If you’re a fundraiser, telling a good story is a skill you need.
Why? The simplest answer is that stories – not facts – are how we make decisions. But there are lots of delicious layers to that answer.
Stories are how we relate
Facts – especially statistics – light up a part of our brain that’s rational, logical. And that part says, “Why would I give away my money? That makes no sense!”
Stories unlock another part – the part that feels for other people. That part says, “someone needs help. And I can help.”
There’s a good reason that humans have been sharing stories forever. Think about Neanderthal cave art. 65,000 years old. And they weren’t simple decorations. They were communicating something.
Science says stories work
We know that stories can change our attitudes, our beliefs, and our behaviors. Oxytocin is a neurotransmitter and hormone. It’s been called the “love hormone”. If you’ve ever been pregnant and breastfed, you’ve felt it at work as it helps you bond with the baby. People in love feel it, too.
But it can also make us feel more like being helpful. It gives us that “safe to approach” signal with another person. And it can do that even when the person isn’t right in front of you. It enhances our sense of empathy.
Empathy is a fundraiser’s friend. And stories can trigger oxytocin release.
Telling a good story
Some of us seem to be born storytellers. Those are the people you know who can easily regale a group of people and have everyone laughing or crying. My brothers are both great storytellers. My dad was, too. Any family gathering ended in laughs that had you doubled over.
Others of us, like me, have to work harder at it. Or we can tell stories in a different way. I’m not likely to light up your social event with a great spur-of-the-moment story. But if you’re like me, and you have time to craft it, you can still tell the stories that raise money.
Focus on the feelings in your story
Yes, you want to get the facts right. But more important will be the feelings. So listen well (your ears don’t work as well when your mouth is working). And ask open-ended questions. “Can you tell me how that felt?” “What did you think about that?” “When did you first realize…?”
Identify the hero of the story
If you want to create a sense of empathy, tell a story about a person – or a family. Don’t make your organization the protagonist. Paint a picture with words – what is this person like?
You’ll want to employ your own empathy to solicit the information you need. Be sincerely interested. Be open to following the story where it goes. And encourage sharing. Sometimes, quiet is your best tool.
I prefer to interview people myself. Because then I can follow unexpected paths. I also prefer Zoom. You can record the interview (with your sincere assurances of privacy!) Then you can really focus on the conversation.
Find the struggles
Every good story has its conflict. That could be as obvious as real conflict (think of an organization that works with people who’ve suffered from domestic violence).
Or it could be money issues. Family problems. Try to find what’s keeping your protagonist from fulfilling her dreams.
Should your story have a happy ending?
If you’re writing to ask for a gift, you probably don’t want to include the happy ending. You want to leave the reader or listener a bit on edge. Then the only way to soothe that feeling is to do something. Like, give.
Stories are how we human
Every time you’re tempted to rely on statistics, remember that what we do is essentially human. It’s not as much about money as it is about bringing people together – exposing their best sides. It’s an opportunity to help – and that opportunity makes us feel good.
Finding and telling a good story also requires us to be vulnerable. When you’re asking someone to share something personal, you can’t approach it like Joe Friday (“All we want are the facts, ma’am”) You too must bring something to that interaction. Your own feelings, your own empathy. Those build trust – and that’s when you can uncover a good story.
And when you tell that story, you also need to bring yourself into it. So yes, it requires some vulnerability. And that can be hard. Statistics are safe. They’re hard to argue with. They work or they don’t and they’re not personal.
But fundraising is personal. Always. Even if you’re soliciting a corporate gift, there’s an individual or two considering your request. Make the process human by using stories.
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