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Five Guaranteed Ways to Raise Money Through Storytelling

Storytelling today is “hot.”

And why not? It’s the fundamental human activity—we even talk to ourselves!

We tell ourselves stories all the time to inspire, goad, cheerlead, and persuade.

“I’ve been knocked down, but I’ll pick myself up.”

“This cake will be even better than my mother-in-law’s.”

“The deck seems stacked against me, but I’m going to fight; I’m going to win.”

“Tomorrow will be a better day.”

Storytelling is something people naturally gravitate to. We’re wired that way.

Stories connect the dots

They are the connective tissue that turns otherwise random acts into important sequences. Stories invite us in. When we add our own imagination, stories begin to acquire personal relevance.

Does this sound like something that might be useful for your content marketing strategy?

We’re in a content marketing and storytelling zeitgeist

In the digitally revolutionized, hyper-connected world, content and storytelling go together like peanut butter and jelly. Master storytelling—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.

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

Put storytelling at the core of your content marketing. Or else.

If you don’t, there’ll be no there there.

Without a story, your content is empty framework. Nothing lives in it. It’s static, not breathing. It’s a house, not a home.

Without a story, your content’s meaning will elude your audience. Without meaning, your audience can’t connect.

If you don’t connect with your audience, you won’t have a snowball’s chance in you know where to persuade folks to join with you to further your mission.

Stories are your ultimate content marketing tool

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.

Stories enable you to talk with potential donors in a tangible, easy-to-understand manner. To activate their imagination. To draw them in. Your objectives?

  • 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
  • Make them the story’s hero!

The last four objectives can be handled by how you tell your story. In a moment, I’ll give you five simple steps to create a winning outline for all your storytelling. But first, let’s look at what you tell your story about.

How to Get Inside Your Audiences’ Heads

Storytelling today needs a strong focus on what people want to hear and share. This is how you earn your constituents’ attention.

No longer can you broadcast your own corporate messaging and expect folks to pay attention, let alone make philanthropic gifts.

Your audiences’ needs and desires are key; not your needs.

Today’s customer-focused content requires an inbound marketing strategy that seeks input and feedback from the people you hope to win over.

Your success or failure at crafting customer-centered stories will shape your future

Don’t just guess at what stories you should create.

Social media offers a two-way communication tool that gives you direct access to the exact people you want to reach and engage with. It’s the best listening platform out there.

You can learn a surprising amount about your constituents’ thoughts and behaviors online, sometimes in less than 140 characters.

These tweets are little stories people use to express themselves

Listen to the stories your constituents share with you before you start to tell your own. You can learn a surprising amount about what floats people’s boats!

Check out the examples below.

Five Guaranteed Ways to Raise Money Through Storytelling

He’s interested in education and kids!

Five Guaranteed Ways to Raise Money Through Storytelling

Wants to just hear about impact sometimes, rather than always being asked for money!

Five Guaranteed Ways to Raise Money Through Storytelling

A potential bonanza of information!

Five Guaranteed Ways to Raise Money Through Storytelling

Now you know what type of story she’d like to see, right?

Getting inside your audiences’ heads, just like anything else worth doing, takes work, strategy and commitment.

If you want attention you must pay attention.

I often tell nonprofit fundraisers a version of the “Golden Rule”—that “if you want gifts, you must give them.”

Use your content marketing to offer up little gifts of stories your supporters will appreciate.

To get your stories and content shared and acted upon, you must understand the stories of the people who form the communities with whom you wish to connect—buyers, volunteers, advocates, influencers, and donors. Seth Godin writes that:

Each cohort of customers has a particular worldview. ... each cohort has a price they’re willing to pay, a story they’re willing to hear, a period of time they’re willing to invest. ... too often we pick the product or service first, deciding that it’s perfect and then rushing to market, sure that the audience will sort itself out.”

The stories you choose to tell should not be random. They must revolve around content that matters for your specific audiences, and the audiences of these audiences.

Besides just listening to folks, and reading what they say, look at how they find you in the first place. Gerry McGovern is an online customer experience expert who wrote:

We need to turn advertising on its head. On the Web, the customer is now the advertiser. When they search they are placing an ad. Traditional marketing is about getting attention while web marketing is about giving it.”

Now that you’ve thoughtfully chosen the content for your stories, let’s move on to the telling!

How to Tell a Memorable, Actionable Story: Five Steps

All great novels, movies, television shows, plays, and speeches use this five5-step perfect story structure to keep people engaged. Use it for everything and anything that calls for your listener/reader/viewer to take a desired action. 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.

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.

For example, last year I 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?”

For example, the letter I described above it went on to lay out some of Justine’s struggles:

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 his or her pain and frustration. When our empathy is triggered, we become receptive to whatever comes next. Because ending someone's suffering ends our own.

For 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.

Here’s another example:

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 imaginations and feel it in their empathic brains.

For 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.

For 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 readers come in. With their philanthropic gifts, 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.”


Remember that storytelling is something people naturally gravitate to.

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.

Most people want to make our world a better and more caring place. Telling a compelling story designed to influence people to do something positive they’re already predisposed to do—something that matches their values and makes them feel good—is a fine thing.

Don’t you agree?

Bring Your Work to Life!

Spend a little time—for yourself and for your organization—to dig into the worksheets and exercises in this 7 Clairification Keys Guidebook. Refresh your thinking, and refresh your plans. Stop asking so much what your donors can do for you; ask what you can do for them. Clairify your (1) values, (2) stories, (3) brand, (4) social channels, (5) support constituencies, (6) engagement objectives and (7) resources/systems. You may be amazed at how this little shift in thinking can help you get to your goals with greater grace and much less angst. (Photo courtesy of

Five Guaranteed Ways to Raise Money Through StorytellingThe preceding is a cross-post by Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE, from her blog. Claire was named Outstanding Fundraising Professional of the Year by the Association of Fundraising Professionals and brings 30 years of frontline development and marketing experience to her work as principal of her social benefit consulting firm, Clairification.

Topics: Fundraising Nonprofit Storytelling