10 Tips for Donor Testimonials That Really Work

As I recently blogged, Internet scanning has trained our brains to skim over data faster than ever. You’re competing for donors’ attention because they’re all suffering from “time famine.” If you don’t have a grabber visual (“eye byte”) or an interesting headline (“sound byte”) you’re history. You’re competing with thousands of other impressions, which bombard your constituents. It’s called “super saturation.”

One effective way to get noticed, especially in the digital age, is old-fashioned stories in the form of testimonials because they stand out. A good testimonial campaign can increase donor involvement and subsequent giving if done the right way.

The best part of testimonials is they are relatively inexpensive. A well-edited sound track with a good headshot works great. If it’s too slick it looks like you have money to burn. These days, thanks to Final Cut Pro, you can get 8-10 produced for less than the cost of one video spot. Don’t hesitate to call me for details.

Here are 10 tips for success, including five testimonials, which I recently conducted/edited to illustrate my points.

1. Use Headline Quotes That Stand Out

“The kid’s mother gave up drugs and prostitution. It helped turn both their lives around.”
RISE Education For Children of Incarcerated Women
Ned W., Engineer, Providence, Rhode Island

Find emotionally interesting quotes. Without a strong headline, peoples’ eyes will tend to just skim over it. Every donor has a powerful message if you ask the right questions the right way. I used only seven questions to create these testimonials.

2. Use Audio Tracks with Pictures

“My affection is for what I learned and how it helps me daily. We’ll leave them our estate.”
Lisa M., Journalist, New York City

Use audio sound tracks with a photo of a donor, not videos. Videos are very expensive and a “horror show” to edit. Unfortunately, Murphy’s Law says all the great lines will be located (spontaneously) in the middle of sentences, so you can’t edit out the juicy tidbits without the person’s face suddenly jumping/distorting like they have nervous ticks. Besides, most donors don’t present well on video. However, everyone has at least one good photo.

3. Forget About Scripts


“I was the recipient of great largesse. I am forever, forever grateful.”
Sue B., Management Consultant, Boston, MA

Don’t use scripts and don’t send the questions out in advance. Your donors will either read their answers or try to memorize them. Just tell them you’re especially interested in the emotional reasons they give. If listeners get the impression that the testimonials are “staged” they’ll click them off faster than a bad TV commercial because everyone wears “bullcrap meters” which sense a canned story within seconds. You can tell instantly that Sue’s spot (above) is spontaneous. (Who says, “Oh Boy” these days?)

4. Remember, ‘Tune Out’ Happens in Seconds

“I give despite the fact that I don’t have pleasant memories.”
Glenn R., Psychologist, Des Moines, Iowa

The ideal length is about one minute or less, but an interesting story can go longer, like Ned (earlier) who gives to help the children of incarcerated women get educated. (Have some Kleenex handy.) Remember, most TV commercials are :15 or :30 in length, so people will start tuning out if it’s too long or isn’t very compelling. Their brains are trained to wander after ½ a minute.

5. Emotions Matter Most

“It better be a damned good use. I’m not going to donate if I feel fluff!”
Nick F., Advertising Executive, Philadelphia, PA

Emotions matter most and without an emotional “feel” they will fall flat. However, a little logic adds bonus points. Our research shows that most giving is emotional (roughly 65%), especially among women. Men respond equally to both emotion and logic, so include both elements if possible. Nick (above) is a good example of giving based on logic and emotion.

6. Offer Donors Anonymity

Offer donor anonymity. Many donors will open up more if they aren’t going to be directly associated with their stories. Give them complete anonymity if they want, or perhaps partial with just their first name and possibly a last initial.

7. Use the Pros

Use outside professional interviewers and editors, not in house staff. No one will ever remember that you saved two thousand dollars if they’re a “bust.” If the editing isn’t professional quality it will reflect poorly on the donor, on you, and on your philanthropy/institution. Be sure to edit them carefully so your donors come off as intelligent and articulate. The worst outcome would be to alienate a valuable donor.

If you can’t do them right, don’t do them at all. However, if you capture the power of great story telling it will pay dividends you couldn’t have imagined. Everyone in the organization will be pleased when the donor response is positive and gifts start coming in. Testimonials have worked well in many categories, not just philanthropy. Let me know if you need help finding a good, reliable source that’s affordable.

8. Remember, Involvement Takes Time

Like they say, “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” Neither is a good testimonial campaign. Produce lots of stories. They build interest and involvement over time. The key to success is candid, interesting stories so people look forward to them.

A few years ago we did a testimonial print campaign for Cape Cod Hospital. We ran testimonials every week for a year in the local newspapers. One year later research revealed a dramatic improvement in their image. Philanthropic giving also went up. We’ve had positive results for Universities too as well as Public TV and Radio. Our testimonial “Think Again” campaign of 10 spots for WGBH Boston generated a 91% increase in “white mail” within 4 weeks. It was then rolled out successfully into other markets.

9. Offer Final Approval

Offer your participants final approval. This will help them relax, knowing that they can always make changes to their final testimonial.

10. Post Them Everywhere

Be sure you post your testimonials wherever possible, in e-mails, social media, on your website, adapted for print for mailings, articles and/or small space ads in donor magazines, and so forth. I guarantee you’ll find that this is one of the best investments you can make to stand out in today’s fast paced Internet world. I’ve personally been involved with over a dozen testimonial campaigns since my days back on Madison Avenue and I’ve never had a regret… because testimonials work.


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