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How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Development Content: Five ways to reframe your donor stories

By Kristin Hanson

Higher education and nonprofit communications teams tend to turn their noses up at donor profiles. Their reaction isn’t unfounded; college alumni magazine readership surveys, for one, consistently show that donor profiles and gift announcements rank last in interest among types of content in these publications. And be honest—do you truly enjoy reading profiles of donors you don’t know in your organization’s newsletter? Your answer is probably, “no.”

After working for more than a decade on both sides of the advancement/communications divide, I’ve learned that the source of this challenge lies not in donor profiles themselves but rather the way that they’re framed. If you stray a bit from the tried-but-tired template for these stories, you’ll find that they can help communications teams “feed the beast” of their content strategies as much as they can help you steward and cultivate your donors. Here are five ways to reframe donor stories in a way that helps communications AND advancement teams reach their goals.

  1. Give a nod to philanthropy in the stories your organization is already telling. Collaborate with your communications staff to develop a system where they can quickly check whether a story subject has benefited from a donor’s gift. At a college or university, typical story subjects include students who may have received scholarships or faculty who may hold named professorships. At other nonprofits, story subjects may include a recently completed community program or a progress report for an international development project that was funded by philanthropic gifts. If a story subject does have philanthropic support, ask your communications colleagues to drop in a donor and/or gift mention in the story, such as in a quote attribution or a photo caption.

  2. Use Q&A-style articles to highlight people in your organization doing work related to an in-the-news topic—and have received philanthropic support. Say your university has a faculty member who’s an expert in supply chain dynamics. You could interview them for a Q&A about the national baby formula crisis and mention the donor and/or gift that supports their work in the introduction of the article. Similarly, if you’re a healthcare facility or nonprofit that provides infant supplies to low-income families in your city, you can interview an organizational leader who can speak about how the formula crisis is affecting the families you serve. In an introduction or conclusion to the interview, you can thank one or more donors whose contributions have allowed your organization to keep supporting those families and invite other donors to join.

  3. Shift the focus from the donor to the issue they care about. Imagine you have a donor who is passionate about improving primary care in your area, so they endow full scholarships for local students to attend your medical school with the stipulation the recipients return to practice in your area for at least five years. Your article about their gift could focus on how your institution is already working to produce more primary care doctors, highlight student and alumni success stories, and include a comment from the donor about why they felt your institution was the right partner bring their vision to life. Alternatively, say a donor who cares deeply about lifting women out of poverty in developing nations has provided foundational funding for your organization’s microfinance program. Frame a donor profile as a progress-report story, including key accomplishments from the program alongside comments from the donor that capture their feelings about seeing their investment at work in people’s lives.

  4. Use graphics that show, rather than tell, the impact of a gift. For example, say a college’s music department scholarship fund enabled 10 students with financial need to attend the college debt-free. Use a map to illustrate the scholarship’s impact, tracing the students’ paths from their hometowns to your campus to where their careers have taken them and crediting the donor and gift in a brief introduction. Perhaps your organization is a food bank that distributed a record amount of food last year thanks to a few corporate donors. You can use a map to show the communities in your city that benefited from this bounty or depict objects or concepts that weigh roughly the same amount as the food you distributed to give readers a clearer image of how the donors’ generosity made a difference.

  5. Take advantage of donors who are also alumni or former members of your organization. This frame is more easily suited to college/university use, but it could be applied in stories about well-known former staff or volunteers of your nonprofit organization who have become donors. We all gravitate to names and faces we know; find creative ways to spotlight familiar donors, such as:

    1. Asking them to interview someone in the college, university, or organization who helped shape their life or career path. Mention the donor’s philanthropic contributions to your institution in a short introduction to the interview.

    2. Taking them on a trip down memory lane. Ask them about their five favorite places on campus or in your neighborhood and why they’re important to them, then show the locations on a map. Mention the donor’s gifts in a short introduction to the graphic.

    3. Doing a take-off of Esquire’s “What I’ve Learned” column. Ask the donor for the advice they’d share with current students at your college or university or other members of your nonprofit organization about life and career success, how the institution/organization helped them along their their path, and why they’ve supported the institution/organization over the years.

What steps can you take today to start re-framing your donor stories? First, think through which donors in your portfolio fit these frames (or others you come up with). Then, ask a communications colleague to meet and discuss how these story ideas might fit into their existing content strategy. By taking a creative and flexible approach to storytelling, you’ll lay the groundwork for a partnership with your communications team that pays dividends for them, for you, and for your donors.

Special thanks to Kristin Hanson for this insightful post. Kristin is one of our favorite nonprofit writers and our #1 recommendation when organizations come to us seeking help with their communications. Check out her website, get in touch, and watch the stories of your donors and your mission come to life!


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