People have been sharing stories since before they had words to tell them. Today, it remains one of the main ways we communicate. Whether it’s as formal as journalism or novels, or as casual as chatting with friends, the tales we tell help construct our world and our world view.
Some stories, however, have greater staying power. When it comes to telling the story of your organization or cause, you want to catch people’s attention in a way that inspires them to act, as well as in a way that makes them remember you in the future. Be deliberate in your storytelling.
For the best results, you need to be mindful of the various elements of your story and how they come together.
The Building Blocks
Most good stories have at least one character. Sometimes plot is driven more by that character’s development than any sense of dramatic action. While you want to make sure your organization’s action is driving the plot of your story, don’t forget to spend time with the characters who create and are helped by that action.
There are three characters, or three types of characters, in this story.
Character #1 is your organization. Even though you’re a collective of people, your group functions as one entity. You have common goals and values that help define your organization and the work you do. Your group has a unique flavor to it—a personality, if you will. Make sure your organization’s personality shines in your story, as people connect with shared values and like-minded people. Highlight the actions you’ve taken and those you plan to take to continue the story, but don’t make it all about you at the expense of the other people involved.
Character #2 is your recipient. It might be helpful to have a few individuals’ stories here. People have a hard time connecting with large numbers of people, and while the members of your organization function as one entity, your recipients can all too easily become statistics. Keep these people feeling like individuals in order to best communicate the emotional experience and importance of your work.
Character #3 is your donor. Prospective donors might not have contributed yet, but they have a lot of power in your story and can help determine your success. Make them feel like they’re a part of your story with specific impacts, not as a feel-good move, but because they actually are. By detailing what specific benefits could arise from their contribution, you offer them an entrance point to becoming part of your story, a bit like a choose your own adventure book. They can choose to act and become part of the narrative, or they can choose not to. You know which choice to encourage.
Every story happens somewhere, and yours takes place both where the project is as well as where the donors are. While you don’t necessarily have to write both into your narrative, they can help you move the story in different directions. Emphasizing place differently depending on your cause and donor base can actually change the path of the story itself.
The most important setting in your narrative is the location of your recipient. This is probably the same as your organization’s location unless you’re fundraising for a distant project or a national cause. Just as the characters in your story should be relatable, the setting should feel concrete.
In Penn State’s Birding Cup fundraiser, the funds specifically benefit Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center. The description of the annual fundraising tournament lists several of the surrounding counties and communities that benefit from the center’s programming, as well as describing different levels of competition based on region and range. They also explain what part of the center will be receiving funds from this year’s competition; in this case, the raptor enclosures need remodeling and are shown next to a map of the center.
The setting almost is a character in this case. Whether you have humans, animals, or an organization as the characters benefiting from your efforts, the location can be just as vital for a specific project and should be valued accordingly in your storytelling.
One other factor to note in Penn State’s case is the location of its donor base. Those who physically participate in the tournament are probably locals. This is their home, so they have a vested interest in the success of the region. Similarly, many of the donors list central Pennsylvania cities as their homes. Even if they aren’t birders actively participating in the event, they are drawn in by the locality. How, then, do we explain those donors who listed cities as far as Texas, California, and Hawaii? They might have once lived near Penn State, but they might have been drawn in through other means.
While local donors are easier to reach, don’t discount more distant people. Alumni, former community members, friends, and family may be spread out, but the region your fundraising will benefit was once very important to them and probably still is. Bring them back to this space through your marketing and storytelling and remind them of the value they gained from it. They don’t have to be physically in your location to be connected to it.
It can be hard to name conflict, but the tension that it brings drives your narrative. Traditional narrative conflicts include man vs. man, man vs. nature, man vs. society, and others, although not all conflicts or problems fit into these categories. You don’t need to have a villain in your story and you don’t need to classify your conflict, but you do need obstacles in order to create the stakes that will drive people to donate.
What is the conflict your organization faces? What problem are you trying to solve? Your fundraising might be a good solution, but you need to make it clear that a solution is in fact needed. Maybe you’re working toward new lab equipment, repairs to a building damaged in a storm, or transportation to an important event. Maybe you’re working with a more widespread or abstract problem, like health or hunger.
Whatever your obstacle and goal may be, name them and describe how you will conquer them. Include enough tension to demonstrate need, but enough optimism to keep things from feeling futile.
Also known as a plot mountain or Freytag’s pyramid, this is the basic structure you probably learned about in a high school English class. It consists of the exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement.
When telling your story, frame your organization as poised at the climax, ready to take action. You’re so close to solving your conflict—you just need that little extra push! This has the effect of creating momentum, while also maintaining a sense of urgency. The story isn’t finished yet, and it’s up to the donors to contribute to the most exciting moment of action.
This could be a good place to reference previous successes and completed stories if you have projects that are episodic in nature. You’ll get to showcase a history of your organization’s accomplishments while reminding people that your work is not done. Balance the struggle with the success to keep people involved and emotionally invested.
Texas State University’s fundraiser for radiocarbon dating for the Eagle Cave archaeological site told a story that positioned the team at a critical juncture in their narrative. Exposition: they provide context about their work, progress, and process, and why it is historically important. Rising action: their description details a project with three years’ momentum and no sign of slowing when it comes to having material to analyze, but there is not enough funding to process that material. The samples they have collected are meticulously catalogued and ready to be dated as soon as they can secure the funds to do so. Climax: their goal is funded and they can move forward with the next phase of radiocarbon dating.
Because they divided the project into phases, there is a goal against which to measure their success. They’re looking to fund a defined section of a larger project with limits that make a massive effort seem more achievable. Because they have a collection of samples already prepared, they can look forward to the next phase as well, and do so by listing it as a stretch goal should they meet and exceed their original. They are at the precipice for this piece, but do not close the door on possible future fundraising for this project. Still, they make sure to follow through to the conclusion of the episode by sharing updates on their research rather than leaving their donors hanging.
If you’re unsure of how to frame the plot of your narrative, there are a number of tried and true plot archetypes that tend to work well in fundraising scenarios. One of these models, if it fits your organization or an individual recipient’s story, can be a nice base from which to build.
In today’s fast-paced, media-heavy world, there are a lot of things to pay attention to and not necessarily a lot of time to devote to any one thing. Flash prose, which generally tells a complete story in 500-1500 words, is rapidly growing in popularity for just this reason. It requires a relatively small attention span and very little time to read.
The big takeaway from these little stories is to keep things concise and interesting. Tell as much of your story as you can as briefly as you can to grab people’s attention and keep them coming back for more information. You can tell multiple stories from different individuals, but make sure that they’re focused and work well together to strengthen your broader narrative.