How to Leverage Storytelling for Fundraising Success

7 min read

If you’re like me, you’ve been working in (or with) the nonprofit sector for your entire career. You’ve spent countless hours on Google, skimming headlines and articles looking for that silver bullet; that last piece of the puzzle that will help your fundraising campaigns take off. 

But so far, it hasn’t — at least, according to your board, that is. 

If it’s starting to seem like there’s a disconnect between what you should do and what you can do, don’t worry: you’re in good company. According to Google Trends, searches for “nonprofit fundraising” increased by 120% between early September and mid-October last year. This very second, fundraising and development professionals around the country are looking for ways to re-energize their fundraising strategies so they can help their organizations succeed. 

Why? Because fundraising isn’t like the traditional marketing funnel, where consumers glide through the sales process and end up with a package on their doorstep. Tracking impact is harder than tracking inventory. That’s why fundraising isn’t really a funnel at all: it’s a mountain. With each step of your strategy, your target audience hikes toward the top. But they can turn around anytime they want. Your job is to persuade them to keep going, all the way to the peak. 

Tracking impact is harder than tracking inventory. That’s why fundraising isn’t really a funnel at all: it’s a mountain. Click To Tweet

That’s where stories come in.

Storytelling is a powerful tool, and mastering it can take any strategy to the next level. Does that sound easier said than done? It doesn’t have to be. You can leverage your stories into fundraising success. You can reach the top of that mountain. You can make this your best fundraising year ever. I’m here to show you how.

Storytelling is familiar to you

Storytelling is so powerful because its universal. Each of us, regardless of our background or culture, has heard and told countless stories in our lifetimes. All stories have, at their core, five basic components:

  • Setting
  • Plot
  • Characters
  • Conflict
  • Resolution

If this is making you feel a little lost, that’s OK! Before you let that feeling overwhelm you, I just want to remind you: you’ve leveraged storytelling into fundraising success before. Don’t believe me? Well, let’s take a look at the basic components of something that’s probably familiar to you: a grant application. Most grant applications include elements like:

  • Statement of Need
  • Work Plan/Specific Activities
  • Outcomes/Impact of Activities
  • Future Funding/Repetition
  • Evaluation 

When you’re filling out a foundation or government grant you are telling your nonprofit’s story. You’re combining data with prose to make a compelling argument for why you, and no one else, are best-suited for this funding. In fact, the overlap between stories and grants are striking. Take a look:

My goal in showing this to you is simple: you have a map that’ll get your donors to the top of that steep mountain, but you may need to find your compass first. Let’s take a look at some important strategy and implementation tips that will help guide you to the right path.

Start with S.T.A.R.

When you structure your story, you have to create something that can be used across multiple platforms and in varying formats. Not only does this save you money down the road, it also creates continuity that your audience expects. If focusing on the elements of storytelling seems difficult, consider focusing on S.T.A.R. instead: 

  • Situation
    In plain terms, this is the problem you’re trying to solve. You can pull ideas straight from your statements of need.
  • Task
    Here’s where you’ll discuss the solution to the above-mentioned problem. This is where you’ll set up your nonprofit’s work.
  • Action
    This is your time to shine: now you can talk about how your nonprofit responded to your community’s call. Be sure to offer succinct, declarative examples of your efforts. Then (if possible), humanize your work by adding in a story. Photos, imagery and videos count as stories, too.
  • Result
    While this may seem self-explanatory, it can often be where you hit a crevasse on the mountain. Don’t shy away from talking about unfinished business — it’s a powerful fundraising mechanism.

Let’s take a deeper dive into the last part of your story: results. As you know, measuring impact is much more difficult than measuring actions. But it’s important to remember that you don’t have to completely solve a problem in order to demonstrate your effectiveness. Let’s take a look at S.T.A.R. in action:

No doubt, you’ve seen charity:water’s campaigns before. They’re beautiful, succinct and effective. But they’re also an incredible example of leveraging an “unfinished business” storyline to continue fundraising. You can probably pick out the situation, tasks, actions and results, but pay special attention to the last line:

“Thank you for joining our movement to solve the world water crisis.” 

They’re telling you that you’ve joined a movement, while also explicitly saying that it hasn’t been solved yet. It subtly primes you to expect more emails from them in the future, laying the groundwork for their future campaigns. 

You can do this, too. Start small. Focus on what you’ve accomplished in your Actions section, then relate it back to the big picture in results. Did you achieve your goal? Or even exceed it? Is there more work to be done? Whatever your result, you can turn it into a call-to-action. 

The numbers don’t speak for themselves

For development professionals, it may be tempting to rely on numbers and data to tell your story. After all, that’s what goes into grant applications and reports, right? 

There’s no doubt about it — data is an important aspect of storytelling. It sets the stage by educating your audience on just how big this problem is. But let me ask you this: which of these examples is more compelling to you?

Option A

“17.9% — the percentage of children under age 18 living in households that experienced limited or uncertain availability of safe, nutritious food at some point during the year.”

Option B

(Source: No Kid Hungry)

My guess is you chose Option B. There’s nothing wrong with that; in fact, it’s science. Studies show that 63% of people will remember a story, compared to just 5% who remember the statistic. Moreover, stories are twice as persuasive than data alone.

Numbers should be able to tell the full story; statistics alone should be enough to get your audience to care about your organization. But in today’s content-driven, attention-starved society, that’s just not the case. The text in Options A and B are identical, but only Option B has a story to tell. It puts a human face to a statistical problem. It’s relatable, thumb-stopping content that can compel people to act. 

Let’s get started

Your nonprofit does amazing work each and every day. The communities you serve are better off because you’re there. But there’s more work to do, and you need every dollar you can to ensure that your organization is achieving its mission. 

We’ve created a resource to help your nonprofit leverage storytelling for fundraising success. In it, you’ll find a storytelling checklist, as well as a list of powerful words that will help you turn your stories into powerful calls-to-action.  

Your marketing team (or your marketing agency) can help you choose the best tactics and strategy to promote your stories, while this checklist will empower you to find those stories within the resources you already have.

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