Storytelling is a powerful tool for nonprofits. In his 2022 series, The Storytelling Fundraiser, Dr. Russell James tells us that, “compelling fundraising story does something special. It leads to giving.”
I’ll skip ahead, assuming that you don’t need to be sold on the influence of a great story. Instead, I’ll assume that you want an answer to the burning question posed by this blog’s title.
So, what is the one word that top-performing stories have in common? It’s change.
Why Change Is Effective
Our brains are built for change. We continuously monitor our surroundings, looking for something out of place. Change triggers our attention.
For example, our child coloring with sidewalk chalk in front of us = safe. Our child suddenly bounding toward the street = danger.
The same is true when we read a story. We relax when we’re in a familiar place or with characters whose traits are consistent and predictable. We perk up when there’s a discrepancy.
In his book, The Science of Storytelling, Will Storr cites psychology and neuroscience studies. He writes that we seek stories that start with change or the promise of change. We are especially drawn to stories of transformation when characters find meaning.
Characters finding meaning? That sounds like philanthropy.
Let’s see how this idea can work across two common story types: donor and impact.
How To Present Change in Donor Stories
A donor story without change reads like a list of accomplishments: She graduated, she took a job, she received an honor. She isn’t presented as shifting her values, goals or relationships…she’s just experiencing the effects of time.
The powerful themes of change and transformation should be the focus of her story. When interviewing your donor, the questions you ask can drive reflection on moments of change.
Some interview prompts to try:
- Your gift will have a significant impact on our mission. What does that mean to you?
- Has your planned gift changed you?
- What has this experience meant for you?
- Do you see the future differently now?
Bonus: When writing the story, bring the change theme into the call to action. Try language like, Contact us to learn how your gift can make a difference, or Take the first step today to create change for tomorrow.
Here’s an example from my alma mater, Drake University. The generous donors created change through a scholarship, bridging a gap for students who cannot afford to attend Drake due to a family emergency. One of their quotes shows how they are experiencing a new emotion from giving, “it does feel good to see someone’s life changed for the better.”
How To Present Change in Impact Stories
Securing impact stories can be challenging, but they are a terrific way to communicate how your nonprofit improves the world.
With impact stories, think about change-centric story structures, such as a before-and-after comparison. The recipient of the gift felt this way/had this problem; after receiving support, they felt this new way/no longer had this problem.
Let your call to action continue the change momentum with phrasing like, Your care changes lives. Let us show you how.
Here’s an impact story example that came out during the height of the pandemic. A bequest gift helped relieve hospital employees experiencing emotional stress and financial strain. I love how Texas Children’s Hospital shares how an estate gift—designated in the past—had so much effect on the present.
A Pause for Numbers
I’ve been discussing stories, but want to take a moment to talk about statistics. At Stelter, we are often presented with an annual report and asked to run a compelling story from the numbers. I’ll head back to Dr. James and his storytelling whitepaper. He tells us that numbers can confirm a story, but they have limited impact:
“Adding another zero to an annual report is great. It makes the numbers ten times better. But it doesn’t make the story ten times better. It doesn’t change the story at all. Numbers can help. They can confirm a compelling story. But they can’t create one. That’s why, once again, the answer is the same: Don’t start with numbers.”
There’s that change word again. Numbers don’t engage our brain the same way that stories do. Changing numbers doesn’t trigger the same excitement as change in a person’s journey.
Compelling Stories Spur Donations
Ask donors why they chose to make a planned gift and many will tell you that they were moved to action by one of your stories. Stories create connection, uncover feelings and ask for action. Most of all, they inspire change.