unfinished stories

The Case for Cliffhangers

Fundraising appeals rely on story to pull readers in, create emotional connections and inspire donors to make a difference through giving. Knowing how essential stories are to success, the Frontier team is constantly trying to improve our techniques, so we can maximize results for our clients. Today we’d like to share the findings from one of our recent copy tests. 

How many fundraising stories are told 

Most appeals follow a similar pattern, introducing donors to someone whose life has been changed through accessing a charity’s services. Donors are immersed in the struggles someone has endured. Then the donor is told how their donation helped to turn a life around, and the story ends with the person housed or fed or reunited with family, all thanks to the donor’s support. The call to action is to give again to help the countless others still in need. 

Telling finished stories has an unfortunate consequence: it diminishes the need in the mind of the donor.
— Jeff Brooks

The idea behind this strategy is to show donors exactly where their last donation went, express gratitude, and create an emotional connection. The goal is for donors to see the real impact they’ve made. Such stories can inspire donors and they certainly have their place, but…

Is there a better way? 

According to some experts, sending appeals with “finished” stories that end with happy people who have already been helped may make donors feel good about their last donation. BUT this type of appeal may also decrease the motivation to give again because everything’s looking so rosy. 

As Jeff Brooks explains in his blog post titled Why (and how) you should not finish fundraising stories, he reminds us that actions have consequences! “Telling finished stories has an unfortunate consequence,” he says. “It diminishes the need in the mind of the donor. All donors hear about are people who have been helped, so they never emotionally feel the need your organization exists to serve, so they become less likely to give.”

On the other hand, by leaving stories unfinished - aka by writing “cliffhanger” stories, you create an URGENT call to action. You create space for the donor to step in and become the story’s hero. Without them, the story will not have a happy ending.

Sounds pretty good. But of course, the Frontier team can’t simply accept fundraising literature at face value. We need to test it!

The Test

An A/B test was conducted with Bissell Centre’s 2018 Easter appeal. The donor list was split in half randomly and two different versions of copy were written. 

Donor group A received an appeal that shared the story of a single mother of two who, with the support of donors, had escaped homelessness and was now housed, happily accessing Bissell Centre services and working hard to create a prosperous life for her children.

Donor group B received a story about that same single mother, except that in this version she had only recently connected with Bissell Centre and needed continued support to access services like free diapers, child care, parenting classes, housing services and support groups. 

Our hypothesis was that the unfinished version would bring in more revenue than the finished version. 

The Results

Although 14 fewer people from the “unfinished” story group gave, their average gift was $95 compared to $73 in the “finished” story group - that’s 30% higher and resulted in 15% more revenue! 

While these results are exciting, a single test conducted with 5,000 donors can’t prove that unfinished stories are the way to go, across the board. That’s why we retested with the Bissell Centre 2019 Summer Child Care appeal. We also sent Welcome Hall Mission’s entire list of 30,000 an unfinished story in their first Easter appeal, with the conclusion revealed in the follow-up, in order to make a year over year comparison. 

While we eagerly await the results of these appeals, we’re keeping story endings top of mind while we write, and planning even more tests for 2019.