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.