Show, Don’t Tell: How and Why to Use Stories in Fundraising

Categories: Capital Campaigns, General Development

A children’s museum can tell a donor that it educates 10,000 students each year—that 50% of its visiting schools come from low-income districts, that 1,200 youth participate in the “Girls in Science” program, that kids with museum membership passes are 30% more likely to pursue higher education. That information is important. It’s necessary. 

But it doesn’t show impact quite as profoundly as the story of Katie—a young girl who began visiting the museum with her grandfather, who made friends and gained confidence through Girls in Science, who became a first-generation college student (then a first-generation medical student!), and who now brings her own daughter to the same children’s museum.

Flannery O’Connor summarized it best—stories are a way to say something that can’t be said any other way.

Why use stories in fundraising?

Because stories cut through the jargon. Humans don’t connect with “leveraging existing resources to address social health determinants”; we connect with a family that can turn their heat back on. C.S. Lewis said, “When I write, I see pictures.” That’s how many of us think—and it’s easier to picture concrete details (a warm home) than abstract nouns (social determinants).

Because stories move us to action in ways that statistics cannot. We know that affordable healthcare is a great need that affects millions, but we rally behind the crowdfunding campaign for a young man who cannot afford a lifesaving operation. (Behavioral studies verify this tendency time and time again. Research by Dr. Paul Slovic demonstrates the power of the “singularity effect”: that our compassion—and charity—is highest when focused on one individual life.1 In a study by Wharton professor Deborah Small, more donations were generated when focusing on a single, tangible individual than a larger statistical group2. And so on.)

Because stories are universal. It’s part of our neurological hardwiring: stories consistently engage more parts of the listener or reader’s brain than facts alone, including an increased release of oxytocin synthesis—the “empathy” hormone.

How should we tell stories?

  • Use a narrative arc. Stories should be more than just examples. They feature a hero, conflict, choice, and a resolution. They are meant to resonate on an emotional level, and to create a vision of “what is” and “what can be.”
  • Get away from the abstractions. Tell stories about people, not ideas. Use visual language and strong action verbs.
  • Diversify your cast of characters. Stories of client impact are essential, but don’t forget your full repertoire—include stories about donors, volunteers, and even the organization’s history.
  • Don’t tell your story with data, but do support your story with data. Good fundraising communications must appeal to the head and the heart.
  • Stories move people to act—so don’t forget your call to action! Let your donors know what they can do: is it giving, volunteering, joining your board?

If you’d like more information about the role of stories in your fundraising and case for support, please contact us at (614) 437-3000 or [email protected].  



1 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24940738
2 https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=678281