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Story Formats to Use in Nonprofit Appeals

Award-winning writer Kathy Widenhouse has helped hundreds of nonprofits and writers produce successful content and has gained 600K+ views for her writing tutorials. She is the author of 9 books. See more of Kathy’s content here.

“Have you read this story?” my husband asked, wiping his eyes with one hand and waving the morning newspaper in the other.

5 story formats for appeals and other content with Word Wise at Nonprofit Copywriter

I shook my head.

He passed me the section containing a profile about a courageous ALS victim.

“Check it out,” he went on, “but only when you have a few minutes to cry and recover.”

He left the room to blow his nose.

"I've got the story, but I don't know how to write it"

You’ve got a moving account from a beneficiary about the impact of your nonprofit. But how do you tell the tale?

There’s no one “magic bullet” formula. I’ve been choked up by profiles, moved by the reports of devastation during a natural disaster, and thrilled when I’ve read the results of victims’ courage.

If you have a hard time knowing how to present your nonprofit’s stories, start with these formats.


Personality sketches humanize a problem and demonstrate need for your cause. Thousands now empathize with victims of Parkinson’s disease, for example, because of Michael J. Fox. His boyish good looks and transparency put a face on the issue. You needn’t interview a celebrity to make an impact with a profile – in fact, Joe Average resonates with readers because he’s Everyman.


Hurricane Katrina blew through the Gulf States in August 2005, leaving a wake of devastation and destruction. A year later, charities reported that generous donors had contributed a total of $4 billion in gifts to help victims recover. But it wasn’t the disaster’s $75 billion price tag that prompted people to give. Instead, stories of children who couldn’t find their parents and narratives of senior citizens who had lost their homes while rescuing others drove people to open their hearts and their wallets.


Lila is thirteen and probably won’t live past sixteen. A year ago, she asked an organization to help her raise funds to grant the wishes of 100 other terminally-ill children. Regular updates about Lila’s Wish and how it is being fulfilled make for a host of moving narratives that stir readers to get on board.


The world watched Nancy Reagan’s life unfold in the 1990’s as her husband battled Alzheimer’s disease. Families of Alzheimer’s patients, in particular, identified with Mrs. Reagan, inspired by her courage as she faced a private struggle in a very public way. Tell a story from the point of view of a loved one. Readers relate to relationships because they have their own.


Who doesn’t cheer for the special-needs runner that trips on the track, gets back in the race and wins a medal … the teen birth mother who withstands her family’s rejection to carry her baby to term and place him in a loving adoptive family … the kid from the broken home who, with a committed mentor, turns a drug conviction around and graduates from college? Show the outcomes of your ministry to individual people. You’ll give your readers new heroes. They’ll eat up stories about victory in the lives of those you serve.

Stories grab our hearts. Pick one and spin your tale. If the first format doesn’t work, try a different approach.

Have the courage to show readers the fear, anger, frustration, love, hope, and regret that your beneficiaries experience. They’ll tell your nonprofit’s story for you … because they’re experiencing what’s good about what you’re doing.

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