Why Storytelling is Central to Fundraising

TV series, books, films, newspapers, old family tales, conversations with our closest friends and strangers--our daily lives are filled with stories. In ancient times, people shared their stories orally and painted pictures on cave walls. Today, we dictate a story into our phone, the text magically appearing before our eyes. We can even video-call a friend on the opposite side of the world to update them on our life! No matter the year or the medium, storytelling is and always will be an intrinsic part of our human nature.

Stories shed light on the brightest and darkest sides of life. They ignite our emotions and reflect our life experiences. At its heart, storytelling is about relating.

Do you know what else is about relating? Fundraising, of course! When we first form an organization, a non-profit, or a group with the intention of raising money, there is a reason why. Behind that “why,” is your story. It may be a short and simple story and it may be a long and complex story; there’s no perfect length. What matters most is that the story you tell remains true to you and your cause!

To help you better understand the impact of storytelling on people, let’s look at 3 main effects:

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1. Identifiable Victim Effect

This is a well-documented phenomenon that occurs when we identify more easily with a victim or individual in a story instead of a larger group of people. The “victim” inspires us to want to help and provide support. To make this easier to understand, let’s look at two excerpts from real news reportage covering wildfires in Northern California:

Scenario 1: from Reuters— “A wildfire erupted in forest land in Northern California on Wednesday, forcing the evacuation of dozens of homes and the closure of a stretch of an interstate highway near where a deadly blaze broke out in July, officials said. …It was near the site of the Carr Fire, which led to eight deaths and destroyed hundreds of homes in the city of Redding and nearby areas. Wildfires in California have scorched far more ground this year than in 2017, one of the most destructive in the state’s history.”

Scenario 2: from The Guardian— “Carmen and Armando Berriz, aged 75 and 76, sheltered in the swimming pool of the Santa Rosa house they had rented for a wine country vacation as flames engulfed the neighborhood, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Armando burned his hands holding on to the brick sides of the pool while his wife clung to her husband of 55 years. Around daybreak, as the fire began to abate, Carmen died. Armando survived, though he was badly burned, and managed to hike to safety.”

Which of these scenarios would you remember? Which would move you emotionally and inspire you to donate money? Without a doubt, the second scenario is more personal. It’s more powerful to tell the story of one human being than it is to tell the story of a large group. When you apply this to fundraising, you’ll find that more people will resonate with your group’s message.

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2. Personal Reflection

The reason the second scenario presented above resonates more deeply, is because we feel like we’re in the couple’s shoes. The reporting provided us with names and ages, the relationship between the individuals, and a detailed picture of what happened at the scene. From these details, we take images from our own experience and re-create the story in our minds. We’ll picture ourselves in the scene, questioning what we would do and how we would feel. Mental role-playing has the unique power to move us on a deep emotional level.

Empathizing with others leads us to reflect on who we think we are, a point made by psychologist, Dr. Jen Shang, in her research on what inspires people to give. We question what our morals are and what it means to give and to be of service. When we ponder these bigger questions in life, we often feel a sense of responsibility. Feeling responsible, we’re inspired to take action with the hope that our contribution will make a difference.

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3. The Powerful Effect On Your Brain

So, it turns out that there is a very real reason for why storytelling has such a strong influence on us. A study by neuroeconomist, Paul Zak, found that stories strongly affect the release of chemicals, cortisol and oxytocin, in our brains. Cortisol is the neurochemical released in response to stress, our fight-or-flight reaction when we are in danger. Oxytocin is the happy, feel-good neurochemical that helps us to feel for others. Zak’s research showed that both chemicals were released when participants in the study watched a sad film about a father and son. It also showed that those whose brains released more oxytocin were more likely to give their money away. Zak’s study tells us what most of us have always known: stories influence our emotions and inspire us to take action. In most cases, giving is an act of the heart, not an act of the head. So, when it comes to telling the story of your organization, try to put as much heart and soul into it as you can!

Story’s effect on the brain and our emotions, on our ability to relate to another person, and on our understanding of ourselves all make it a powerful tool. If we use storytelling effectively within our own groups, we’ll produce better fundraising results. So, what’s the takeaway from all of this? Never underestimate the power of a good story!




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