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How to Tell Fundraising Stories and Avoid What Makes Them Go Wrong

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Excerpted from The Storytelling Fundraiser by Professor Russell James. The full book (along with many other fundraising resources) is available for free at Encourage Generosity.

An effective fundraising story isn’t just a good story. It must do something. It must lead to a gift.

This means the story must be, to some extent, a story about the gift. It must be, in some way, a story about the donor and the donor’s action.

“What changes if I give?” If your message doesn’t answer this question, it doesn’t promise a victory. It’s unlikely to be compelling.

Sometimes another problem arises. Your message might answer the questions, but the answer is just too complicated. The connection to a victory is too confusing.

The problem is not that this complexity isn’t real. The problem is that it doesn’t work. A complicated, technical explanation is exhausting. It also triggers the wrong system in the brain. It triggers the analytical, error-detection system. This blocks a social-emotional response. So, it won’t motivate a gift.

A gift must first be motivated by simple, social-emotional story. Afterward, it’s fine to make complexity available. This can confirm the original social-emotional decision. It can show that there were no rational, logical errors. But the motivating story can’t be complex. Compelling story is simple. It evokes a clear image.

In fundraising, complexity is the enemy. More information is not better.

One study tested fundraising appeals with different levels of information. The researchers found, “While individuals increase their donations when they perceive an intervention to be more effective, increased knowledge about the project decreases donations.”

Force-feeding facts doesn’t work. It changes a social or emotional story into a technical report. A social or emotional story triggers empathy and sharing. A technical report triggers analysis and error detection.

Another study focused on major donors. These were the largest and most active donors to an environmental charity. It shared the charity’s new 36-page plan. The plan shifted its approach “from land conservation to a more complex, systems‐oriented approach.”

Technical experts approved this complexity. The donors? Not so much. 85% expressed serious concerns. The problem was this:

“When compared with the tangibility of prior gifts, these measures seemed too intangible to feel confident funding … At its core, the grander vision was too broad for any one individual donor to feel like they personally can make the sort of impact that matters.”

In fundraising, impact is not an issue of complex technical reports. It’s an issue of social-emotional story. Forcing complex facts or concepts makes the story too complicated. A complicated story won’t evoke social emotion. Without social emotion, there is no gift.

So why do many charities keep doing this wrong? It’s not an accident. The problem comes from a specific source. Stories get complicated when charity managers get involved.

Charity managers deal with society’s most difficult problems. They live in a world of complexity. They are technical experts. They have so much information. They naturally want to share it. They feel that the donors “need to understand.” But this complexity ruins fundraising story.

Effective fundraising must translate. It must convert this complexity into a representative story. It must transform it into a simple story about the donor’s gift.

Sometimes the connection between a gift and a victory is fuzzy or complicated. Sometimes the victory itself is vague or uncertain. But it can get worse.

Sometimes there isn’t any victory at all.

The essence of this request is “We do good work. We need money. Please give.”

For the charity, this is a natural request. Why? Because it’s a story about them. It’s about their identity, their challenges, and their needs. It’s also easy. It’s a message that applies to every charity, everywhere, all the time.

It’s a compelling story – for the charity insiders.

The donor gives to honor their heroic work. The donor gives because they’re so wonderful. This message may sound great to the charity insider. But it’s not that compelling for the donor. In this story, the donor is just a bit player. Moving beyond this message can be difficult for charity insiders. They have to set aside the story that they love. They have to put themselves in the donor’s shoes. This isn’t easy.

A story needs an inciting incident. Fundraising needs an ask. Both work better when they promise the hope of a victory. A challenge promising a victory makes a compelling ask. It makes the challenge part of a compelling fundraising story.

Tell the right story in the right way, every time! Join The Fundraisingology Lab by Moceanic. You’ll get access to Jeff Brooks’ Fundraising Storytelling Course and support from our experts and 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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