It may surprise you, but there are professionals in the charitable sector who think using a storytelling approach in fundraising is a bunch of gobbledygook.

Are you clutching your pearls?

That was my reaction, too. A few years back someone from an unnamed charity told me that they don’t use stories because they didn’t want to manipulate their donors.

They were implying that using an emotional, compelling story in fundraising materials was somehow misleading, or even deceitful.

I was shocked. OF COURSE you should use stories to inspire donors to give! But then I realized that while I knew intuitively why storytelling is important, I didn’t actually know a lot about the science behind it. So I dug into some of the research, and since it’s actually pretty cool, I thought I’d pass it along in case you have any “storytelling skeptics” of your own.

There’s quite a lot of research on the subject, but today I want to tell you about Dr. Paul Zak.

Paul Zak and The Million Dollar Baby

Dr. Zak decided to study the neurobiology behind storytelling after watching Million Dollar Baby on a flight. He found himself so overcome with emotion at the end of the movie that he actually started sobbing in his seat. After he had time to process his reaction, he was curious what was actually happening in his brain as he watched the show. How could this movie—a simple story about people he didn’t even know—evoke such a response?

As part of his study, Dr. Zak showed this video to hundreds of people, and closely monitored their brain activity as they watched the story. He also took their blood before and after they watched the video.

What he discovered is that certain stories (ones that are highly engaging and include the key elements of a good story) can evoke powerful responses associated with two specific neurochemicals—cortisol and oxytocin.

The Role of Hormones

In comparing the participants’ blood samples before and after the video, Dr. Zak observed an increase in the levels of two hormones: cortisol and oxytocin.

The more distressed the participants were feeling, the higher the level of cortisol in their blood. Cortisol is the chemical responsible for focusing our attention on something. So the more distressed the viewer was, the more apt they were to keep their focus and attention on the video.

Oxytocin is the chemical associated with care, connection and empathy…you might know it as “the love hormone.” The more empathetic the participants were feeling, the more oxytocin was released in their blood.

So What Does This Mean For Fundraising?

After participants watched the video, they were asked to donate to a charity that helps sick kids. Here comes the cool part. Dr. Zak’s team found that the amount each participant donated to charity was actually correlated to the levels of oxytocin in their blood.

Oxytocin levels could actually predict how much money that person donated to the charity.

Dr. Zak concludes, “Stories are powerful because they transport us into other people’s worlds and in doing that they change how our brains work, and potentially change our brain’s chemistry.”


Pretty neat, huh?

This is just a drop in the bucket when it comes to the science behind storytelling. If you want to read more about the power of stories, I urge you to check out some blog posts from Good Works’ storyteller extraordinaire, Fraser Green (I like this one and this one!)