Articles | Branding | Seven Steps to Compelling Testimonials for Nonprofit Organizations

Seven Steps to Compelling Testimonials for Nonprofit Organizations

Read Part One of this article series here.

You know that there’s no message more valuable than testimonials from partners, donors, members, volunteers and program participants on their experiences with your organization. Testimonials rationalize a prospect’s decision to support your organization as they back up your claims and vouch for the value of your work. As a result, these unbiased words carry more credibility than anything your organization’s staff has to say.

It’s challenging to get the right testimonials from your network. But you can count on getting strong material when you ask this series of questions (via phone or an online survey) as soon as possible after an individual’s interaction with your organization.  This approach is vastly more effective than an “open mike” call for testimonials strategy.

You can ask the questions at an organization or program-specific level, depending on the messaging you’re working on. Beware that asking broad questions generates broad responses that tend to be weak testimonials.

Here are the questions to ask:

  1. Why did you [join/give/volunteer with/participate in] our organization? This question establishes the interaction as “customer-feedback” rather than a request. A request for a testimonial is imbalanced, frequently creating a measure of tension and sometimes a resistance to responding. Customer feedback is an equal conversation; a two-way street.
  2. Please list the three things you like most about your [membership/support/volunteer work/program] and why you like them? Implying ownership (“your membership”) personalizes the survey. Positioning this question as a positive (“like most”) increases the likelihood of generating a positive response. Requesting a report back on three distinct features (for example, a program’s relevance, workshop format and take-home materials) makes the respondent think hard and specifically on her response. As a result, the end product is likely to be more useful to your organization.
  3. What do you see as the most valuable aspect of your [participation/advocacy/giving to us/membership/volunteering]? By asking your base to pinpoint benefits, you’ll learn which ones are most important (to them and to prospects).
  4. Please tell us about any specific success that your involvement with our organization helped you achieve, and how. By asking for personal experiences, you’re likely to hear stories that map directly to the challenges faced by the rest of your network. Stories make information easy to relate to, and much more interesting.
  5. How has your involvement with our [organization/program] benefited you or your community in terms of increasing quality of life or satisfaction? This is one of my favorite questions, leading the respondent right to the answer you’re looking for. It will motivate her to tell you how your organization or program has changed her life.
  6. Is there anything about your [volunteer work/program/membership/donor communications] that you would like to see changed? This question emphasizes how much you care about feedback and gives you insight into problems that need to be addressed.
  7. May we use your comments in our communications, with attribution? Remember that an anonymous testimonial has far less weight that one attributed to an individual cited by name, title and organization. If you can feature her photo, all the better. That increases believability hugely! But you do need to ask her permission on all fronts.If you’re conducting this interview via phone, send an email follow up to solicit a dated release.

Polishing Testimonials for Ultimate Impact

Once you have a few testimonials in hand, move on to editing. Editing is expected, as long as you don’t change the intention of the testimonial in doing so.

Here are the critical steps to take:

  • Use only the strongest testimonials you have. It’s far better to have a few really good testimonials than several mediocre ones. Make sure the testimonials cover a range of benefits. Different things are important to different people. Your prospects are going to decide to get involved for different reasons. You want to cover all the main ones.
  • Focus on a single benefit in each testimonial. Load too many in and you’ll deplete the strength of the message.
  • A length of two to three sentences works best. However, testimonials can run longer if you’re telling a story.
  • Positive messaging works best. Do edit out negative elements, such as slams on other organizations. And don’t use testimonials that have an overall negative tone. They won’t help your organization.
  • Conversational is the way to go. You’re bound to generate some great raw material by asking these questions. But make sure you don’t overdo polishing what you get. Testimonials should be conversational in tone, just as you initially heard them. If you rewrite them formally, they’ll lose their impact.
  • Send the edited version with attribution to the source for approval, showing them exactly how it’s going to look with the attribution included. Save the confirmation email you receive in return. In about 20% of cases, you’ll be gifted with a revised testimonial that’s even more glowing than the original.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

What Doesn’t Work

Weak or negative testimonials are worse than no testimonials at all. Here are a few examples that add little messaging value:

“Imagine standing and just looking at a stainless steel 1936 Ford.  It is great right?  Now imagine working on it!  EVEN BETTER!”
–Crawford Auto Aviation Museum Volunteer

So what? This testimonial provides little insight to the reader.

“I very much appreciate all of your time and insight.” (On a nonprofit news service)
—Anonymous, California, USA

Why is that effort and insight of value? And who is speaking? If I don’t know the speaker’s role and organization, there’s no way I can assess whether her take is relevant to me.

What Works

Here are four examples of testimonials that work, and explanations of why they do so.

“The best part of camp is, without a doubt, the kids – their smiles, laughter, and maturity. I volunteer to help the kids, yet I always leave camp with a renewed sense of hope and life, which comes from the kids, and what they do for their fellow campers, the volunteers, and me. In my opinion, Camp Hope is the toughest vacation you’ll ever love.”
—Catherine Brown, volunteer

Catherine’s articulation of all she gets from giving her time and effort is moving and motivational.

“They are very consistent in their pick-ups. It’s very easy to arrange and I know that the things I donate will not be wasted and any money raised goes to a good cause.”
—Nora C., Bridgewater, MA

Nora C. donated goods to the Big Brother Big Sister Foundation and shares the practical features (reliable pick up, easy to arrange) and more spiritual benefit (any money raised goes to a good cause) that will motivate her to do so again.

“I credit meeting many of my career goals this year to my mentor.  As a result of my mentor’s invaluable coaching, I have been able to map out my job experience and determine my areas of concern, update my job application form and develop my interviewing skills.”
—Carolyn Ellenes

The specifics here make this testimonial a powerful one. Ms. Ellenes shares her experience in a way that highlights specific benefits (analyzing her career path and honing related skills) and value (meeting many of her career goals) of the mentoring program. We understand who she is and how program participation has made a difference in her life, making it easy for us to evaluate the relevance of this testimonial.

Finally, take a look at the Center for Media Democracy’s video compilation of testimonials from members and community producers. It’s three minutes of warm, fun, informational and memorable marketing, that doesn’t seem like marketing at all.

Now Make Good Testimonials Even Better

It’s hard to overestimate the power of a headline. Remember that today’s readers skim at a fast clip. Headlines can stop them in their tracks.

Effective headlines frame a testimonial to capture attention, making content easier to absorb and increasing the potential for audiences to digest your full message. Feature a bolded headline for every testimonial (and include it when you seek permission to use the quote). Your headline should highlight the value of the testimonial, as it does in the three headline/testimonial pairings below.

Toughest Vacation You’ll Ever Love
“The best part of camp is, without a doubt, the kids – their smiles, laughter, and maturity. I volunteer to help the kids, yet I always leave camp with a renewed sense of hope and life, which comes from the kids, and what they do for their fellow campers, the volunteers, and me. In my opinion, Camp Hope is the toughest vacation you’ll ever love.”
—Catherine Brown, volunteer

Easy to Arrange, Reliable Pick Up
“They are very consistent in their pick ups. It’s very easy to arrange and I know that the things I donate will not be wasted and any money raised goes to a good cause.”
—Nora C., Bridgewater, MA

Invaluable Coaching Moved My Career Forward
“I credit meeting many of my career goals this year to my mentor.  As a result of my mentor’s invaluable coaching, I have been able to map out my job experience and determine my areas of concern, update my job application form and develop my interviewing skills.”
—Carolyn Ellenes

How is Your Organization Developing or Using Testimonials?

Please leave your strategies for soliciting and using testimonials as comments below. I’ll be sure to share them with the other nonprofit communicators in the Getting Attention community.

Nancy Schwartz in Branding, Message Development | 6 comments


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