Tell me a story

Published by Alison McCants on

I’ve seen countless blogs and articles about the importance of storytelling. The thing is, we know it’s important. People give to people. Giving is an emotional response to living in a world you want to change. A good story brings your cause to life.

But I see lots of fundraising asks that miss the story altogether. Who am I kidding, I’ve worked on a number of fundraising campaigns that have lacked good stories completely.

Well, for one, we’re professional fundraisers. We deal with budgets, targets, staff meetings and mail packs. Our charities often strive to be seen as professional, expert, sometimes even scientific in our approach to solving the world’s problems. We are no longer the sector that blindly delivers charity in the old (potentially demeaning) sense. We understand poverty/healthcare/animal welfare/international development/arts/higher education. We portray our beneficiaries with respect. We are experts in our field.

I’m all for professionalism in both fundraising and service delivery. I think it’s key to using our donors’ funds efficiently and making sure we’re delivering our charitable aims in sustainable, long-term ways. We won’t ‘fix’ starvation by donating tins of food.

So where do stories fit in?
Professionalism is a great thing, but one size does not fit all. A professional in a board meeting who kicks off her strategic review with a story about how she drank too much in the pub the night before?

Yeah…not so much. It’s just not appropriate for the setting.

But when we talk to donors, we’re not professionals in the same sense. It’s far more personal.

The local hospice’s appeal speaks to the donor by her father’s bed as he struggles with the last days of cancer. The international development charity’s TV ad reminds her of the summer she volunteered in Malawi. The animal charity whispers from the armchair where her beloved companion sits in comfort denied to other, completely vulnerable animals. The child in the charity newspaper ad asking for protection could be her own.

It’s personal. Whether we like it or not.

That might seem like a minefield, but that’s precisely where stories make it easier for us fundraisers. We don’t have to point out obtusely that our donors might have personal reasons for relating to our work. The stories do that for us.

When we tell the story, our donors fill in the gaps. Each voluntarily brings to the fore her own experience and relates it to the story we tell. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a good story is like borrowing the donor’s personal lexicon.

And that got me thinking: who is really good at telling stories and making it work for fundraising?


As an American by birth, relocated to the UK by choice, I grew up in the southern US Bible Belt. Churches in particular have huge influence and a massive following. They also succeed in generating a lot of income from their followers. I’d say that’s largely down to the stories they tell.

Because when you think about it, that’s what they do every Sunday. They tell stories that resonate with the core values of their listeners. Through parables and personal anecdotes, they impart lessons to the congregation. They encourage people to refer to these stories to change behaviour in their own lives.

Of course, they pass around the collection plate, but they don’t spend the entire sermon talking about why people should give money. That follows naturally once the story has been told, the relationship has been deepened, and the value to the congregation’s lives has been offered. They engender a sense of community and belonging, both between the individual member and the church, but also between members themselves.

Now I’m not a religious person, but that’s beside the point. I think this pattern of stories and values, and how together they impact on behaviour, is not wholly dissimilar to charities and the people who support us. Yes, we have targets and we need to raise money to make the valuable work our organisations carry out possible. But the way to reach that outcome isn’t by talking entirely about how much we need to raise; it’s by telling the story of why we need to raise it. We still need to ask, but it’s our stories that make it more likely our donors will give.

Rachel recently posted about the seven deadly sins of fundraising appeals, and telling a great story shouldn’t contradict anything she’s said. For one, be direct. Don’t hide the fundraising ask in the bottom of the letter. (Following the church analogy, how much more direct can you get than passing around a plate to put money in where all your friends and family can see you?)

And don’t put style over substance. A good story should make the donor want to donate, put him or her back in control over a problem that is important to them. It doesn’t need special effects or a lot of bells and whistles, just sincerity and tangibility.
So when it comes to stories, I ask myself:

  • Do we use really use stories in our fundraising? Or do we have ‘fundraising stories’ and ‘project stories’ in our newsletters? Aren’t they one in the same?
  • Do our stories give the donor a chance to engage with them? Relate the story to their own lives or motivations for giving?
  • Do our stories add value to the relationship? Do donors walk away from a newsletter, appeal or talk feeling they have something they didn’t have before?
  • Do our stories encourage a sense of community and belonging, both between our cause and the donor and between the donors themselves? Or are we telling stories that create a cold, ‘professional’ distance between everyone involved?
  • Do our stories reaffirm our donor’s faith in what we’re doing? What they’re doing by supporting us?
  • Do our stories support the fundraising proposition? Is there a real issue that donors can engage with and get involved with by donating today? Is the donor a crucial part to the solution, or do the story and the call to action sit separately from one another?

Now, if I look at anything we do and the answer to any of those questions is not a resounding, “Yes!” then I know I need to put in some more work.

Alison McCants

Fundraiser with a passion for charities. Currently Alison is Direct Marketing Manager at The Brooke, a leading UK charity dedicated to improving the lives of working horses, donkeys and mules (all views are my own). I am a member of the Institute of Fundraising (IOF) in the UK and hold a Certificate in Fundraising Management MInstF(Cert) from the IOF.


David Cravinho · June 16, 2011 at 15:26

Hi Alison,

Absolutely nothing there that I’d disagree with… I think that all of us fundraisers sometimes forget that the thousands of people who make up our audience are all individuals. As such, there will be a huge range of different things that will trigger the emotional (or even intellectual) response that we need to drive them to action, and a good story can be interpreted by them in whatever way is most personally relevant. Or maybe a range of stories is needed to hit the various different internal motivators among the audience.
One small point, though – the questions at the end are all about ‘our stories’, when sometimes it’s the donors’ stories that will connect with other donors…


    Alison McCants · June 16, 2011 at 16:55

    Hi David,
    That’s a very good point and one which, frankly, I had overlooked when thinking of this blog post. Giving donors a forum to share their own stories with each other can be a great way for them to engage with both the cause and each other. Thanks very much for pointing this out.

Josh · June 16, 2011 at 17:07

Great article! As a marketer who seeks to assist nonprofits in fundraising, I believe wholeheartedly in the power and necessity of storytelling. I’m also a churchgoer and see the example of churches as quite relevant, but also fundamentally different. Try as we might, we can never quite reverse manufacture what they do because they are a different organism altogether.

People don’t go to church to rally around a cause. They don’t go to church to give. They go there to worship and nourish their faith. They go there because THEY are the cause and they need support. Yes, they share a belief system, and true, being there on a regular basis and hearing a consistent “story” reminds them continually of the need and call to give. But giving in this context is both a practical requirement of being a contributing member and a deeper belief that all we have is not ours but God’s, and that we give out of thankfulness for our blessings.

This belief is why we give anything at all to anything. Maybe that’s the “story” the church is telling, and that belief seems like a parallel to “causes” that people believe in, but it’s so much bigger than that. It’s because of faith and a subsequent worldview that these believers will feel compelled to ANY cause.

So yes, let’s learn from churches, and lets tell true, meaningful stories, but let’s also understand the difference between faith in something bigger than any specific cause.

    Jeffrey · December 25, 2012 at 12:31

    Once upon a time their was a spolte boy caleld Jack and his uncle was caleld Paul. Jack wanted a skateboard out the leopards of its money But uncle wanted to keep Him Because His money. and Jack “ Bellowed “ at him. One day Jack buried The Bank and he saw some jelly beans. the next day the Bank rang His uncle. And uncle grounded Jack. And Jack lost His temper and jack The jelly beans.The next day Jack thought his room was proper dark he climbed Jelly stalk at the top their was a beautiful magnificent castle. He went in to the castle the polite giant asked Jack if he wanted some food Jack “shouted” I don’t want food. When the giant wasn’t looking he grabbed the giants skateboard. Jack quickly ran down the beanstalk the giant forgot to say bye. Then Jack got to the bottom then the giant got to the bottom then they made friends.By Aadam

Alison McCants · June 16, 2011 at 18:05

Hi Josh,
Yes, I wouldn’t mean to imply that giving to charity is quite the same as spiritual belief. I can’t speak from a perspective of a believer so I’m glad you commented. I can say that as an atheist, I personally find my faith must be placed in humanity, which inevitably takes the form of charitable work for me when I put that faith into action. But I fully appreciate that is different from faith in God.

I do think that churches can serve a social function in addition to a spiritual one, and perhaps it is that social/community function where I see more overlap. But I also appreciate the social role of churches sits within a wider context of faith and belief. I wouldn’t suggest ‘manufacturing’ belief, but perhaps appreciate the way a particular church can engage with believers and draw some parallels, whilst as you say remembering they are not the same thing.
Thanks again for clarifying that distinction!

Josh · June 16, 2011 at 18:14

Thanks for your response Alison. I didn’t mean to imply you were suggesting manufacturing belief. I just wanted to clarify the difference as you were highlighting the similarities.

Like I said, as a marketer seeking to help nonprofits, in particular charity/ministry types, I fully see the parallels and overlap. I also really feel nonprofits need to create community and to do that they need to understand worldview and storytelling.

Churches and social causes can definitely learn from eachother and the church absolutely serves a social function. Loving God comes with the corresponding command to love our neighbours as ourselves. That applies to all of them, not just fellow believers.

Once again, great article!

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