The Story Behind “Story”

Photo credit: The Mark Twain House & Museum

Photo credit: The Mark Twain House & Museum

It seems like everywhere one looks theses days, somebody is talking about the value of “Story” in nonprofit fundraising, and deservedly so. Stories are a fundamental way humans can connect to ideas. We’re hard-wired to respond to a “good story well-told,” as Mark Twain described it.

Direct response fundraisers know that stories can be a compelling and sometimes overlooked mechanism for delivering nonprofit mission to market.

I am a big believer in using stories for fundraising, especially stories with an arc. Stories in which the protagonist experiences a change, bludgeoned by Evil in the opening (cancer, poverty, hunger, injustice, etc.), and ultimately saved by Good (donors who support the Charity of Salvation) at the end. Heck, I even wrote an article about the value of the Arc of the Fundraising Story several years ago for the Journal of the DMA Nonprofit Federation.

But here’s the ugly truth that we creatives don’t like to admit: Sometimes—maybe even more than sometimes—stories don’t work.

Most fundraising creatives carry around a sad bag of story failure. Test campaigns that featured stories so heartfelt, so emotional, and so compelling that their own jaded eyes welled up when writing it. Campaigns that subsequently failed to displace the end-of-year remit slip control. Or worse, a package full of return address labels.

The mistake we make is assuming it was the story that failed. But “stories,” as a technique, are neither culprit nor hero.

As most DR folks know, virtually all direct response acts of charity are driven by two states of mind. The first is emotion, which resonates in the donor in some meaningful fashion, the other is rationality, which, by demonstration, assures the donor that her contribution will be put to good use.

As a direct response technique, a story can both resonate emotion and demonstrate rationality, but it is not necessarily the only DR vehicle that can do so, and it has its risks. This brings to mind several observations:

  1. An appeal that evokes the most profound emotion in the world may be derailed by a failure to demonstrate that the gift makes sense or will be used wisely.
  2. An appeal loaded with emotion for the nonprofit still may not resonate with the donor, who is knee deep in emotional appeals from a wide range of organizations.
  3. Emotion, and the resonance it evokes, may not necessarily be noble. Ignoble emotions can also motivate giving. Greed, for instance, is an emotion (“I gave $25 to get the windbreaker.”) Guilt is an emotion (“I gave because you sent me a freemium and I felt obligated.”) Granted, retention of these offer-driven, not story-driven donors may be difficult, but for some organizations, revenue is revenue.
  4. Rationality may be demonstrated simply by repetitively blasting a particularly strong brand. Brand is, after all, shorthand not only for mission, but for all the implied stewardship that a nonprofit’s reputation implies. A great brand may say more than any story could, and it says it faster and non-verbally. (See #5) Conversely, even the best story in the world cannot overcome the stain of a damaged brand.
  5. Stories take more effort on the donor’s part to get through. Sadly, I fear this is will become increasingly significant in the coming years.

So it is not just the use of stories that motivate a donor to give. To paraphrase James Carville, it’s the resonance and demonstration, stupid.

I will continue to press for meaningful and emotional stories that can be turned into successful and resonant appeals, because as a direct response creative, I know that they can be powerful delivery vehicles.

But the bigger issue is finding the sweet spot, the balance between resonance and demonstration that triggers the emotional/rational responses in the donor’s heart and mind, and motivates them to make a gift.

If that means eschewing story for the ignoble (but still resonant) emotions that a crass offer provides, or if it means showcasing a dynamic brand that non-verbally demonstrates the good rational sense a contribution makes, all in order to build a healthy donor file that will continue to generate the maximum revenue for mission, then so be it.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

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