Storytelling – it’s more important than you think

Published by Richard Turner on

The sense I get is that many fundraisers think “Stories oh yeh – they’re important but not critical”. It’s seen as a nice to have. “What we need for our fundraising campaign is a catchy appeal title and a strong creative concept. Then we will embellish it with stories”. And so the storytelling gets pushed back until later. It’s an after thought. The story becomes subservient to everything else – when actually it is the main act you need to build around.

storytellerI contend your organisation’s story is the single most important weapon in your armoury. It’s how you can build on every moment, every appeal, and every campaign. Year on year. Let me tell you how. But first let’s begin with why storytelling is even more important than ever before.

For some time in the wider marketing world, the realisation has been setting in that the quick fix offers that play on our fears, vanity and greed are no longer effective.  And so it is with fundraising. We often focus on guilt and pity to drive instant response alongside hard hitting images. We fool ourselves this is justifiable because this gets higher response rates despite the declining trend.

We need donors to engage their networks on our behalf. Enter the rising importance of peer to peer communications such as recommendations from customers and people in your network (think Amazon reviews, Trip Advisor, or simply asking a friend what camera they would recommend etc). To encourage this sort of behaviour we need to create meaningful campaigns for supporters to engage and participate in. And to do this you need a story, well told. Something people can pass on in the best traditions of storytelling.

It isn’t just about being engaging. “Stories that promise hope just work better than those that make us feel bad” was a statement I scribbled down whilst researching for this blog post. I agree. Why? Because these are the stories I want to share. So sure, those hard hitting appeals will continue to get a ‘better’ response. But they won’t be shared. And it’s in the sharing the magic begins to happen, where your story gets passed on and opportunities come to you (it’s just hard to measure the direct response we find so comforting).

To find your story takes time. You need to sweat it so it becomes a story that others can pass on. And you need to let your story build and build, so whilst you improve and refine it you are adding to what was there before. So let’s look at the how.

1412455936347 (1)Your story isn’t some creative treatment – it’s the very basis for why your organisation exists. It needs to tell the tale of your mission. To do this well you can turn to story frameworks. When you do you’ll start to see you’ve got some work to do.  We are all used to the common framework used by fundraisers typically in a proposal: problem – solution – why us – what we need – the outcome/impact your donation will have. But after a while I find it’s a bit bland. Look around and you will see there are plenty of others. There is the classic Hero structure used by the likes of Spielberg in films like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jaws.

  1. The hero, who provides a point of view (could be the donor?).
  2. The problem the hero is confronting
  3. An antagonist – sometimes that’s personified as a villain, but it’s really just an obstacle
  4. A moment of awareness that allows the hero to overcome that obstacle – the “ahhhh”
  5. And finally the change that occurs.

Quite often people leave out the moment of awareness, but great storytellers always put it in. And for fundraising I would say it’s critical.

So take SolarAid, the charity I fundraise for. The hero could be the solar light, the villain the kerosene lamp, the problem : most people who use kerosene lamps don’t have access to affordable solar lights. And the moment of realisation : What if we could create a market for solar lights and get solar lights to remote places where they are needed and sell them at a fair market price? It would spread faster than handouts of aid. And finally the change that occurs is safe clean light leading to savings, more study time and improved health from no longer burning expensive kerosene. We could take the same framework and overlay it from the perspective of child (the hero) wanting to do her homework at night.

And if you dig around you find others that can give you a slightly different approach. I recently came across this one called the five beats. I used this to help develop content for a pitch deck recently.

Beat 1 = Introduction.Why what you’re about to say is important

Beat 2 = The Incident. The challenge you are facing or the question you are trying to answer. Share your struggle as that’s what makes your story so engaging!

Beat 3 = Raising the Stakes. What this means using moments or detail that make your story more memorable.

Beat 4 = the Main Event. The answer to the question you posed.

Beat 5 = Resolution. What you need. Our pitch for funding.

These frameworks helps you think about the content you need collect and structure your story so it is engaging. I find pulling the content together forces you have discussions about your organisations vision, mission, and strategy along with trying to nail what is unique about you. This is the homework I referred to earlier.

This is why you will find your story gets better in the telling. Isn’t that how myths are born? So find excuses to tell your story for real. I recall a radio appeal was the first real test for SolarAid and our disruptive story of selling solar lights in Africa. It was delivered brilliantly by the writer and novelist, Ian McEwan. We passed the test, resulting in one of the most successful radio appeal broadcasts that year and we knew from then on we had something we could improve and build upon. Two years and over a million solar lights later our story has just got richer and better. Testing your story for real doesn’t need to be on radio of course, although it’s a great spoken medium. It could be a talk or a pitch, or even entering for an award. All of them need you to tell your story. At each telling you will find that you refine and improve it.

Looking back I see what has helped us grow our fundraising programme at SolarAid has been the story which we built upon and the supporters who have joined and stuck with us along the way. After all they want to be part of the story. And each time we engage them it reinforces the same story. It takes time to get your story right, so let it evolve. Ours is a fairly disruptive one of selling solar lights to poor people as part of our mission to eradicate the kerosene lamp from Africa by the end of the decade. And of course it hasn’t finished, so the story is always evolving – new obstacles (monsters) that get in our way. For are we not the creators of legends?!

It struck me that building your story is like getting fit. If you do it little and often, when you look back over a year only then do you appreciate how far you have come. And like getting fit you just get better and better the more you do.

There is no short term fix. But there are thousands of stories waiting to be told and retold.


Richard Turner

Richard Turner

Richard is a “fundraising catalyst”, helping charities adapt their approach to fundraising in today’s fast changing world by leveraging the new rules of communication. He has 30 years fundraising experience including Director of Fundraising, at FARM-Africa, ActionAid UK, and most recently as Chief Fundraiser for SolarAid. He was awarded UK Fundraiser of the Year by the Institute of Fundraising in 2001. Richard is also a trustee of SOFII, the showcase of Fundraising Inspiration and Innovation, and on the advisory board of the International Fundraising Congress. Blogs and tweets as @ifundraiser.


Nikki · March 5, 2015 at 15:26

Great blog and a massive coincidence to drop into my inbox just as I’m constructing a storytelling session for my team.

Thank you Richard!


    Richard Turner · March 5, 2015 at 22:24

    Thanks Nikki. Much appreciated.

    I found something interesting when I did a storytelling session with a team of fundraisers. We shared stories of visiting the work. I found that when people tell stories vs the same person writing the same story, you get two different outputs. The former with anecdotes and observations of detail that bring it alive – the latter often more of a dry case study. We seem to self sensor when we write and take out the best bits.

Sally Flatman · March 6, 2015 at 09:45

Great to read this – after 25 years as a radio producer telling stories, I know how a story, well told, has the power to move us. As a listener I don’t just want a fragment of the story – I want to know what happened or really get a chance to understand someone else’s life. I want a story that I can tell other people. Sally Flatman

Andrew Littlefield · March 6, 2015 at 15:52

I love the actionable framework you offer here. Sometimes “telling a story” is easier said than done, so having an actual framework to follow is a huge help.

I wrote on this topic on our blog as well, more specifically about how GoPro (my favorite storytelling brand) uses the Hero Structure to tell compelling short stories and how nonprofits can use these techniques.

Nonprofit Storytelling Lessons from GoPro

    Richard Turner · March 9, 2015 at 22:53

    What a great diagram you share on your blog and an amazing opening film of the firefighter (just impossible for your eyes not to water). I guess have the potential to tap into our emotions at a deeper level – and of course surfacing those emotions in each of us is so critical to what fundraisers need to do.

    Thanks Andrew.

Jenna Quint · March 9, 2015 at 17:20

Hey Richard,

I loved this!

I actually recently wrote a post about the importance of story telling. I included a lot of example of scientific studies, that prove that persuasion and story telling are interconnected!

Take a look and tell me what you think: http://blog.causeview.com/your-donation-request-letters-should-include-stories-heres-why

    Richard Turner · March 9, 2015 at 22:48

    I loved the Dove ad you shared (got me thinking what would my non profits equivalent be) and the insight about how the brain responds to stories (I never knew that). Thanks for sharing Jenna.

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