4 min read

Storytelling is essential for good fundraising. Here’s why it matters and how to do it well. The first in a three-part series.

To be human is to be a storytelling animal. From Gilgamesh to Game of Thrones, humans have turned to them for pleasure and solace, insight and wisdom. Narrative is, moreover, “the default mode of human cognition”: We use stories to organize our lives and identities, as well as to give coherence to our understanding of people and problems. Stories foster social cooperation and impart social norms.

They are also what TedX speakers and digital marketing firms like to call “sticky”—that is, memorable in a way that mere information is not—because they engage us not just intellectually but also imaginatively and emotionally. You might not remember the first thing about what your pastor or professor taught last month, but you’ll remember the bit about the unlikely mishap involving the neighbor’s dog and the Sunday roast.

For all these reasons, storytelling is to fundraising as butter is to cooking: what Anthony Bourdain once called “the first and last thing in every pan.” The base ingredient and finishing touch, binding agent and sauce thickener. Skip it—and produce thin, unmemorable, unaffecting gruel—at your peril.

We already know all this, intuitively if not actively. Even so, there’s a decent chance that you’re still not relying enough on the power of storytelling to drive your fundraising—from direct mail and personal emails to prospectuses, foundation proposals, and all the rest.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll dive into some of the types of stories that drive successful fundraising, as well as some writing guidelines to make your stories snap. Today I want to focus on something more elemental—the fairytale—and how its basic narrative structure ought to inform all your writing.

Pattern of Fairytales

Everyone knows how the standard fairytale begins and ends, from once upon a time all the way to and they all lived happily ever after. Call those two ingredients “context” (the setting) and “resolution.” In the middle, a problem arises (one day a dragon…) and portends consequences that demand a solution (…laid waste to the villages).

The key point is that this pattern isn’t simply narrative convention but rather reflects an archetypal pattern of human perception and experience: into life (context) comes a disruption (problem) which matters (consequences) and must be solved (resolution). Thus this pattern, as Kate Turabian’s Manual for Writers points out, is how just about any writer worth her salt seeks to persuade a reader of the importance of her work. Let’s whip up some (fictional) examples:

  • In a policy proposal: “America has long prided itself on being a land of opportunity for its robust, active citizens [context]. Yet today, millions of Americans fall victim to morbid obesity and heart disease, brought about by a steady diet of corn syrup and table salt [problem]. Unchecked, this trend imperils workforce productivity, overburdens the already failing healthcare system, and undermines national vitality [consequences]. By shifting our massive corn subsidies over to cauliflower, sweet potatoes, and chard, we can incentivize healthy eating and effectively combat this national disaster [resolution].”
  • In a fundraising appeal: “Over the past few decades, an international effort to combat river blindness through modern science has relieved millions from this painful and debilitating infection [context]. However, in sub-Saharan Africa, river blindness still affects 20 million men, women, and children [problem]. These poor souls will not only suffer painful deterioration of skin and vision, but also will inadvertently spread the disease to others in their communities [consequences]. By supporting our courageous team of doctors, nurses, and pharmaceutical specialists on the ground in Angola today, you’ll help bring lifesaving medication and support to stricken communities and help us eradicate this terrible disease once and for all! [resolution]”
  • In pitching a product: “Everyone loves going to the beach [context], but no one loves returning home in swim-shorts and car full of sand [problem]. This mess damages not only personal comfort but also carpet, upholstery, and more [consequences]. No longer! With our Portable Purifying Pulverizer, you can gently but firmly blast sand from every surface and cranny of persons and belongings before the drive home! [resolution]”
  • In journalism or academic research: “Historians generally assume that hot air balloons were a waste of time and money [context]. New perspectives, however, have suggested that they made indispensable contributions to geography, reconnaissance, and weekend fun all over the world [problem (disrupting the status quo)]. In continuing to dismiss hot air balloons, we risk not only misevaluating history, but also depriving ourselves of a vital mode of natural investigation and sight-seeing [consequences]. High Times in a Balloon uncovers the forgotten history and yet-to-be-imagined possibilities of an unparalleled form of airborne travel. [resolution]”

The particulars are different, but the sequences are the same: kingdom, dragon, consequences, knight. Establish the situation, introduce the disruption, emphasize the significance, provide the resolution—in that order.

If you can’t easily spot these fairy tale ingredients in your writing, chances are your reader won’t intuit them either. If the parts are missing or out of order, your reader is unlikely to feel compelled by what you’re presenting; you haven’t engaged their fundamental instinct and appetite for narrative. The all-important fundraising question of why your plea matters, why your audience should act—by first caring about and then supporting your mission/project/proposal—will remain unclear.

So next time you are writing or revising a fundraising document, remember the fairy tale. What’s the kingdom? Whence cometh the dragon? What are the consequences? How will the knight prevail?

Lead with the story—that’s where the gold lies.       

This is the first in a three-part series. Read the second part on the importance of storytelling here and the third part here.


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