How to Use Storytelling to Engage Donors

Ilona Globa
April 4, 2019


When we think of storytelling, we may think of childhood and bedtime stories. Yet storytelling has existed since the beginning of humankind. Cave drawings told stories before we developed the power of speech!

Stories have been passed down across generations for centuries. These stories tended to remain local, within the families and communities of their origin.

However, the advent of radio, television, and most recently, our beloved internet, means that we are now able to tell stories through the written word, images, and finally, videos. And all of these stories can be shared across the far reaches of the globe in the blink of an eye.

And we know that, thanks in great part to the internet, our attention spans are really dwindling. (This is improving, though slowly) This is because the progression of technology happened so quickly, and our brains are still struggling to catch up! In the U.S., we read an average of 100,500 words per day.

Storytelling adds emotional power to our outreach, pushing through the noise.

Why Storytelling increases donor engagement

As HubSpot puts it, “Stories help solidify abstract concepts and simplify complex messages.”

Of course, statistics and bulleted lists have their own merit. But will these forms of communication sway the average person? Probably not, because they appeal to the logical and rational parts of our minds, whereas stories stir our emotions.

As we read a fact or statistic, our brains search for the meaning behind the numbers and variables.

On the other hand, our brains actually crave stories. We spend about a third of our lives daydreaming, Fast Company shares. And as we’re reading a story, our brain lights up in the way it would if we were to experience the events of the story in our own lives!

Just check out this infographic from OneSpot, which notes that “92% of consumers want brands to make ads that feel like a story.”

Impact stories, or success stories, give us a chance to create context for our work as nonprofits, allowing us to present a situation, the problem, and how our work is the solution. Everyone loves a happy ending, so this will resonate with almost any reader, regardless of their background.

And what have we seen in the (massively expensive) ads that have garnered the attention of millions during the last few Super Bowls? Companies spend millions to associate a positive story with their brand. And as a nonprofit, you are primed for storytelling content, so let’s get to how it’s done!

How to Tell an Engaging Nonprofit Impact Story

New to storytelling in your organization? Or is your team already telling stories as part of your fundraising tactics, and you’re looking to take them to the next level?

This graphic from Referral Candy is a good starting point (just replace the term “Customer” with “Supporter” and “Sales” with “Fundraising”)

Some key components of an effective story:

1). You have a main character/protagonist, a problem/struggle, and a solution/happy ending. The basic formula for a story!

Example: There is a community in need of better access to water (the community is your protagonist, the one we are rooting for! The struggle is for access to water.) Your organization builds water pumps. Through funds raised in the past year, you were able to install 43 water pumps and give access to clean water to communities totaling 68,000 people. (The resolution/happy ending!)

2). Your story is engaging and keeps the supporter’s attention (be it a written story or a video, keep it short and to-the-point! Share the necessary details but keep the story moving. Keep videos to about 2-3 minutes.)

3). Your story is educational, it teaches the supporter about your work.

4). Your story is organized, and there is an easy-to-follow flow from the problem to the solution.

5). Your story is universal, and conveys an experience to which most readers can relate.

6). Your story is memorable, whether it’s a tale of inspiration, humor, or pain – a well-told story stays with us, possibly so much so that we are able to re-tell it!

Of course, for some of us, it’s not possible to sit down and have an interview and hear from a person or a group exactly how our work directly impacted their lives. So we may need to write a hypothetical story. There is nothing wrong with this, because it is based in the reality of the contribution your organization is making!

Just remember, the goal is to present a character, and give our supporter the chance to put themselves in the shoes of that character. This way, their mind allows them to experience the good that you do!

Looking for feedback on the stories you’re sending as part of your email newsletters or appeals? Check out Salsa’s Smart Start Fundraising program, learn best practice for great online outreach, and book a consultation to get feedback on your organization’s unique stories.

Topics: Fundraising
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