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3 Elements of Every Effective Fundraising Story

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There’s a lot of theory about storytelling out there. Some of it is very helpful for hardworking fundraisers like you.

Here’s what Writer’s Digest says every story needs:

  1. Orientation: The beginning of a story must grab the reader’s attention.
  2. Crisis: Something that turns the main character’s world upside down.
  3. Escalation: Things get more urgent and in need of a solution.
  4. Discovery: The main character makes a discovery that changes their life.
  5. Change: Transformation happens.

American researcher Joseph Campbell studied mythology all over the world and found that it almost always followed a common pattern, which he called the “monomyth” or the Hero’s Journey. Similar to the pattern above, Campbell’s story framework has 12 steps.

These story frameworks are useful for fundraising, but they can miss the point entirely. Because a fundraising story is not a story meant to entertain or bring about some kind of psychological improvement. Fundraising stories have one purpose: To move people to donate.

No matter how your fundraising story is structured, it must have these three ingredients:

The 3 characteristics of every fundraising story:

  1. It must demonstrate a problem that the donor can solve.
  2. It must be easy to understand without special knowledge.
  3. The donor must be part of the story.

Here are some ways those elements play out in effective fundraising:

  1. Fundraising stories demonstrate a problem the donor can solve

A lot of fundraising gets this wrong, using big numbers to emphasize how important their cause is.

As logical as that seems, it’s exactly wrong for fundraising. Big numbers don’t motivate action. In fact, for many they supply a reason not to donate: It can bring out the biggest enemy of philanthropy: hopelessness. “The problem is so big, my little donation won’t have any meaningful impact.”

Instead, focus on the large numbers that are connected with your cause, like this …

97 … that’s how many Washingtonians will receive the dreaded news today that they’re in a first-hand battle with cancer.

Find a way to make it feel personal, and solvable, like this …

You probably know someone – someone close (maybe even you yourself) – who has had a doctor say the frightening words, “You have cancer.”

Instead of leading with a statistic like, “More than 5,000 people in the Greater Springfield area are homeless” – tell a story about an individual, starting something like this: “Bill lives under a bridge….” It’s hard to imagine making a difference for 5,000 people. It’s not so hard if you’re thinking of one person.

Donors don’t donate because a problem is big. They donate because a problem is solvable.

2. Fundraising stories are easy to understand without special knowledge 

Every nonprofit I’ve ever worked with has a lot of specialized knowledge that goes into making them effective. Hospitals understand medicine and how to work effectively with the community and with patients. Arts organizations are excellent at their art. Social service agencies know a lot about the right ways to serve the people they help.

That’s just how it should be.

But this knowledge can be a problem for fundraising when people at the organization assume donors know as much as about their cause as they do … or worse, insist that donors need to be brought up to speed and know as much about the cause as they do – as if donors need to pass a test of some kind before they can donate.

The overwhelming majority of donors know less about your cause than you do. And the overwhelming majority of those have little or no interest in increasing their expertise. They have their own fish to fry!

And that’s okay. They don’t need to be educated in how your organization does its work in order to care enough to give. They just need to know there’s a problem and understand that their donation can help solve it. As we like to say here at Moceanic, Belief is Enough!   https://www.moceanic.com/2020/fundraising-3-words/

Here’s an educate-the-donor sentence (things changed to protect the guilty parties):

According to Dr. Lucille Pevensie, an oncologist and leading immunotherapy researcher at SCC, experimental therapy under way involving CART cells shows massive potential for cancer patients.

That’s not fundraising. Not really. It’s detailed, boring, and requires a fair amount of background knowledge to understand. The fundraising story version of that is something like:

Help our world-class scientists and doctors continue their pursuit of breakthrough cancer research and treatments that will save lives.

It’s about action, and it doesn’t require a medical degree to understand.

3. Fundraising stories include the donor

This is where fundraising stories are really different from typical stories: They include the donor, the reader. Unlike many stories, which are more entertainment than anything else, fundraising stories are meta-stories that can be part of people’s lives. In fact, the hero (or protagonist) of a fundraising story is the donor. And that element of transformation that makes stories come to life is up to the donor. They have to make the choice, just as the hero in a myth, a novel, and a movie must.

But the donor can say “no.” In fact, they’re more likely to say no than yes.

And, because of this element of choice (it’s like a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book), the rest of the story, that transformation, happens in a different message from the rest of the story. The donor who decides to take part in the story finds out what happens in your thank-you letter and your newsletter.

That’s why this sentence doesn’t really belong in effective fundraising:

Help our world-class scientists and doctors continue their pursuit of breakthrough cancer research and treatments that will save lives.

Because it doesn’t put the choice in the hands of the reader. The only decision they have to make is whether to send money so someone else can be a hero. That might be rewarding, but not nearly as rewarding as actively making the world a better place.

The way to approach the decision point is like this:

Every dollar you give saves lives by funding breakthrough cancer research that will move us closer to the end of cancer as we know it.

This final difference from other stories is profound. But when you put it to work in your fundraising, you will see the difference.

Fundraising stories work best when you employ all three of these elements.

This material is excerpted from the Moceanic online course, “Your Blueprint for Donor-Focused, High-Revenue Fundraising Storytelling,” available only to members of The Fundraisingology Lab. 

Want to know more about how to make your fundraising connect with donors? Join The Fundraisingology Lab by Moceanic. You’ll get the tools, the information, and the supporting community that will take you to new places in your fundraising career. Join the waiting list now and you’ll be the first to hear when the doors open again!

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  • Jeff Brooks

    Jeff Brooks is a Fundraisingologist at Moceanic. He has more than 30 years of experience in fundraising, and has worked as a writer and creative director on behalf of top nonprofits around the world, including CARE, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Feeding America, and many others.

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