Writing and Strategy

Making Stories Work for Your Org: What the Data Says

From flickr user kenteegardin, shared under a Creative Commons license.

From flickr user kenteegardin, shared under a Creative Commons license.

Everyone is talking about “the power of stories” — social scientists, nonprofit directors, your mother, you name it. Connect emotionally to your supporters and they’ll give! Make them see the issue in human terms and they’ll give more!

Co-authored with Steve Daigneault. Originally published on NTEN

There’s just one problem. Nonprofits are adding stories to their fundraising messages… and they’re not working.

The argument for stories

In 2003, John Sadowsky and Loick Roche, two professors at the Grenoble Graduate School of Business in France, reviewed the major academic literature on storytelling and wrote a paper called, “The power of stories: a discussion of why stories are powerful”. Their four central points may sound familiar:

  1. Stories are universal. They bridge many divides — including cultural, linguistic, and age-related.
  2. Stories mirror human thought. Humans think in narrative structures, and we remember facts and statistics far better when they’re presented to us in story form.
  3. Stories shape our identities. The stories we tell about ourselves shape who we are.
  4. Our shared stories define our social group. The stories we share shape and define social connections in our life.

Other academic research has found a related trend: individuals are more willing to give to save one person than to save thousands. In “The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty,” Princeton University professor Peter Singer famously highlights one study in which individuals who were shown a picture of a girl named Rokia and told her story were willing to give far more than when asked to help three million hungry children in Malawi.

The hitch

Nonprofits have jumped head-long into a storytelling fever that relies almost exclusively on personal narratives — like that of Rokia — to make an emotional connection with supporters. But here at M+R, we’ve seen hard data contradict brilliant theories often enough to know that testing is essential, so we put personal stories to the test for a major national health organization. We created two random 300K groups and pitted two versions against each other:

Version 1: Written using a more general, institutional approach that outlined the organization’s accomplishments and need.

Version 2: Written using a more personal theme based around the story of one young person diagnosed with the debilitating disease the organization is working to cure.

You might guess that version 2 would raise more money. You’d be wrong.

The institutional version raised more than 4 times as much from almost twice as many donors. The average gift was also much higher for the institutional version.

This test isn’t an anomaly. For a national civil rights organization, we tested a “political” appeal — focused on the supporter’s potential role in overturning a controversial law — against a version that told the story of a family affected by that law. Once again, the story version came in second, with a 20% lower click-through rate and a 25% lower response rate.

A third, similar test for a major international aid organization found no statistical difference between an institutional appeal and a story-focused appeal.

Stories aren’t necessarily hurting these appeals, but they certainly aren’t helping.


Too many organizations have a limited understanding of what “storytelling” means — and it leads to what we call “the personal story trap”:

  1. Just because your organization stumbles upon an amazing story doesn’t mean you’re going to tell it well. The ‘how’ is just as important as the ‘what.’
  2. Non-profit supporters can sniff out when we’re playing with their emotions. A 2005 Public Agenda study found a substantial backlash when donors felt the appeal was too “slick” and intentionally exploitative.
  3. The story you tell may not be your reader’s story.

So what to do?

Don’t panic. Based on our studies, we’ve concluded that stories can help you raise money — if you use them right. To do that, you need to understand that personal stories are just one part of storytelling, and that there two basic types of stories:

1. Explaining stories. These are stories that help illustrate a point, paint a vivid picture of a situation, or put a complex or wonky issue in human terms. They show, rather than tell.

Explaining stories can be used to replace or supplement statistics to make a more memorable, human connection with readers. For example, what if we told a story of a single child before introducing the thousands at need, or spoke of one endangered animal instead of citing how many there are?

“When you’re a starving child, it’s nearly impossible to fight through a crowd of adults. Right now in Pakistan, that’s one of the only ways to get food — so thousands of children are going hungry.”

“On a late summer day in Alaska, a polar bear and her one year-old cub began swimming in search of sea ice to hunt for food… Nine days later, the polar bear’s treacherous 427 mile swim ended when she found a thin sheet of sea ice. But sadly, by the time she returned to shore from her journey, she had lost an incredible 107 pounds and her cub was gone.”

2. Compelling stories. Explaining stories don’t, by themselves, compel readers to act. For that, we need a different type of story — one that offers readers a chance to be part of the story.

These donor-centric emails speak to the impact that one person — specifically, the reader — can have:

“Earlier today, I was with President Obama as he signed the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ into law.

You were part of a defining moment in the struggle for equality. We never backed down. We never gave up. And as anti-gay leadership gets ready to take control of the House of Representatives, we’ll need to bring every bit of that creativity and tenacity to bear.”

The Take-away

Don’t count on a personal story to transform your fundraising appeal. Instead, tell stories that explain your mission and your impact. Recognize that these stories aren’t enough to compel someone to give. In the story that gets people to give, the donor — not the organization — is the hero.