How to Tell Great Fundraising Stories

© stmool - Fotolia
© stmool – Fotolia
“There are three rules for writing the novel,” the author Somerset Maugham once wrote. “Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” The same holds true for nonfiction stories. In his latest book, Storytelling Can Change the World, author and fundraiser Ken Burnett distills some valuable tips and techniques that he’s picked up in his more than twenty years as an advertising copywriter and fundraising consultant.

Key among them is to trust your readers. “Writers everywhere quickly learn that their job is not to tell the whole story, to etch in every detail of characters, places, impressions, and actions,” Burnett writes. “Much better instead to leave it to the reader’s imagination to fill and color in the gaps.” This is especially true for nonprofit storytelling, in which writers are often tempted to buttress their case with impressive facts and figures that only end up smothering the story. “Stories stick,” Burnett admonishes. “Statistics don’t.”

You can avoid data dumping by taking the time up front to think about what the reader will want to get out of your story. To help writers put themselves into the minds of their readers, Burnett recalls a lesson from playwright David Mamet. For every scene in a drama, Mamet taught, a writer has to ask three questions:

  1. Who wants what?
  2. What happens if s/he doesn’t get it?
  3. Why now?

Even then, it may be hard to hear the beating heart of the story the first time you sit down to write it. Experienced writers know that the best stories require multiple drafts. Newbery Award-winning author Shannon Hale has likened the first draft to shoveling sand into a box from which she will later build sand castles. Feedback and testing are important for improving drafts; don’t be afraid to ask people to read each version and tell you what works for them and what doesn’t. But when you do, stress to your readers that you’re not seeking rewrites, approvals, or sign-offs at this stage. Draft stories are vulnerable to well-intentioned meddling, which inevitably hurts the story more than it helps.

A great story is an investment. The more work you put into crafting your story up front, the more durable, and thus cost-effective, it will be for your organization. Burnett recalls how, when he was working with the international nongovernmental organization ActionAid, fundraisers were concerned that a film about the organization and its mission that they showed to prospective donors had become overused and was no longer an effective motivator. However, testing quickly revealed that the film’s effect was just as potent as when it had first appeared; it was the fundraisers themselves who were getting tired of it, simply because they had shown it so many times. As a result, ActionAid’s fundraisers continued to show the film to great effect for many more years — generating gifts that might have otherwise been lost had the film been retired early.

How much have you invested in your fundraising stories?

This post was adapted from “Once Upon a Time: How Storytelling Can Motivate Donors to Support Your Nonprofit Without Being Asked,” by Paul Lagasse, Advancing Philanthropy, Summer 2016 (reprinted with permission). You can read the whole article here.

What Makes a Fundraising Story Great?

© Kirsty Pargeter - Fotolia
© Kirsty Pargeter – Fotolia
Fiction storytellers are taught from an early age to “write what you know” and to “show, not tell.” Both of these admonitions apply to nonfiction storytelling as well. “The most important person in a story is you,” says fundraiser Ken Burnett to colleagues who come to him for advice. At first glance, this might seem to contradict the fundraising mantra of focusing the story on the donor and not on the organization. But in practice, the two perspectives are not just complementary, but also necessary. In a well-told story, you are serving as a proxy for the donor. “It is in effect saying, ‘I was there and I saw this, and believe me, if you had been standing there beside me, you would understand this too,'” Burnett explains.

An effective eyewitness story exudes authenticity. “It’s a lot harder sell when you have to repackage other people’s stories,” Burnett says. He advises people not to write their stories down too quickly after they happen. A story full of raw, fresh emotions tends to come across as false and insincere. At the other extreme, over-editing can have the same effect, though it can sometimes be difficult to balance the need for review and approval up the chain with the need to preserve what makes the story compelling. (“I like to believe that the customer is always right,” Burnett observed, “but I wish that the customer wouldn’t always rewrite!”)

Regardless of the writing and review process, the goal should be to craft a story that reads like it was created more or less spontaneously. “You can still script a story,” says Burnett, “but the best stories retain an element of improvisation.”

A successful story is also tailored for its audience. As legendary advertising copywriter David Ogilvy put it, “If we don’t understand them, how can we expect them to understand us?” When writing stories, fundraisers can and should draw on their extensive knowledge of donors and the community to craft a tale that will resonate with them. To share a story is to give a donor something of value stands out from everything else that’s coming in through their inbox and mailbox. Your generosity in offering a story to a prospective donor is more likely to lead to that person wanting to share something with you in return.

This post was adapted from “Once Upon a Time: How Storytelling Can Motivate Donors to Support Your Nonprofit Without Being Asked,” by Paul Lagasse, Advancing Philanthropy, Summer 2016 (reprinted with permission). You can read the whole article here.

Effective Stories Make People Trust You — So Tell Them to Donors!

© Frank Boston - Fotolia
© Frank Boston – Fotolia
What makes donors feel good about you and your organization? Veteran fundraiser Ken Burnett likes to talk to colleagues about a chemical called oxytocin. Discovered in 1952, oxytocin is a natural hormone used by doctors to safely induce labor. A little over a decade ago, oxytocin was also found to generate feelings of trust and cooperation in people. When he read about this discovery, Burnett saw a potential application for fundraising. “If we only could work out how to release the right chemicals in our donor’s brains, we’d be more successful,” he would tell fundraisers. Then, with a laugh, he would add, “The secret of success would be to take out a syringe of oxytocin and squirt it up their noses!”

Fortunately for fundraisers, science has since discovered a less invasive method of invoking feelings of generosity within the brains of donors: storytelling.

Dr. Paul J. Zak of Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, Calif., author of The Moral Molecule: The Source of Love and Prosperity and president of Ofactor Inc., is the scientist who first discovered the emotional benefits of oxytocin and recently demonstrated that character-driven narratives caused the brain to make produce the hormone (“Why Your Brain Loves Good Storytelling,” Harvard Business Review, October 28, 2014). “When you want to motivate, persuade, or be remembered, start with a story of human struggle and eventual triumph” Zak writes. “It will capture people’s hearts — by first attracting their brains.”

Zak’s discovery didn’t surprise Burnett, the managing trustee for the Showcase of Fundraising Innovation and Inspiration. Shortly before Zak’s findings were announced, Burnett released what he considers his most important book, Storytelling Can Change the World, a handbook for building lifetime relationships with donors through the power of compelling narrative. Science, it seems, has finally caught up with Burnett, who’s been trying to convince nonprofits about the power of stories for years.

“The book is the core of my philosophy of what’s wrong with fundraising,” says Burnett, an active participant in the ongoing civic debate in the UK over fundraising practices that have led to controversial regulatory changes. “We have to move from persistent asking to consistent inspiration. And storytelling is brilliant at doing that.”

Changing the World, One Story at a Time

In Storytelling Can Change the World, Burnett argues that there are only two types of stories: those that inform and entertain people, and those that rouse them to action. Fundraisers, he says, too often rely on the former while avoiding the latter. He illustrates the distinction using a story of his own. Imagine two Roman senators, Caius and Marcellus. Both are master orators. Caius presents indisputable facts and persuasive evidence using reason and logic, inspiring his audience to applaud his skill. Marcellus, on the other hand, arouses passionate emotions and paints vivid narrative scenes, inspiring his listeners to rise out of their seats willing to follow him wherever he points.

Fundraisers, argues Burnett, need to emulate Marcellus. “We don’t want our stories merely to move our readers to applause,” Burnett writes. “Rather, we want them to leap to their feet, passionate, angry, impelled and determined to make change happen.” According to Burnett, the stories that rouse audiences to their feet are:

  • About the reader, not the cause
  • Interesting, surprising, or unexpected
  • Believable, real, and accessible
  • Gripping
  • Simple, visual, memorable, and friendly
  • Capable of grabbing the audience’s emotions

Storytelling also offers a solution to a troubling paradox revealed by many donor surveys: Donors report feeling a sense of satisfaction and achievement when they give, but dislike being asked. A good story, says Burnett, encourages people to give without feeling like they’re being asked in the first place. “The two ‘i’s in fundraising should not stand for ‘interruption’ and ‘irritation,'” he emphasizes. “They should stand for ‘inspiration’ and ‘information.’ And storytelling is key to that.”

This post was adapted from “Once Upon a Time: How Storytelling Can Motivate Donors to Support Your Nonprofit Without Being Asked,” by Paul Lagasse, Advancing Philanthropy, Summer 2016 (reprinted with permission). You can read the whole article here.