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Bring Empathy to Your Nonprofit Message

The key to successful nonprofit fundraising writing is to understand what moves and motivates your constituencies, what stirs the emotions of your friends and supporters.

An impact story – which puts a human face on your mission – is about a journey, by the subject of the story and the audience reading it.

Empathy emerges when you understand someone’s struggle. The reader begins to feel emotional as they discover the internal and interpersonal struggles of the story’s hero.

I wrote the following story for Scholarship America. SA is the largest provider of scholarship aid in America, providing $200 million in aid to more than 130,000 students last year:

Charlene is Grateful – for You!

Charlene Hinton remembers that first dismal Thanksgiving after graduating from high school as class valedictorian. This bright, motivated student’s future seemed promising, but a darker reality intruded. Charlene suddenly found herself homeless, with no support from her parents. Her meager income was only enough for basic necessities. Now, on this blustery Thanksgiving break, she had no home to return to for turkey and trimmings. She was alone in her Syracuse University dorm room. “The dining halls were shut down so I didn’t have anything to eat except half a burrito I’d saved from the night before.”

 Persevering through Despair

Charlene knew her future depended on staying in school, so she muscled through the holiday loneliness and despair, searching for scholarships. She quickly discovered Scholarship America’s Dream Award. “I felt like this award had been created just for me,” Charlene said. “I needed funding to continue my education and the Dream Award was available for students already in college and needing financial support to stay in school. It was perfect.”  Charlene applied and waited. “From the moment I applied after Thanksgiving, I was holding my breath,” she explained. “The Dream Award would mean no more financial barriers so I could focus on school and turn my dreams into a degree. It meant having the stability to develop my potential and contribute to my community.”  The possibility of a Dream Award meant everything.

In May, Charlene received great news; she was one of 12 finalists for the Dream Award, all of whom were invited to appear on Katie Couric’s talk show. During the program, the suspense was palpable – who would be the winner? Then, Katie (she’s a Scholarship America donor, too!) dropped the bombshell – all 12 finalists were winners of Scholarship America’s Dream Award scholarships. “I started crying in relief because all the pressure and stress were suddenly gone,” Charlene said, tearing up as she recalled that life-changing moment.

“I am so grateful for Scholarship America and its supporters who literally changed my life. You helped me turn my academic dreams into a bright future, and it’s been life-changing. Thank you so much.”

Charlene has graduated summa cum laude from Syracuse University with a degree in  Information Technology. She currently lives in California and works with the IT Risk and Assurance staff at Ernst & Young, selected in 2016 by Fortune magazine as one of the 100 Best Companies to Work For.

 This story is working well, connecting with donors empathetic to the needs of thousands of ‘Charlenes’ across America. That’s the beauty of philanthropy, it converts charitable love from generous people into a remarkable uplift that benefits all of us.

John Wingate is a Minneapolis-based fundraising writer and consultant.