How to Use Stories to Sell the Unsellable

One of the toughest copywriting tasks to do well is fundraising for non-profits.

You’re still facing all the normal human resistance to “selling,” and as if that’s not enough, you can’t fall back on the copywriter’s greatest ally—self interest.

Reader Andy finds himself in this situation, and he asks:


How do you make a ‘lead magnet’ for people who you want to end up donating towards helping others, and not themselves?!

(I’ve always struggled with TV evangelists, who ‘preach to the unconverted’ and then request money from the same. If the evangelist wants money, surely it shouldn’t come from people who they’re trying to reach? The Salvation Army doesn’t canvas the homeless!)

Regarding the larger charities, (take a humanitarian charity for example) maybe publicity brings more leads than ‘marketing’?


My go-to tool in this situation is STORIES.

Fresh out of college my first job was working in the fundraising office at my alma mater. I wrote letters, articles and brochures trying to coax alumni to “give back” by donating to the college.

As a recent graduate myself, I knew there was a big elephant in the room that no one in the college administration wanted to talk about:

Student loans.

Back then, students graduated from the college with an AVERAGE of $25,000 in debt. (This was nearly 15 years ago—I’m sure it’s much higher now.)

For many new graduates this debt load is crippling. You’re starting your career and your family shackled to this debt. It takes most people 10-15 years to pay that off, sometimes even longer.

I went to my boss and told him I wanted to do a cover story for the alumni magazine about this debt problem. He was nervous but eventually agreed.

So I asked around until I found a student named Laura who was willing to go on the record and disclose her personal finances.

And I used her story to dramatize the issue, showing the strain that this mounting debt put on her as graduation loomed.

She described how her staggering debt load was effecting her decisions about her career and family.

And as if my boss wasn’t nervous enough, he got REALLY squirrelly when he saw the photo I chose to illustrate the story:

A college diploma coupled to a pair of handcuffs.

I titled the story, “Locked in Loans.”

A few days after the story ran, the office got a call from an alumni couple—a well-off husband and wife. They’d seen Laura’s story, and they wanted to help other students in her situation.

And just like that, they cut a check for $20,000 to establish a scholarship fund at the school.

Knowing what I know today, I could have done a much better job on that article. (I didn’t even include a call to action—”begging for money” offended my delicate journalistic sensibilities at the time.)

But Laura’s story did the heavy lifting for me.

The story took an abstract problem, “hundreds of students graduate with thousands in debt,” and made it concrete.

I showed the minute-by-minute impact of a mountain of debt on ONE person’s life—and the result was far more powerful than a whole pile of facts and figures and appeals to “give back.”

So when your back’s against the wall, reach for a story.

A good story can persuade people to act without self interest.

And if what you’re selling DOES have real, tangible benefits? So much the better.