Even though this blog about how to build a fundraising story bank is coming up on five years old, it’s still as relevant as ever. I believe that stories are the most persuasive tool in our box when we tell them right. It’s also been our experience at Good Works that our clients who can generate the best stories often get the best results – especially in legacy giving. So, have a read (or a re-read if you were following us in 2019) and use this method to generate more donors and more revenue! – Fraser Green

Didn’t you love it when you were little and your mom or dad read you bedtime stories? Are there movies or novels that have carved a niche in your heart as deeply meaningful to you? Do you love carrying on your family’s storytelling tradition with your own kids or grandkids?

We all know intuitively that we love great stories – but science has revealed to us just how powerful stories can be. And, not only that, powerful storytelling – pulled from your fundraising story bank – will absolutely help you raise a lot more money for your organization!

Thanks to the innovations of MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) technology in the 1990s, we have been able to look inside the workings of the human brain like we never would have imagined a generation ago. MRI technology doubled our knowledge of human brain activity in the 1990s relative to all human history that preceded that decade. And, in each succeeding decade, our knowledge of how people actually think, feel, behave, and decide has doubled again.

The foundations of storytelling in the brain

One of the biggest lessons from all of this neuroscience is that storytelling is – and has been for thousands of years – the most important way in which we humans communicate with one another. We use stories to inform, to entertain, to teach – and to persuade. When we’re listening to a well-told story, many different parts of your brain are engaged. I won’t go into a neurological description of those parts – but here are just a few ways that stories fire up our brain activity:

  • When we’re engaged with a story, the sensory parts of our brain are activated. Stories allow us to see, smell, taste, hear and touch in our imaginations. And, as you well know, these sensations can be very real indeed.
  • Stories also engage us emotionally. A well-told story will trigger at least one of your primary emotions – those being happiness, sadness, anger or fear. A kickass story could make you feel all four emotions before it’s over!
  • A really powerful element of a great story is the suspension of disbelief. When a story really grabs you – be it a book, a movie or bedtime with grandma – you let go of your knowing that it’s just a story. You allow yourself to believe that the story is real. Any story that has made you laugh or cry has done this successfully.
  • A truly artful story is one where we cease to be an observer or witness to the story – and we actually become a participant. One of my favourite exercises in communication workshops is to ask participants who has either read the Lord of the Rings books or seen the movies. I then ask people which character they most identified with. (For most people it’s Frodo – but for me, it’s Strider!) When you truly immerse yourself in the story’s journey, that story will stay with you forever in a meaningful way.

Where we’re coming from

My fellow Good Workers and I spend each and every day working very hard to craft our clients’ stories so that their donors and prospects will be motivated to give. We know from more than thirty years of trial and error that storytelling is the secret sauce in truly powerful fundraising.

So, if your organization doesn’t have a rich storytelling culture and tradition, how do you get started?

Our suggestion is that you start up your very own story bank.

Setting up a fundraising story bank

Think of your fundraising story bank as an inventory of storytellers and stories that bring your organization’s cause and mission to life. Here’s a simple seven-step approach to help you get started:

1) Decide on how many stories you’d like to collect within a certain timeframe. For example, you might decide that you want to have six stories in your bank by the end of this calendar year.

2) Next, make a list of the types of stories that might motivate your donors. So, a hospital foundation might want to tell patient stories, doctor stories, loved one of a patient stories, nurse stories, birth stories, near-death stories. Don’t forget to use donor stories! Donor testimonials are often very effective in fundraising. And, they’re certainly the most effective stories you can tell when doing bequest fundraising.

3) Now, make a list of the people who you think would make the most interesting storytellers. For each of the story types, think of a great storyteller who could really bring the story to life.

4) Your next step is to approach your storytellers and ask them to volunteer their stories. Stress to them that their stories are going to inspire people to give more money and further your organization’s mission. Many people will be reluctant to step into the spotlight. But most will agree if it’s for the good of the cause.

5) As your storytellers agree to participate, arrange to have someone interview them and keep a verbatim transcript of the interview. We always audio-record our interviews, and increasingly we’re capturing them on video as well.

6) Now that your interview is complete, select one format to begin with to write your story. We often start by writing our first story as a four-page letter. However, you can choose to write your story as a one-page newsletter article or website feature page.

7) With your story written for one specific channel, you now have the flexibility to re-craft it to fit any and all channels you use to communicate with your donors. The same story can be told in 6 or 8 different ways through 6 or 8 different channels. The degree of variety is really up to you!

So there you have it. Seven steps. Engaged donors. More revenues flowing in. Great storytelling surely is a beautiful thing!


This blog was originally published on January 28, 2019. It has been updated to reflect a changed fundraising landscape while maintaining the foundational concepts and advice as a resource for fundraisers everywhere.