Storytelling in fundraising

How the narrative structure turns your story into an experience with a happy ending

Storytelling in online fundraising symbolized by a fairytale landscape - FundraisingBox powered by Wikando GmbH

The donor's emotional journey

Storytelling - telling stories - is on everyone's lips as a buzzword. But what is behind it? Aren't we all “storytellers” anyway, isn't narration at the core of being human? Of course! But: How aware are we of dramaturgical principles? What exactly is a story compared to a report or anecdote?

Don't read a story here - but at least some advice on stories.

Regardless of the medium - film or text, online or offline - storytelling always has something to do with the emotional connection of an audience. So does the picture of a cute puppy count as storytelling? Of course not.

Stories exist to change their audiences, to influence them. Every story deals with a problem, and almost every story aims - more or less explicitly - to convey the benefits of cooperative behavior and collaboration.

While there is no blueprint or template for how stories work; but nevertheless certain elements can be found that appear in almost all stories. Let's look at some of these elements here and try to find patterns.

Who is the story about?

All stories are about someone. It doesn't have to be a human, it can be about an animal (Bambi) or a robot (Wall-E). But every story needs a character. And not just one. In fact, there is virtually no story that can do without a certain number of characters. Because only the interaction between several characters creates motivation, conflict and action.

In addition, stories usually have a main character - the protagonist - who the story is about. It's not always obvious why one character is the protagonist and not another. Is she just the most heroic? Is she the one who is developing the most? Or does she just have most of the scenes? If the protagonist is the character the audience can best identify with, does that mean they are most similar to the audience? Then what about American Psycho or stories that cross cultural or temporal boundaries? How similar are you to the ancient Greek hero Hercules?

Even more difficult to grasp is the concept of the antagonist, the central and active opponent of the protagonist. To understand this concept, we must not forget that an antagonist does not always have to be a character: the concept of the villain, villain, or bad mother-in-law that the good hero fights is by no means inherent in storytelling . The Greek myths, for example, do not have a simple “good versus bad”. Rather, Greek heroes experience moments when they do terrible things. Hercules killed his wife and children. Who is the antagonist there?

It helps to see antagonism as a force within the story, rather than necessarily a villainous figure. Here is an important tip: The clearer and stronger the antagonism in your story, the more effectively your protagonist will address your audience emotionally.

Protagonists in fundraising

What does all this mean for the practice of fundraising?

The reason a nonprofit tells stories is to raise awareness of a particular topic or issue while creating a desire in the audience to do something about it. At best, the story tells immediately how easy it is to help the organization, for example by making a donation.

Essentially, a nonprofit organization has the following types of protagonists to choose from:

  • Victim of an injustice - one or more people suffering from a problem that the organization wants to address. Example: Oxfam or Unicef show the victims of drought, famine or war.
  • On-site helpers - a person from the organization who is actively doing something to remedy an injustice. Example: Doctors Without Borders, who work medically in areas without a health infrastructure.
  • We. The donors . Another way for a nonprofit organization to create a story that encourages people to donate is to showcase the positive change that people who donate can make.

This last type of protagonist points to something essential; we come to that below.

What stories are really about

As mentioned briefly above: Every story shows change. If the audience did not perceive any change at the end of a story (for example of the protagonist or the world in which the story takes place), there were maybe beautiful pictures, clever words, but no story.

So change is a defining characteristic of stories.

Change requires development, the process from one state to another. There are usually key moments in history that mark the stages of this development. The most important have to do with perception and awareness.

Therefore, protagonists develop in stories. How or why In short, to learn. In the vast majority of stories, the main character will be wiser at the end of the story than at the beginning. She learned something. She has gained consciousness.

Usually, the characteristics that the main character has learned show that human cooperation, i.e. collaboration and interaction, is a quite successful concept. That's one reason the good guys usually win - bad guys are selfish, the hero gets what she wants by overcoming her own selfish impulses.

"Wait a minute!" You might argue. What about those stories in which the protagonist is not wiser in the end, has either not changed or has changed for the worse?

Such stories are more about the audience realizing this lack or flaw in protagonists. The audience makes the change.

When composing a story, it's easy to forget that the real meaning of EVERY story is that not only the protagonist learns, but above all the audience.

For fundraisers, this point should be crystal clear. You tell your stories to the people out there in order to raise their awareness, which means that they should definitely learn. The effects of this new awareness should be so strong that they feel the need to do something, for example to donate.

Figures, change, learning - what else?

So a story has to have characters with problems who learn something and develop and change as a result. All of this leads to the audience having an emotional reaction and learning something. What else?

The more you think about a story as a sequence of events (the plot, or the plot), the more you will find that each story event comes about because of certain character motivations. Whether your character is a victim, helper, or donor, it pays to think carefully about the factors that determine the character's motivation. In storytelling, one speaks of character development.

The process of character development is similar to the development of so-called personas that marketing specialists use to be able to work in a target group-oriented manner. There are a few tools to help you with this, such as . While the language in this tool is intended for authors and writers, the principles are easy to apply to stories told for fundraising.

Character development is one of the most important, perhaps simply the most important, part of conceptual work on a story. Take the time to understand the motivations of your characters as they determine the dramaturgy of the plot.

Further ingredients

We have now talked about the need for protagonist and antagonism, mentioned the importance of character development, and identified problems, change and learning as central concepts. To cut a long story short, here is a list of the most essential ingredients for a powerful story:

  • characters
  • Problems
  • Motivations
  • conflict
  • Plot (s)
  • development
  • epiphany
  • Learn
  • change

Books could be written about each of these “ingredients” - which is beyond the scope of this article. We will therefore concentrate on one of the most important points, revelation.

In storytelling, what we call “revelation” is closely related to recognition and awareness. In order to solve a problem, one must first recognize it. Finding a solution is a kind of revelation. To set up the revelation effect, you need a few solid points in the plot of your story:

First you determine a character and name your problem. Then comes the character development: For example, you have to make it clear to the audience what this character wants. A clear character wish makes it much easier for the audience to deal emotionally with this character - so make sure that your character's longing is absolutely clear!

The development of the characters gives rise to actions, things that the characters in the story do (because they want something). The chain of action events in turn forms the plot.

This should be designed in such a way that it highlights developments and changes. So the plot leads to a point of revelation. This effect is particularly evident in crime novels, as the perpetrator is revealed to the audience in a certain scene, i.e. the plot is conceived in such a way that it leads to the disclosure of the perpetrator.

As we said before, the actual revelation (e.g. through witnessing development and change) takes place in the audience. But that also means: when composing your story, think of the scene that will be the "aha moment" for your audience, the action event that will make the penny drop.

For storytelling in fundraising this means: Once the audience has understood the problem and the character's wish, the revelation is the moment when they pull out their wallets. So if you're telling a story online, for example, consider placing the DONATE NOW button very close to the revelation scene.

Then round out the story by making it clear what you want to teach the audience through this story, either by showing how the protagonist learned it or by conceiving the story in a way that the audience can join in nod your head and think: "Yes, I get it!". Show or at least clearly indicate what change the donation has made or will make.

The whole story

For an NGO or non-profit organization that relies on public donations, storytelling is part of the communication strategy.

If you're a fundraiser and you're designing a thirty second spot or blog post, an entire campaign, or a simple project description, keep the storytelling pattern outlined above in mind. Be sure to catch your audience's attention (e.g. with the picture of this cute puppy) and then tell them a story.

Stories that appeal to the audience emotionally ...

  • show the world (the setting) and a problem of a protagonist,
  • define both a desire and an opposing antagonist or antagonistic force,
  • show a sequence of actions that lead to clearly defined revelation points,
  • convey a development that ends in the fact that their audience has learned something,
  • at best let the audience experience a change in themselves.


After you have put all these efforts into leading your potential donors to the decision to donate, you want to be sure that there are no obstacles preventing them from making this decision and making the donation. As for the donation journey, the donor journey, you want the donors to get from the "aha moment" to the donation form without a hitch.

The form should be simple, fast, clear and free from disruptive factors, and offer the payment options requested by the donors.

This is how you reward the donors with a happy ending.

Now collect more donations through storytelling!

We would be happy to advise you on how you can emotionalize your supporters through good stories and thus increase your donation volume.

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