.

Use the following questions to get started:

  • Thank you so much for helping strengthen the future of our organization by including us in your will. What motivated you to make a gift in your will?
  • Is there a program or initiative that you’re particularly passionate about?
  • What do you think would happen if our organization wasn’t around? This is a question that gets to the heart of why your nonprofit matters to your donor.
  • Have you introduced us to your friends, colleagues, and family? If so, why? Making a public recommendation declares who the donor is, and their values.
  • Is there anything else you would like us to know about why our organization is important to you? Give your donors a chance to provide valuable feedback.

Additionally, if you have long-time supporters who are very active in your organization, you can include the following questions:

  • What types of activities or programming keep you involved with us?
  • Have you been involved in any of our programs or initiatives? If so, how have they impacted your life or what was your motivation for getting involved?
  • How has your experience with our organization benefited your community?
  • What are your favorite aspects of our organization? Why?

By getting to the heart of your donor’s experiences and values, you’ll be able to write a testimonial that will inspire others who share the same drive for supporting your nonprofit’s mission and those you serve.

4. Write up your donor story.

Once you’ve interviewed your donor, it’s time to write their story. Remember the persuasive elements of good storytelling mentioned above, and feel free to get creative. Play with structure, try out a few different opening lines, and include any personal stories your donor offers.  

Depending on where these stories will live, you’ll want to keep them short. The ideal email length is between 50 to 125 words, resulting in response rates over 50%. If they’ll live on your website, they can be a bit longer. Keep your stories concise so that potential donors stay engaged until the end. Remember, the goal is to drive your readers to learn more about planned giving by clicking on your call to action.

If possible, include a photo of your donor to help prospects put a face to a name. This also goes for other identifying factors, such as their professional title, or geographical location. Social proof is most successful when people feel like they’re reading stories about others like them, so any personal details that tell potential donors who this person is are helpful.

As a note, this photo doesn’t have to be professional — a friendly photo, or one that shows them in an environment they’re comfortable in will work well.

Once you’ve written it up, ask the donor to approve a draft of the story before it goes live.

3 examples of effective legacy donor stories

You can use donor testimonials in many different forms of outreach (such as your website, direct mail, social media, or email). Here are some examples from other nonprofits for creative inspiration:

1. City of Hope - Facebook post and video

If your nonprofit uses social media, consider posting a donor story on one of your pages. This post from City of Hope was short and simple, linking to a separate page with a video interview, and more details about Ron and his story.

Nonprofits should add an accessible donation platform alongside donor stories.

2. Santa Clara University - Donor story page

SCU includes “Donor Stories” in their gift planning dropdown menu. Each story is paired with a compelling headline, and each story hooks the reader in with powerful quotes, anecdotes, and sensory details.

Storytelling content should draw readers in with quotes, anecdotes, and sensory details.

3. Sioux Falls Area Community Foundation - Planned giving page

If you can’t decide between shorter quotes or longer donor stories, take a note from the Sioux Falls Area Community Foundation and do both. On their planned giving page, they paired shorter quotes with a link for readers to read more about a particular donor if they’re interested.

Nonprofits can use donor stories to demonstrate how their organization has grown or reach an achievement.