Here are four tips to better-framed fundraising appeals that focus on a hero and a good story:

  1. Recognize that every good story needs a hero. We all want a central character to root for, to sympathize with, and to get invested into what happens next. Without a sympathetic hero, a story often arrives dead on arrival. And yet, we equally tend to over-glorify our heroes, setting ourselves up for unavoidable disappointment.

    Who is the hero in your fundraising appeal? Let’s consider where heroes fit in the world of marketing and sales.

  2. When it comes to marketing, it usually works best to put your customers at the center of the story. Rather simple when you’re selling laundry detergent or TV dinners. We love to hear stories that appear to be about us. If you can see yourself in the story, you are more likely to buy-into the message. That’s why most consumer product commercials build around the customer as hero.

    Most nonprofits don’t have the luxury of a clear customer. At least not in the traditional sense. Instead, you face the murky waters of multiple stakeholders each relating to your issue from different angles: beneficiaries, donors, members, clients, and indirect customers. It’s not an easy story to tell.

  3. Consider the following three hero alternatives:
    1. Donor/Member as Hero – In many ways this most resembles the classic “customer as hero” storyline. The donor/member audience is often your “financial buyer” and therefore you want them to identify within your story. No better way than if they somehow see themselves inside the story. The challenge with this is that it puts a lot of emphasis on donors, and can perpetuate imbalances of power, endemic to the philanthropic sector.
    2. Beneficiary as Hero – This is the most common hero chosen by nonprofits. On one hand, this hero is often closest to the “action”, and the direct mission of your organization. The challenge with this choice is that the story often turns into an glorified “overcoming adversity” story which is often dismissed as clich├ęd and melodramatic. Audiences are quick to tune out this story if they don’t personally relate to the hero.
    3. Founder as Hero – Some nonprofits are started by charismatic leaders who experience or discover something they don’t like and decide to personally do something. CNN Heroes Awards honors these kinds of heroes. This story is most familiar in our modern culture that seeks to celebrate regular individuals accomplishing extra-ordinary feats. The challenge here comes when the story needs to live on and travel beyond just one person. How do you get others to feel like they also own a piece of the story and can effectively speak on its behalf?
  4. You are not restricted to these three classic hero alternatives. In practice, it can work any, which way, as long as you’re telling the right story. You can also consider making your brand the hero, your culture/values the hero, or even use a metaphor as the hero. But each of those comes with their own set of issues.

There is an ideal goal to keep in mind: Make your hero a character everyone can relate to – donors, beneficiaries, employees, and stakeholders alike. In other words, identify the common identifiers and connections that cut across audiences. Too often we spend time reinforcing the differences of income, age, ethnicity, etc…instead of identifying that which invites and unites.

Not everyone’s been homeless and lived on the streets. But most of us have felt overwhelmed, alone or completely lost at some time in our life. If homeless organizations spent more time telling this bigger story, they would reach a wider audience, than those who self-identify as “caring about homeless issues”. The best stories are those that transcend the traditional boundaries and remind us of our collective humanity.

Everybody Wants to Live in Epic Terms
Choosing the hero of your story is not always a simple process. But it goes to the heart of how your nonprofit frames its story for (a) wider mainstream acceptance or (b) more narrow restrictive appeal. The choice is up to you.

Michael Margolis is the President of Get Storied and the author of Believe Me: Why Your Vision, Brand, and Leadership Need a Bigger Story. Michael helps nonprofits, companies, and entrepreneurs get others to believe in their story. You can download a free excerpt of his Storytelling Manifesto at