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Storytelling – it’s not just a Buzzword

Storytelling. It’s the latest buzzword for nonprofits. For good reason.

Storytelling is inherently part of being human; it’s how we relate to one another, how we learn, how we teach and how we influence. Storytelling is so tied into our survival as a species, that without it, we would have gone extinct a long time ago.

It makes sense that nonprofits, doing the work of saving the world would want to tap into the most effective power tool at their disposal – the power of story.

Do you remember being a child and being swept away by a story? Maybe you daydreamed a lot (I did) and the narrative in your head took you to a way more interesting place than that boring math class. It was as if you were actually in the story. That’s how powerful stories are – a good story can transport us to somewhere else and we feel as if we are actually there.

Whether someone is telling you a story, or you’re watching it in a movie or on TV, whether it’s in a daydream; the result is the same. The story creates an emotional response and you learn from it, whether you realize you are learning or not. You modify behavior because of it, whether you realize it or not.

It isn’t just the stories you hear (or daydream) that influence you. The stories you tell also influence you. When you tell a story that recreates an event, or you share something from your imagination; those stories are like throwing spaghetti on a wall to see if it will stick. You test your belief system against the reactions of others, and you keep or change your belief or behavior because of that reaction.

In nonprofits, especially in fundraising – the right kind of story can lead to more support and more engagement in your mission.


Let’s start with brain chemicals; specifically, cortisol, oxytocin and dopamine.

Because nonprofits are dealing with difficult and sometimes horrendous situations, the stories you tell will most certainly trigger cortisol, the stress hormone. It’s the chemical in the brain that yells “DISTRESS!” in all caps.

This is what the Sarah McLachlan video for the ASPCA did (you know which one, don’t make me put a link). Those ads were all about distress. They were so distressful, people have said they just turned off the TV. Not exactly the response you’re looking for as a nonprofit trying to tell your story.

You would think you would want to keep your wonderful supporters free of all cortisol, but that’s not true. Some nonprofits  try to do that, telling only happy, feel-good stories because they believe that distressing their supporters will drive them away. Not true! What happens instead is that their supporters fail to recognize that action is necessary. Cortisol is something you want released in your donor’s brain. Why? Because cortisol demands that they wake up and pay attention.

Cortisol is not enough to motivate support however. While distress can and does often motivate a gift; that kind of motivation is not sustainable unless you plan to attack your donors with distressful information every time you need their support. Trust me, they will start to avoid you (and turn off the TV).

That brings us to the next component of a good fundraising story – empathy. Many fundraising stories fail to elicit empathy, which in the brain is a release of oxytocin. A person who does not feel empathy when you tell your story will not CARE about what you are telling them. This means, your story needs to speak to what they CARE about – not what you think is important.

Below is a video from neuroeconomist Paul Zak that explains:

Once  this brain cocktail of distress and empathy is going, people are more likely to give to a charitable cause. Your job is to provide a means for them to do that, which then causes a little hit in the brain of that fabulous neurotransmitter, dopamine, the feel-good, reward-motivated driver.

Asking for a gift and giving someone a way to make a difference will trigger dopamine when they give (in both your brains!) When you thank them, more dopamine. When you report how their gift made a difference, also dopamine.

All that dopamine when we give. That’s why giving feels so damn good.

In addition, more parts of the brain activate when a person is told a story versus a litany of facts. Without going into all the science, I’ll summarize what researchers in Spain found. 

When you share an experience with someone through a story, their brain synchronizes with it and they feel like they’ve experienced the same thing.

Tell a good story and your audience will actually feel like they are part of the story. 

Because science.

What does all of this mean and why does it matter? Because the more you understand why people respond (or don’t respond) to your stories, the better you will be able to craft a story that meets everyone’s needs.

Below is a simple formula I was taught 20 years ago, and knowing some of the brain science behind why a good story raises more money – this formula is still solid two decades later.

  • There is a need (cortisol) – DISTRESS! make sure your story is an experience demonstrating the need, one that shows the problem you are trying to fix. Tell it as an experience, something the brain can synchronize to – not a bunch of facts and stats.
  • This is why you, the donor, should care (oxytocin) – Empathy. Why should this person care about what you are telling them? Do you know who you are talking to and what problem they want to solve in the world? Focus on why they care, not what you are doing.
  • Please give (provide an easy way to give) because your gift will make a difference to…the problem they want to solve (dopamine) – Feelin’ So Good

Then, after the gift:

  • Thank them for their gift, Tell them they’ve made a difference solving…the problem they want to solve (dopamine). Tell this as an experiential story; you want their brain to synchronize with the story and feel like they were part of it. Remember, the brain can’t distinguish between real and story. Help your donors feel like they were there for the solution. “Thank you for your gift” has zero synchronization potential.

And later:

  • Here’s how your gift helpedthe problem they want to solve (dopamine) You know this by now – but this must be a story that relates to why they cared to give. While you can use stats – please remember, they need to help make the emotional point of the story.

Storytelling is a powerful tool. As with anything of power, you must wield it wisely and go forth to do good with it.

“You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone’s soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows that they might do because of it, because of your words. That is your role, your gift.”Erin Morgenstern,

Use the science, and use your gift,