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Storytelling as a Fundraising Tool

People wave their hands and clap in celebration at Hinterlands Take Out Take Down.
Photo Credit: John Michael Kohler Arts Center
People wave their hands and clap in celebration at Hinterlands' Take Out Take Down.

Using storytelling in your fundraising is the single most powerful way to connect people to your mission and raise more money. Follow this framework for finding, crafting, and sharing a story that will give supporters a feeling of empathy.

Storytelling. The ancient practice of conveying events in words, images, and sounds. Stories have been shared in every culture to instill knowledge, values, and morals , as a means of entertainment, education, and preservation of culture.

We are connected to others through the stories we share. We may not always remember the facts about how many homeless there are in the community, but when we see the face of a teenager living on the streets and learn of her day-to-day struggles, we are much more likely to feel empathy.

Using storytelling in your fundraising is the single most powerful way to connect people to your mission and raise more money.

The easiest way to do this is by painting a written or spoken “picture” of how your work affects one particular man, woman, or child. Whether you are an artist, a theater, or a regional arts council, there are always people affected by your day-to-day work and stories you can share.

A story, or what I call a “mission moment,” is an expression in words or pictures that is an inspirational example of your mission in action.

Using Storytelling as a Fundraising Tool

The secret to telling a powerful, inspiring story is causing people to feel something. Anything. Anger. Sadness. Pride. Frustration. Joy. Awe. Emotion drives behavior, so the emotion doesn’t matter as much as the intensity of feeling the emotion.

People give their time, money, and advice to organizations (and people) they feel emotionally connected to. Sharing a mission moment about one person makes people want to give more.

Why one person? Our brains are wired for connection. And connecting through stories to more than one person at a time is not as deeply compelling. One death is a tragedy. Three or 100 or 1 million is a statistic that doesn’t create empathy.

Using storytelling in your fundraising means putting a face on your donors’ impact and sharing it everywhere. When you use stories to cause empathy & engagement you’ll raise more money.


Steps to Effective Storytelling for Fundraising

DO NOT ask your staff or volunteers for “stories.” Instead ask them open-ended questions like these:

  • Who can’t you get off your mind?
  • Who needed our help but we had to say no?
  • Why did they come in to ask for our services?
  • Is there anyone you’ve met lately who made you feel incredibly proud that we exist?

Pro Tip:
Rather than asking for stories, ask questions to gather the nuggets of the story. Start meetings with one of these questions, with the goal of identifying one real-life example of how your organization is making a difference by walking alongside someone.

  • Identify the one person you want to tell the story about.
  • Flesh out the details: include first name, age, a physical description, and a few relevant details about their life. Change the name and some details if confidentiality is necessary.
  • Include specific results of supporting them. These are measurable: graduated with an arts degree with a grant from your organization. Sold a piece of their art. Saved the community arts center when it was in danger of closing.

Remember: The conflict is the oxygen in your story. It’s why people listen and want to know more about their journey.

  • Include one or two personal transformations. These are NOT easily measurable but are the empathy-generating examples of how they feel hope, safety, relief, fear, and so on.

Remember: THEY are the hero of the story. Not your organization.

  • Include “what it takes” financially to support one person and fulfill your mission. This is not an ask for money. You are sharing your money story by explaining what it takes financially to change a life by providing pottery classes, building a new theater, or teaching a child to play piano— one day or week or month at a time.

Doing THIS will help your supporters understand why you are raising money. Being specific about your money story helps your supporters understand there is more to do…and they often give again or give more.

  • With the permission of the person whose story you are telling, share the story in multiple ways: social media, video, website, donation page, thank you page for online giving, emails, in-person meetings with staff and donors, print materials.
  • Keep it short. Leave people wanting to know more about the person, their experiences, and their courage.
  • Six words to two minutes is a good guideline to follow when sharing your story.

Here’s an example of elevating a ho-hum, slightly boring story to something much more engaging:

  • Boring:

    Mrs. Lee is one of our subscribers to our theater series. She’s been a part of our theater family for many years. Mrs. Lee loves the performing arts and rarely misses one of our shows. She often brings guests with her and makes sure that she is spreading the word about our quality performances. We love Mrs. Lee as much as she loves our theater.

  • Brilliant:

    At the tender age of 9, the first show that the wide-eyed young Amanda saw was a three-hour long production of Camelot. Now at 79, Mrs. Amanda Lee loves to remind me she can still recall the thrilling moment when the orchestra music began and she was swept away to a time long ago to dream about being a queen and living in “Camelot.”

    It’s not surprising that Mrs. Lee has become one of our most passionate and regular patrons. Even when money was tight, she was proud to bring her son and daughter, dressed in their one best outfit, to the People’s Theater; and now she delights in opening the eyes of her grandchildren to the magic of live theater.

    Even though Mrs. Lee may be tiny in stature and has lost some of the spring in her step, she still has a twinkle in her eye. She makes me smile just to think about her.

    I think Mrs. Lee has been feeling a bit lonely since the death of her husband last year. And she’s a bit frail and takes more time getting to her seat in our theater.

    What hasn’t changed is her love of theater. She’s recently told me the joy she gets from attending our performances is better than any rehab or medication.

    What Mrs. Lee reminds me is that we are much more than a theater company. For Amanda Lee and her family we are a place where memories are made, dreams are woven, and passion is felt. And frankly, we love Mrs. Lee as much as she loves our theater.

    Source: Lori L. Jacobwith, Founder, Ignited Fundraising

REMEMBER: Sharing a powerful story takes just a little more time and thought. Word choices matter. The way you cause your listener or reader to feel matters. When your supporters feel empathy or connection, they will give more.

Try it for yourself

Are you feeling inspired? You can download this two-page storytelling framework for help crafting a powerful, empathy-causing mission moment story.