Successful Storytelling: 5 Foolproof Ways to Raise Money

Draw your audience in by capturing their imagination with a compelling tale!

Draw your audience in by capturing their imagination with a compelling tale!


Content is the heart of your successful fundraising strategy.

If you don’t sell it, you won’t connect with your audience. And if you don’t do that, you haven’t got a snowball’s chance in you know where to persuade folks to give to you to further your mission.

This is where learning to become a master storyteller comes in. I know you’ve heard this before. Storytelling is the meme du jour. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pay real attention.

We’re in a content marketing zeitgeist.

NOTE: If you’re still new to “content marketing” take a brief tutorial on content marketing here to learn about the value it offers to you and your constituents.

Earlier this week I told you about one of the “Dive the Five” essentials I’ll be covering in-depth this year: integrated donor-centered fundraising and social content marketing [If you missed my article this week on Nonprofit Pro, you can get a recap of all 5 Fundamentals on their website].  I also told you that effective content marketing is all about telling a true story in which people can envision themselves being the heroes that make change happen.

Master storytelling.

It’s your most essential content marketing technique. If you want to get noticed and make a difference in our digitally revolutionized society, where word-of-mouth, social sharing and social media shape your brand’s perception, you’ve got to capture folks’ imagination.

Stories are your ultimate content marketing tool.

According to Lifehacker and The New York Times, when someone is reading a story the language center of their brain lights up. What’s especially interesting is that other parts of the brain also become active, including the areas that would light up if the reader were experiencing the event firsthand. This, folks, is why storytelling is such an important fundraising tool!

Stories enable you to connect with potential donors in a tangible, easy-to-understand manner. To activate their imagination. To draw them in so they experience your story firsthand. Your goal?

  • Get inside folks’ heads;
  • Get them on the edge of their seats;
  • Get them to jump off of their seats;
  • Get them inside your story, and
  • Make them the story’s hero!
Can you commit to doing just 5 things every time you tell a story?

Can you commit to doing just 5 things every time you tell a story?


Today, I’m giving you 5 simple steps to create a winning outline for all your storytelling.

That’s it. Pretty simple. Very important.

Your success or failure at storytelling will shape your future.

The world is filled with stories. How do you get yours noticed?

It’s all in the telling!

If you can master these few tricks, you’ll be well on your way to becoming a consummate spinner of tales that will not only “stick” with folks, but will impel them to jump into your story so they can give it a happy ending.

How to Tell a Memorable, Actionable Story: 5 Keys to Success

In a nutshell, the secret is this: The 5-step perfect story structure.

All the great novels, movies, television shows, plays and speeches use this structure to keep people engaged.


This will change your life if you commit to it. Use this for everything and anything that calls for your listener/reader/viewer to take a desired action.

1. Premise

Do you remember learning to write an essay? You had to begin with a theme statement to introduce the content that would follow. The same holds true for the perfect story. Begin with a premise introduction. Tell us where and when the action takes place. Introduce main characters. Briefly describe their background. Your premise sets up the scene to follow in the imagination of your audience, enabling them to see a mental movie while you tell a story.

EXAMPLE: I recently helped the Grameen Foundation revise their year-end nonprofit appeal letter. Here’s how they laid out the premise:

The look on Justine Kamuron’s face tells a story.

Though she’s resilient, her life has been tough.

She can’t read or write.

Her parents wouldn’t let her go to school.

She got married at just 18.

She and her husband spent long, exhausting days working their farmland and caring for their seven children – still not earning enough to make ends meet.

2. Conflict

Once the premise has been described, it’s time to introduce the conflict. These are obstacles which must be overcome, and they’re necessary to provoke the curiosity of your audience. Conflict creates questions in people’s minds, such as, “What will the character do next? How will these struggles be resolved?”

EXAMPLE: The letter I described above went on to lay out some of Justine’s struggles in greater detail:

Justine woke up early, spent most of her day under the hot, equatorial sun, tending to her crops or milking her cow, and came home late. But despite the hard work she put in day in and day out, her farm often didn’t do well.

A bacterial disease that’s common in her area of the country caused her banana trees to wilt, and she didn’t know how to fix things. Sometimes, swindlers sold her fake seeds that didn’t yield any crop at all.

Doesn’t that make you want to hear more of the story? Conflict makes folks curious to learn what happens next, and excited to find out whether there could be a happy resolution.

3. Conflict escalation

Once a conflict is introduced, you want to get your audience beyond curiosity – to the point of needing to know the outcome. This requires you to escalate the conflict and increase the tension in the story until it reaches a climax.

In other words, you allow your audience to suffer a little with the character. To feel their pain and frustration. When our empathy is triggered, we become receptive to whatever comes next. Because ending their suffering ends our own.

EXAMPLE: The folks at the Grameen Foundation laid on a few more hurdles to be overcome:

Unpredictable weather.

Cattle diseases.

Little to no education.

Limited opportunities for daughters to climb out of poverty.

They drew a portrait of Justine’s life that made the reader eager to learn if there could be a resolution.


Many years ago, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music where I worked needed a new boiler. I wrote a grant proposal so we could buy one. Sounds dry as dust, but I told a story. A story about real people. You see, the violinists need to have warm, supple fingers in order to expertly bow their instruments. Without a working boiler, we had no hot water. So they couldn’t go run their hands under the sink before a performance. Their stiffness made their playing stiff. They were paying thousands of dollars to train to become the musicians of tomorrow, yet they were swaddled in mittens while attempting to play sensitive instruments. Can you imagine how that might feel? Apparently the foundation to which we applied could – we got $50,000!

4. Climax

This is the point at which the story could go either way. The obstacle can be overcome, or the main character can fall into the abyss. A climax scene is the most exciting and critical part of the story because it shows how a conflict is finally resolved. Show the climax scene in detail so your audience can clearly see it in their imagination and feel it in their empathic brain.

EXAMPLE: Instead of just saying that the Grameen Foundation trains “Knowledge Workers” to help educate people like Justine, they wrote:

The turning point was when her neighbor, Mrs. Chebet, became trained as a Grameen Foundation Community Knowledge Worker.

Mrs. Chebet was given a smart phone loaded with a database of information on the region’s weather, good farming practices, how to treat crop and cattle diseases, and where to get the best seeds at market prices.

She told Justine how to prepare for bad weather, collect rainwater for irrigation, and stop the bacterial wilt that was affecting her banana trees. She also told her where to buy the best seeds, so Justine would no longer have to worry about the fake seeds being sold at market.

5. Resolution

The goal of every story is to illustrate a point. The conclusion has to clarify that point for the audience in such a way that they’ll want to act. People remember what they hear last, and you want them to carry that with them so they don’t forget.

EXAMPLE: In the Grameen Foundation story we’ve been following the point is that Justine’s destiny and life trajectory could be changed – if it could be made to intersect with a person who would educate her and give her the necessary tools to overcome the obstacles in her path. But “Knowledge Workers” don’t just fall out of trees. And that’s where the reader comes in. With their philanthropic gift, they can fund a knowledge worker and change a woman’s life. And the life of her family. And her village. Hence the compelling call to action:

You can open the door to a transformed life right now — one gift touches many people.

Storytelling heart in book

Most people want to make our world a better and more caring place.


Remember that storytelling is something people naturally gravitate to. We’re wired that way. If it’s your job to build a bridge between the world’s most pressing problems and the people who want to solve them, storytelling should become your best friend.

Telling a compelling story designed to influence people to do something positive they’re predisposed to do – something that matches their values and makes them feel good – is a fine thing. Don’t you agree?

For more on storytelling…

Don’t miss the Virtual Storytelling Nonprofit Conference hosted by my friend and colleague Vanessa Chase Lockshin.  There are still two more days of this FREE 3-day conference, and each is jam-packed with webinars from a host of different experts with different perspectives on storytelling. I’m offering a webinar on Friday at 10:30 P.S.T. You can learn more and register for free here.

Opt In Image
Get Clairification via email and receive free fundraising and nonprofit marketing coaching you can use!

As an added BONUS, you’ll get my popular “Donor Thank Calls E-Book + Script” for free.

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. Claire, thank you for a great blog post! I often skim career-related blog posts, but your storytelling pulled me in until the very end! That alone speaks to the power of story.

Speak Your Mind


CommentLuv badge