Secrets of direct mail 4: sto­ry­telling, fundrais­ing and the dia­logue method

In his final arti­cle on the late, great Siegfried Vögele, Chris Keat­ing looks at how the dia­logue method can be used in sto­ry­telling for your causes.

Written by
Chris Keating
September 12, 2019

Fundraising is often about telling the story of how a donor’s generosity has, or will, change lives. It’s about creating an emotional link between the donor and the person whose life they are changing for the better.

In a series of posts I’ve been looking at Siegfried Vögele’s ‘Dialogue Method’ of direct mail fundraising, and it struck me that storytelling was the main thing that Voegele said nothing about, despite being a common subject of conversation in the sector today.

So I wanted to ask: why should you tell stories in fundraising, and specifically direct mail appeals? And if you do, how do you combine those stories with the best practices in Vögele’s ‘Dialogue Method’ to create the perfect direct mail appeal?

If you’re interested in these questions please read on!

Why tell stories in fundraising?

It seems that telling stories, and listening them has evolved as part of our anatomy as social creatures. An engaging story means the same chemicals get released in our brain as if you’re having an emotional conversation with a real person. It’s a way to recreate the experience of bonding with someone, even if you have never met them, even if they never in fact existed.

Here’s a great video about how this works by Dr Paul Zak, one of the leading researchers in this area. And here is a link to a research paper along the same lines.

So if you’re looking to create personal connection between your donors and your beneficiaries, and create a moving emotional experience your donors will remember, stories are the way to go.

Fundraising story arcs

There’s a kind of story arc that applies across many kinds of fundraising. It’s used most fully in direct mail and DRTV and these days in social media videos, though I think shorter formats (email, out-of-home, print) also imply it.

The story goes as follows:

1. There is a person* that the donor can relate to, living their life.

2. This person faces a problem which throws their world into chaos. They are upset, angry or both.

3. They struggle against this problem. The problem is too big or too difficult for them to solve on their own.

4. For a moment it looks like the problem can never be solved, but, they find someone who can help them overcome it. Perhaps this person can solve the problem. If they can’t solve it, they can alleviate it. If they can’t solve it now, they can create the hope that this problem can be solved for future generations.

5. It turns out that person who can help is really the donor, because the donor is the person who makes it all possible.

6. If you’re making an ask, then this is the point where you make the offer to the donor: give today, and with your help the protagonist (or someone very like them) can restore order to their world and regain control over their life.

If you’re telling the story for stewardship purposes, you make it explicit just how the donor has helped the protagonist do just that.

If you compare this to the narrative arc as it’s taught in creative writing classes, there are plenty of similarities. The donor gets involved at the climax, which is the moment of maximum tension, and the resolution is only possible because of them.

Does every audience need a story?

Of course there are some causes, asks or audiences where telling stories isn’t what you need to do.

The donor might have such a strong relationship with your cause already that all you have to do is ask-perhaps a renewal of a longstanding membership. In some cases, the donor has such direct emotional experience of a cause that telling someone else’s story is unnecessary and perhaps unhelpful.

Or perhaps the donor’s motivations aren’t actually about helping people in need at all. If you’re a prestigious university, for instance, your alumni donors are probably giving to emphasise their own membership of your exclusive institution. If you’re a political party, people are probably giving to establish their own agency over political problems, and to enhance their sense of being a member of your political tribe. But for most causes, most of the time, stories are the right way to go.

How does this fit with the dialogue method?

As I mentioned in my previous posts, most fundraising direct mail builds on Siegfried Vögele’s ‘dialogue method’ of direct marketing.

In short: People read your communication in the same way that they respond to a conversation with a salesperson. The different elements of your mail pack contains both the start of the conversation, the building of rapport, the case for support, and the ask for funds.

Vögele doesn’t talk about storytelling at all — perhaps because he was writing in the 1980s before the behavioural science of storytelling was had begun to be researched, perhaps because he mainly worked in a commercial environment where his clients were selling tangible products with definable benefits.

For fundraisers, the main benefit for the donor is the emotional experience of giving and being thanked: how it makes them feel, and how it shapes their identity. Which is why telling stories is so important to us, because it’s one of the best ways of communicating emotion.

So how to reconcile storytelling and the dialogue method?

First, you can only start telling the story if you have permission to have a conversation. The very first things someone will ask themselves when reading your mail pack are:

  • Who is this from?
  • What do they want from me?

These two questions don’t really relate to your story. Regardless of whether your pack is full of storytelling or not you still need to establish your identity, and make it just clear enough that this is going to be a conversation about asking for money. Read about how to do this with your envelope.

The next two questions are:

  • Is this something I care about?
  • What can I achieve if I donate?

The purpose of your story is 100% to answer these questions, and if people get beyond the first 10 seconds of holding your appeal in their hands and actually read it, fingers crossed you will do well!

But you still need to make sure there are good, clear answers in the material your donors will see before reading the letter in full — that is to say, on the envelope, in the PS, and in the places their eye will fall as they skip over the letter. [More on the anatomy of how people read letters here]

How to actually do it?

I can’t claim to have rigorously examined ways to do this in story-focused direct mail with multiple tests, eye-tracking studies and the rest. But the way I normally approach it is:

  • Make sure your characters are present on the envelope, and in the PS. Preferably have their name and photo on the outer. In the PS, use their name and make it clear the problem you’re helping them overcome. This makes it clear there is a character for the reader to care about.
  • Introduce the characters towards the very beginning of the letter, in the first paragraph or two. If you’ve established an expectation that there will be a story, then don’t make the reader wade through paragraphs of other stuff to reach it.
  • The reader’s eye will fall naturally in places where you choose to use one-sentence paragraphs, indented sections, the ends of paragraphs, bold, and underlining. You should use these opportunities to highlight key points of the story. So if the reader flicks over the letter, they will get the key points of the story- and, hopefully, want to go on to read more.
  • You can also use supplementary parts of your DM pack (e.g. inserts) to tell the story at more length, or in different ways, or with more pictures, than you can in your main letter. Vögele says that people will refer to inserts if they need more details.

And that’s it!

And that’s it! If you have used these tips to create and share a compelling story, and present it in a way that encourages the donor to actually read it, you’re on the path to success.

If anyone else has any great ideas on this, do let me know- either write a comment here or find me on Twitter (chriskeating) or LinkedIn

I’m also always looking out for great resources on fundraising and storytelling, because fundraisers often talk about storytelling but don’t often go into detail about what we actually mean or why. So if you see something, let me know!


* It doesn’t have to be a person. Animal charities do this all the time.

You can read Chris’s other pieces on Siegried Vögele and the dialogue method here, here and here.

About the author: Chris Keating

Chris is head of supporter retention at the National Deaf Children’s Society. His team manages relationships with 150,000 committed giving supporters, 20,000 cash and raffle donors, and 5,000 legacy inquirers, consistently delivering income of £15M+. Chris is a fundraiser who believes in the power of insight and learning to inspire donors.

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Secrets of direct mail 1: the extraordinary findings of professor Siegfried Vögele

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