4 Secrets to Inspiring Philanthropy through Storytelling

People. Purpose. Passion. Plan

People. Purpose. Passion. Plan

Philanthropy; Not Fundraising

People. Purpose. Passion. Plan.  Four “P”s in a row. I know… you’re thinking, cute. Yawn. But wait. Before your eyes glaze over, stop a moment and think about these 4 “P”s.

They’re  central to your success in inspiring philanthropy.  Because even though I’ve written, and truly believe, that there are fundamental ways fundraising has changed significantly over the past five years, there are also things that haven’t changed at all. You simply must translate these fundamentals to the digital world:

  1. People love a good story.
  2. One with a purpose. 
  3. One told with passion. 
  4. One that has an order or plan. 

It’s human nature to love to listen to – and tell – a story.  So let’s figure out how to make that happen for your organization – and for your donors.

Let me begin with a story I heard on the radio last week.  I was driving along in my car with the radio tuned to NPR.  Suddenly my attention was riveted by a local community activist recounting a personal story:

I noticed that this man who usually shows up at the coffee shop hadn’t been in for awhile. So I went to his apartment to see what was up.  I found him, weak and sick, immobilized in his bed.  There was a plastic bucket next to where he lay, and it had two cardboard boxes in it.  I looked inside, and there was a frozen block of some sort of meat. It was thawing. I couldn’t even tell what it was. He said the place that used to deliver meals had cutbacks and could no longer bring hot food every day.  On the week-ends, he got this. He had no stove or microwave; even if he had he probably couldn’t have gotten up to use them. I was horrified!

Whew!  I must confess that I’d read about this activist in the news, and had never particularly liked her. I was predisposed not to pay attention, but… this story got to me. It reached out and had me wanting to donate to help this man and others like him. It wasn’t about her. Or the organization. It was about the story, and giving it a better ending.

This is important! By speaking passionately about values and projects that are vital to you and your organization, you gain more than a few new admirers; you’ll inspire others to take action and support causes they believe in. In my last post I wrote about knowing your purpose and enacting it with passion.  Today I’d like to talk about narrating that purpose with the same degree of purpose and zeal.

I’m inspired to do so by a recent post on Future Fundraising Now, Pixar’s 22 rules of fundraising, by guest blogger Andrew Rogers.  He takes another post, 22 Rules of Storytelling by Pixar story artist Emma Coates, and picks out the rules he finds particularly adaptable for fundraisers.  I encourage you to read his picks as well as the full storytelling post.  Here, I’d like to add to Andrew’s picks:

Rule 4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

This is the essence of storytelling.  Planful. Beginning. Middle. End.  It’s got to be going from here to there; to have some meat and drama.  There has to be a challenge to overcome; a peril; a potentially missed opportunity.  Because of that… your donor can come in and be the hero.  Your job is to facilitate this.  Help your donor be the hero.

Rule 12: Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.

We often get stuck in the way we think about our organization.  We write the same thing, over and over and over again.  We do it because it worked in the past.  But the past is neither the present nor the future.  We risk boring people.  Worse, we risk missing the hidden – and often even more compelling – stories going on under our very noses. Get out in the field sometimes.  Ask your program staff for stories.  Ask your donors. Inspire yourself by what’s inspiring others. You’ll get much closer to writing a story that connects with your constituents if you get out of your own head now and again.

Rule 14: Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.

This rule speaks to the passion with which you must convey your story. If you’re not a passionate writer, don’t expect me to be a passionate reader.  Every time you sit down to write, take a few moments to think about why this particular subject is calling to you. For example, I’m writing today’s post because I have a couple of current clients who I’m trying to help tell their story more effectively.  It hurts me to not see their stories jump off the page when I know what they are contributing to the world. I believe with every fiber in me that they can do better.  And so can you. And if you do, people will be inspired to become characters in your story.

Rule 15: If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.

This rule also speaks to passion.  Put yourself in your character’s shoes.  Feel the injustice of their situation.  The limited options.  The sadness.  The hopelessness. Make us feel it too.

Rule 22: You gotta identify with your situation/characters; can’t just write ‘cool’.

This rule is similar to #15. Once again, you’ve got to write from the inside/out; not outside/in.  Writing to persuade should not be dry and reportorial. You want feelings and emotions.  You want people to be able to visualize what you’re writing about.  Let the subject get under your skin; then write with skin in the game.

People remember stories.   We’re all story people. Think about it.  What are the books, movies and television shows you most remember?  Chances are they had compelling narratives. (Okay, I know, Seinfeld was about “nothing”; you cared about the characters however.  And, when you really think about it, each show had a plot you could follow and become deeply engaged with).

At the end of the day the heart of your communications strategy – your purpose in writing – must be to persuade us that if your organization, and the donor, doesn’t help, something untenable will happen to your main character.  The character may be a person, an animal, a place or a principle.  Whatever it is, don’t let it suffer. Don’t let it wither. Don’t let it die.

Show us how to prevent the unhappy ending.

Tell us about a time that a story won you over.

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About Claire

I’m Claire and I want to help you raise more money, reach more people and build long-lasting relationships with your supporters. Take a look in the archives.


  1. Excellent advice Claire! I find that telling the stories of some of our young people whose lives have been changed through participation in out “Youth Street” initiative makes a real difference in the way prospective donors respond to us.
    Contributing to the development of a building is not very exciting to most. Contributing to changing lives for the better … that’s what motivates people to give.
    Jack Narvel recently posted…I Survived The 100 Hole Golf MarathonMy Profile

    • Whenever we can turn something into a story with real characters we come to care about, the more successful we’ll be in engaging folks who want to assure a happy ending. Thanks!


  1. […] Stories are what work in fundraising appeals. They’re what work in annual reports and newsletters.  And they’re also what work in social media.  You understand this, so your social media always tells your overarching story.  It describes why you exist It narrates the central challenge you seek to overcome. It explains your protagonists (usually the people you serve, or the animals you help, or the environment you’re trying to rescue).  You tell personal stories within your overarching story. You put your prospective donors into the stories and show them how they can provide the happy ending. […]

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