Let’s now move from last time’s explanation of what primary emotions are, and why they’re so important – to a brief show and tell of how to actually use them to drive fundraising results. After all, you’re here right now to learn a new tool to help you bring in more money!


We have known since the 1990s that storytelling is the most powerful form of all human communications. Magnetic imaging technology shows us without question that a well-told story fires up all sorts of the listener’s (or reader’s) brain simultaneously. I won’t go into a detailed explanation here, other than to quote neurologist Roger Schenk who said “The human brain is not designed to process facts, charts and figures. The human brain, however, IS very much designed to process stories.”

Or, I also love this from the novelist Ursula le Guin, who said “There have been great human civilizations that did not use the wheel – but – there have been NO human civilizations that did not tell stories.”


To me, a good story is defined by a single characteristic. When I read a good story, I identify so much with one of the characters that I feel like I become a part of the story. When I watch a good movie, I cease to be a passive audience member in my seat – and I become one of the characters on the screen.

In the book ‘Lord of the Rings’ I totally identified with Strider. In the movie ‘Rocky’, I identified with, well, Rocky! If you stop and think about your favourite novels, movies and childhood stories, you’ll probably realize just how much you crawled into a character’s shoes. Maybe you were Dorothy in ‘Wizard of Oz’, or Anne Shirley in ‘Anne of Green Gables’ or Rapunzel or Goldilocks or Sleeping Beauty.

As a philanthropic storyteller, I believe that your first job is to present a character to your donors that they totally become. Once they identify with the story’s character, they’ll feel the feelings – and the rest as they say, will be history.


MRI research work by Dr. Russell James at Texas Tech University has revealed remarkable information about the human brain and why we give. With the exception of legacy giving (which comes from the autobiographical section of the brain), almost all charitable giving comes from the brain’s empathy centre. When we identify with a character in a story, our empathy centre becomes activated in a very big way – getting us ready to give!


For the purposes of demonstration, I’m going to create a fictional place called Noelle’s Arc. This is a shelter and refuge for women and children who are escaping domestic violence – and beginning to cross the bridge to a new life.

Imagine that you’re responsible for writing some stories for Noelle’s Arc – perhaps for direct mail, or donor newsletters or for the website. Your goal is to engage your audiences emotionally – and now that you’re aware of the primary emotional colours, you want to use them effectively. Here are some story ideas you could consider.


This emotion is perhaps the easiest to communicate. Imagine you’re a 7 year-old boy. Your mom has put you to bed and you’re falling asleep. You hear the front door opening downstairs and your drunken father stumbles in. Soon you hear arguing from the kitchen – followed by a slap and a sharp cry from your mom. There’s a moment of silence – followed by the thud, thud of your father’s footsteps coming up the stairs. He’s looking for you now…

(In fact, this story idea could easily move from fear to terror. You want to be thoughtful about how intensely you want to push emotional buttons.)


That same little boy from the first story is now 12 years old. He’s becoming more and more protective of his mom and his younger brother and sister. He goes down for breakfast in the morning after a night of his father’s rage and violence. He sees a carving knife in the block on the counter by the fridge. He tells his mom not to worry – that the next time dad gets mean, he’ll take that knife and end it once and for all. That’s the moment when mom knows she has to call Noelle’s Arc.


You’re reading the story of a woman who’s endured a violent marriage for 12 years.  She knows her kids need to be safe and secure. She knows what he’s doing is wrong. She desperately wants to make a change and free herself and her children from the fear and pain of his domination. But, she was raised to believe in a two-parent family. She’s stuck. She can’t tell anyone what’s going on. As you read her story, you can’t help but get sad.


The scene is a long dinner table at Noelle’s Arc. Six mothers and a couple of dozen children are serving up plates and finding seats. It’s dinnertime, and everyone has gathered in the dining room. There’s noisy chatter, jostling and pure, natural laughter. Everyone around that table is safe. Everyone having dinner is rejoicing in that safety. Everyone feels light and happy. As you read this story, you’ve joined them around the table – and you feel light and happy too.


The whole idea really boils down to this. When you can trigger emotions with powerful storytelling, something transformative happens. Suddenly, it’s not just YOUR story anymore. Your donor or prospect will make the story HERS. Once she becomes a part of your story – or at least feels like she does – she’s engaged at a deep personal level. Her odds of giving are going to go up – and she might just give a bigger gift too. And, after all, isn’t that what we’re all about?