Andrew Olsen, CFRE is published in DMAW Market AdVents. Read his article, “What Kittens Can Teach Us About Storytelling.”

August 31st, 2017

By Andrew Olsen, CFRE

We all know that storytelling is a key component to successful direct response fundraising.

But not all stories are created equal. That’s why, try as we might, some direct response campaigns just don’t deliver the performance expected. And others completely blow it out of the water!

So what’s the difference? What makes some just “ok” and others phenomenal?

The best stories draw us in emotionally and present us with a challenge that can only be solved through our immediate action. It’s not enough that they educate us, or give us a little more insight into a problem. That’s good…but it’s not good enough.

Great stores make us care about the individual.

Great stories make us want to keep reading.

Great stories make us want to see how it will end.

A great story requires us to act in response, and to do so immediately. They present the problem and the opportunity to solve it with such urgency and such motivation that the only real response the reader has is to decide to act.

We saw this play out last year with the Best Friends Animal Society’s Save the Kittens campaign.

Newborn kittens may be irresistible, but they are a heartbreaking challenge for most local shelters.  Newborn kittens require nearly round-the-clock care for the first few weeks of their lives – the most fragile time in a kitten’s life.  They require special medications, formula feeding, and a nearly sterile environment

The extra time and costs required to support these precious lives in their most fragile days is simply unbearable for most local shelters. What Best Friends knew was that no matter what community they were working in, kittens were always the biggest challenge.

So Best Friends used storytelling to highlight the fundraising need in a multi-channel campaign aptly titled, Save The Kittens.

This campaign featured the story of Iola – a newborn kitten – and her mom.   Both Iola and her mom were rescued by Best Friends from a local shelter and brought to the Best Friends Kitten Nursery.  The drama builds when we learn that Iola’s mom is rejecting her and Iola is getting skinnier. Iola won’t survive unless she gets round-the-clock attention and Best Friend’s special brand of loving care.  The concerned nursery manager decided to take Iola home and became her foster mom.  Like all the kittens in the Kitten Nursery, Iola was fed every two hours, 24 hours a day.  Kittens are incredibly susceptible to illness and that’s another reason they have to be monitored so closely.  Iola had to receive antibiotics, but recovered quickly.  The story shares the progress of Iola by including a heartwarming anecdote about Iola’s foster mom trying to get Iola to transition from bottle-feeding to solid foods.   Iola would make such a mess, the foster mom would feed Iola in the bathtub to make clean-up easier.

As expected, the story ends with the good news that Iola has been adopted by a forever family, and will now live every day in a loving, caring family.   The twist is that Iola’s new family reports that Iola only likes to eat her meals in the shower.

Woven into the feel-good story of Iola is the reality that there are another 4,500 kittens across Los Angeles alone who may not be as lucky as Iola.

The donor is asked to help provide for the critical 13 days of life for a newborn kitten.  These early weeks make the difference between life and death for a newborn kitten.  At just $5 per day for 13 days, for a total of $65, the donor can be the difference between life and death for newborn kittens like Iola.

Along with the story in the letter, the donors received a personalized report detailing the facts and statistics surrounding the newborn kitten problem. A special growth chart was included to visually explain the early life stages of a kitten, from birth to adoption.

Iola’s compelling story, combined with a strong offer, clear call to action, and highly effective creative presentation was a big win for Best Friends. The campaign was awarded a 2017 Gold MAXI!

This is proof yet again that effective storytelling can lead your nonprofit to fundraising success!  And the good news for the rest of us is it means there will be more irresistible kitten videos on the internet.

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