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cartoon of book with person and dollar sign on pages. The link between storytelling and relationships

What do relationships have to do with storytelling?

As many of you know, we’re in the process of developing the next iteration of our platform. Each month, our entire team comes together for two days of collaboration around a specific element of the overall process (story curation, donating, sharing, competing, engaging, etc.). We bring in guests, including clients and industry experts, to articulate overall challenges and what features would make their day-to-day lives easier. We’ve invited leadership from disruptive companies to join us on-site to challenge us to look at an opportunity through myriad lenses.

We’ve also been fortunate enough to sit down and learn from incredible thought leaders, like Jeni Cross, a Community Sociologist and Associate Professor of Sociology at Colorado State University, who introduced our team to the PERMA model.

The PERMA model was designed by Martin Seligman, one of the founding fathers of positive psychology, and it outlines 5 components of happiness.

P – Positive Emotions
E – Engagement
R – Relationships
M – Meaning
A – Achievement

When these elements are met, when we’re learning, feel as though we’re making a difference, have social connections, are working towards a goal, and can focus on the positive, we are happy. The more of these factors we can check off, the better!

We also know that we feel good when we give.

In a study conducted by researches at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, brain activity was observed in a group of men and women that were given $128 and asked to gift it to a charity or keep it. For those that gave the money away, the same areas of the brain were active that are engaged when we’re eating, having sex, and forming social bonds.  Studies have also linked giving to the physiological reduction of blood pressure, making giving good for our health!

In short, not only does giving feel good, it IS good!

cartoon of heart

These warm-and-fuzzies are great, but how do we convince someone to get involved so that they reap be benefits of giving?

The answer is: we do it through fascinating storytelling that build relationships. And where better to learn than from one of the greats?

Lindsay Doran is a film producer that has had her hands in a slew of household favorites: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, This Is Spinal Tap, Ghost, The Naked Gun, Tomorrow Never Dies, and The World Is Not Enough, to name a few. She knows how to tell a story! She is also keenly aware of Seligman’s PERMA model and how it can be used to enchant an audience.

If you have the opportunity, watch her TED talk Saving the World Vs Kissing the Girl.

When it comes to the big blockbuster storylines we often think of romantic comedies and action flicks. The weekend box office loves to pit the likes of Mission Impossible: Fallout against Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again and see who comes out the victor….action and achievement or the tug of the heart.

What’s particularly interesting is that many of the movies and storytelling examples that we think end with a huge accomplishment are actually about relationships.

Take a moment and think: how did Jaws end? Did The Big Lebowski fade out after an epic bowling match? Did Dirty Dancing start the credits after that incredible lift?

Cartoon of shark and the words "spoiler alert"

Jaws didn’t end with a snarled “Smile you son of a bitch!” and a shower of sharkey remnants, but with Brody and Hooper swimming back to shore chatting on a glorified kickboard. Despite everyone talking about it, we actually never see the action of The Dude competing against Jesus in the semifinals in The Big Lebowski. And even though we all remember the climactic lift, afterward the focus is on Johnny, Baby, and her dad having a heart-to-heart before the credits roll.

These stories are so iconic, not because of the great accomplishments that our heroes achieve, but because of the relationships that are forged along the way.

When it all boils down, it doesn’t matter if your audience is predominantly male or female, old or young, whether you’re captivating the masses in Hollywood or reaching a niche audience for a crowdfunding opportunity. At its foundation, your story should depict a relationship.

cartoon of sharking hands

The first step in developing a relational story is to create a character.

For some stories, this is easy. Maybe you have a person who has had a transformative experience and they’re trying to bring support or resources to others. You might be raising funds for a memorial scholarship and want to continue the legacy of the person who has passed. For other stories, this is really tricky!

How do you create a character to raise funds for seats in a theater or to combat a goliath problem like food insecurity or safety? You give it a singular voice.

Why a singular voice when a problem like hunger or assault impacts so many? Won’t people feel more motivated to act when they know that their help will be felt by many as opposed to only one?


Don’t believe me? We’re going to run a quick experiment.

I want you to visualize an amount of money equal to $1. Picture it in your mind.

**Pause until you’ve imagined it**

Were you thinking about a dollar bill, 4 quarters, 10 dimes, or 100 pennies? Most people think of the single dollar bill.  It’s easier for us to visualize, understand, and connect with a singular object than many.

We grow numb when we look at large numbers and don’t think our contribution will make a dent in the problem. It’s easy to become apathetic and decide inaction is the same as (what we believe to be) ineffective or insufficient action, and we do nothing.

Make the problem out to be too big and you’ll lose your audience to the inaction of the overwhelmed.

That’s why it’s important to tell the story from a single character (with a face and a name) with a single voice (not a group, whole club, or a team).

cartoon of person and speech bubble

Now that you have a character, it’s time to choose a storyline.

Is this person on a quest to get to something special? Is there a monster that they’re trying to overcome? Did this person go through a life transformation? Is there an immediate crisis? These are some of the most time-tested storylines that your character can follow.

If your storyline starts drifting towards referencing an achievement or accomplishment, that’s okay! We see that in all of the stories we referenced earlier: the dangerous shark was thwarted, bowling balls rolled, and people danced, but these adventures were wrapped around a relationship.

Here are a couple real-life examples we’ve seen in the past:

  • When raising funds for theater seats, the story could be told from the perspective of a student who struggled finding their voice until they were able to use it on stage. Their story could also be framed by showing that the theater department is what allowed this person to find their tribe and thrive at the school.
  • If talking about food insecurity, the story can be told by someone who experienced the anxiety, isolation, loneliness, etc. that can come with the problem of not having enough to eat or to be able to join in the social aspect of having meals with others. The next step in this narrative is showing how that problem was relieved through a sponsored meal plan or access to a pantry.
  • To raise funds to support advocacy groups, awareness, and safety officers, you can tell the story from the voice of someone for whom the current system wasn’t enough. How have they been impacted? How have they been affected by the counselors, advocates, and support groups that are available?

Remember, we see deep relationships with friends, colleagues, and family members told in stories as often as we do romances. It’s the support that you want to illustrate.

cartoon of group of people

The final step for a resonant story is to tell your audience how that person, or someone like them, will benefit from support.

Be specific.

Tell people what a gift of $25, $50, or $100 can do to make an impact. Tell them exactly where to click to donate and how to share your story. Be clear about your plan for using the gifts and provide updates to your supporters as milestones are reached and funds are spent.

Thank your donors lavishly and keep them up to date on the project; they want to hear that there was a happy ending!

There are some stories that stand the test of time while others are easily forgotten.  In a veritable flurry of digital noise, use your authentic, personal, relatable stories to rise above the din so that you can bring your passion, compassion, and excitement to a world that needs some more happiness.

Interested in learning more about our new functionality and features? Check out Story Generation to see them in action and learn more about the connection between relationships and storytelling.

Katie Haystead

Katie Haystead

Senior Vice President, Partnerships

With over a decade of experience working with K12 schools and higher education institutions’ fundraising efforts, Katie Haystead now oversees the partnerships team at Community Funded. Her passion for partner success and satisfaction aligns with Community Funded’s priorities and Katie’s unique background is well suited to manage the day to day operations of our partnerships team as well as new market acquisition.

Prior to joining the team at Community Funded, Katie served many roles within the Fundraising Division at Ruffalo Noel Levitz. Her experience ranges from working onsite and remotely with clients executing phonathon programs, developing annual giving strategies, onsite consultations and also developing multichannel strategies allowing for strong synergy between annual giving channels and creating strong major and planned gift pipelines.

Katie is based in Metro Detroit and is a graduate of Central Michigan University, where she worked for the phonathon for 3 years while working towards her History Major.

Kim Jennings

Kim Jennings

Senior Generosity Strategist, Generis

Kim Jennings, CFRE is a skilled fundraising leader who believes in the power of Christian education to raise up thoughtful, strong, committed leaders who can make our world a better place for all.

Kim Jennings

Todd Turner

Director of Digital Strategies, Generis

In addition to his 11 years overseeing Chuck Swindoll’s Insight Living Ministries communications department, Todd Turner has worked as a digital strategist for faith based organizations across the globe..

Kim Jennings

Jennifer Perrow

Senior Generosity Strategist, Generis

Jennifer is a skilled fundraising and communications professional who helps ministries articulate vision, communicate mission, and raise abundant funds to advance Kingdom priorities.