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Want to raise money or inspire action? Tell a story.
June 27, 2016

Event participants smiling and laughing (Courtesy of Troski Journal)
(Courtesy of Troski Journal)

Daniel Bonsu, a YALI Network member from Ghana, looks for ways to bring together people who can help each other. At Ashesi University outside Accra, from which he recently graduated, Daniel spearheaded a program that sold pizza to benefit local craftsmen with disabilities. He also runs the Troski Journal, a photoblog that highlights Ghana traders and startup businesses with the aim of connecting them to funders and benefactors.

Early in his career, Bonsu is looking for ways to reach more people with his efforts to connect people and form mutually beneficial networks among them. This means recruiting others to join his cause, to help with either their time, their money or both.

Bonsu got some advice from Ben Dotson, the deputy digital director of Emily’s List. Emily’s List is a U.S. organization that works to put women who can make significant contributions to education, health care, voting rights and economic equality into political office. In its 30-year history, Emily’s List has helped hundreds of women get elected and has become the largest financial resource for minority women seeking federal office. (“Emily” is not someone’s name; it’s an acronym for “Early money is like yeast,” a piece of campaigning wisdom that emphasizes how early donations beget more donations.)

In doing this, they’ve learned a thing or two about reaching audiences with compelling stories and asking for help. “Email fundraising and good storytelling are one and the same,” Dotson said. “Your ability to raise money is largely dependent on your ability to tell a moving, engaging story that drives people to take action.” Dotson suggests collecting stories from those you’ve already engaged on your issue and finding out why the issue is important to them.

“But stories alone aren’t enough,” Dotson added. You’ve got to pair the best practices in digital fundraising with those stories. Your story has to be tailored to its medium and you have to take into consideration the context in which it will be consumed.

Daniel Bonsu (State Dept.)
Daniel Bonsu at Ashesi University (State Dept.)

Bonsu explained that the culture of donations is different in Ghana than in the U.S. “In Ghana, people are skeptical of fundraising,” he said. “Not a lot of people are really comfortable sharing money, especially sharing money through digital means.”

Dotson suggested that whether you are working toward asking for money or for volunteer hours or some other nonmonetary contribution, the need to tell a story is the same. “The best fundraising emails embrace a very strong theory of change; think of it as an if/then statement. ‘If you do this, then that will happen.”

“What I took from it,” said Bonsu, “was that you need to know how to measure impact and show your potential benefactors your group’s impact to gain their trust.”

Dotson recommended three things to think about when writing emails to raise money or inspire action:

  1. Help people see their place in the movement, by making sure they understand the value of their contribution and what it helps your organization to achieve.
  2. Tell timely, powerful stories that create a sense of urgency and raise the stakes surrounding the issues. Drive home the real consequences surrounding your issues to bring in the emotional side.
  3. Don’t treat your members like an ATM. Keep them active and engaged in your cause. Cultivate them; work up a ladder of engagement from simple tasks, like signing a petition, to bigger tasks like donating or volunteering.