Storytelling: Not a One-Size-Fits-All Solution
A recent blog, “How to Create Stories That Boost Nonprofit Fundraising and Engagement,” described the many positives associated with communicating through stories. As the author writes in the blog, “Our brains are wired for stories.” That’s because during the thousands of generations that our brains evolved on the African Savanna, the key to survival was sociability; how well you got along with the 15 or so people who made up your primary group.
Prior to the advent of written language, being both a good purveyor as well as a good receiver of stories afforded our ancestors with a distinct advantage in getting along with their peers. That advantage could mean survival. Story hearing and telling became hard-wired.
So deep does the wiring for processing narratives go that neurobiology has established that imagined experiences accessed via stories are processed by the same neural pathways as are actual experiences. That is what is responsible for the ability of a nonprofit’s copywriter to produce an emotional response in a reader that leads them to making a donation of some kind. Psychologists would say that the reader experiences the pain of the subject of the narrative and attempts to lessen their own pain through the act of donating.
Stories have become the go-to vehicle to motivate donors in the nonprofit sector for a long time. Except new research tells us that as good a strategy as storytelling is, perhaps it’s not always the best way to go.
Imagine the following two pitches for a hypothetical nonprofit that has a mission of addressing climate change:
Example 1: "Climate change will affect everyone. But the people most affected by climate change today are those who live in poverty. One such family is the Ford family from de Jean Charles Island on the Louisiana coast. Benjamin Ford is a fifth-generation islander. His two sons grew up like he did, fishing and playing baseball. It was a close-knit community where everyone looked out for one another. Floods from hurricanes have made the island unlivable. Benjamin’s garden is dead, killed by saltwater. His house was condemned because of black mold. He had no choice but to move his two sons and his wife into government-subsidized housing 30 miles inland. He is ashamed to be called a “climate refugee.” We can stop this from happening to people like Benjamin. You can make a difference — support the Climate Awareness Action Committee today."
Example 2: "Climate change will affect everyone. Consider the following five facts:
- Atmospheric CO2 is at the highest it has been in 15 million years.
- 75% of California is in a severe drought and will run out of water in less than 2 years.
- Ice in the Arctic is melting at breakneck speed, something we have not seen during the history of mankind.
- 150 to 200 species of plants, insects, birds and mammals become extinct every 24 hours. This is nearly 1,000 times the 'natural' rate.
- There are 400,000 deaths each year due to hunger and communicable diseases aggravated by climate change.
You can make a difference — support the Climate Awareness Action Committee today."
Which pitch do you think would be most effective in motivating readers to donate? Research has shown that, sometimes, stories don’t persuade people more than just facts alone. In order to explain why, researchers Derek Rucker and Rebecca Krause at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University designed a series of experiments.
They found that the persuasiveness of narratives depends on whether the argument being made was strong or weak. If you have a powerful case that can be made, you may be better off presenting the straight facts — like in the list above describing the effects of climate change. On the other hand, when your facts are less strong, stories can dramatically increase the reader’s receptiveness.
The reason is that narratives take a lot of the reader’s attention. Sometimes that’s good. However, the “but” is that following a story can diminish the reader’s ability to process facts.
A caveat in all of this is that Rucker and Krause were looking at people’s attitudes toward products (a fictional cellphone and a flu medication), not nonprofit missions. And they didn’t measure actual purchasing, which might be a close analogue of making a donation.
Still, this research should make us reconsider if storytelling should always be our standard operating procedure when communicating about our missions. Dr. Rucker explains, “Stories can have either positive or negative consequences for the storyteller. If the storyteller is trying to actively persuade an audience, and the facts are weak, the story can obscure those and increase persuasion. But the story can backfire when you have strong facts.”
And fortunately, we have a great way to test our assumptions about the relative strength of going with a narrative or “just the facts.” When in doubt, A/B testing will tell us everything we need to know. End of story.
Otis Fulton, Ph.D., spent most of his career in the education industry, working at the psychometric research and development firm MetaMetrics Inc., Pearson Education and others. Since 2013, he has focused on the nonprofit sector, applying psychology to fundraising and donor behavior at Turnkey. He is the co-author of the 2017 book, ”Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising,” and the 2023 book, "Social Fundraising: Mining the New Peer-to-Peer Landscape," and is a frequent speaker at national nonprofit conferences. With Katrina VanHuss, he co-authors a blog at NonProfit PRO, “Peeling the Onion,” on the intersection of psychology and philanthropy.
Otis is a much sought-after copywriter for nonprofit fundraising messages. He has written campaigns for UNICEF, St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, March of Dimes, Susan G. Komen, the USO and dozens of other organizations. He has a Ph.D. in social psychology from Virginia Commonwealth University and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Virginia, where he also played on UVA’s first ACC champion basketball team.
Katrina VanHuss has helped national nonprofits raise funds and friends since 1989 when she founded Turnkey. Her client’s successes and her dedication to research have made her a sought-after speaker, presenting at national conferences for Blackbaud, Peer to Peer Professional Forum, Nonprofit PRO, The Need Help Foundation and her clients’ national meetings. The firm’s work is underpinned by the study and application of behavioral economics and social psychology. Turnkey provides project engagements, coaching, counsel and staffing to nonprofits seeking to improve revenue or create new revenue. Her work extends into organizational alignment efforts and executive coaching.
Katrina regularly shares her wit and business experiences on her and Otis Fulton's NonProfit PRO blog “Peeling the Onion.” She and Otis are also co-authors of the books, "Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising" and "Social Fundraising: Mining the New Peer-to-Peer Landscape." When not writing or researching, Katrina likes to make things — furniture from reclaimed wood, new gardens, food with no recipe. Katrina’s favorite Saturday is spent cleaning out the garage, mowing the grass, making something new, all while listening to loud music by now-deceased black women, throwing in a few sets on the weight bench off and on, then collapsing on the couch with her husband Otis to gang-watch new Netflix series whilst drinking sauvignon blanc.
Katrina grew up on a Virginia beef cattle and tobacco farm with her three brothers. She is accordingly skilled in hand to hand combat and witty repartee — skills gained at the expense of her brothers. Katrina’s claim to fame is having made it to the “American Gladiator” Richmond competition as a finalist in her late 20s, progressing in the competition until a strangely large blonde woman knocked her off a pedestal with an oversized pain-inducing Q-tip. Katrina’s mantra for life is “Be nice. Do good. Embrace embarrassment.” Clearly she’s got No. 3 down.