How to Tell Stories that Inspire People to Give


Words that all nonprofit communicators should live by, indeed!

As a non-profit communicator, you know the power of a good story. You may also know emotional storytelling is the most effective type of marketing. In fact, emotional storytelling is 31 percent more effective than any other type of marketing. That’s because, as Maya Angelou so eloquently stated, “…people will never forget the way you made them feel.”

Emotional stories are captivating. They’re memorable. They stir our emotions and tug at our heartstrings. They are the quickest way to your donors’ hearts. We’re emotional beings. As so, we’re wired to give to causes that provoke an emotional response.

There are lots of stories you can tell to evoke emotion, but the most powerful stories your organization can share are often your clients’ stories.

Below are some tips for developing a powerful emotional story. But before we get to that, I can’t emphasize enough the importance of being sensitive when developing and sharing client stories. The last thing you want to do is jeopardize a client’s safety, future, or dignity by sharing potentially dangerous or embarrassing information. Instead of focusing on your client’s despair or grief, try honoring him or her through your story.

Following are 4 pillars every emotional story needs to motivate readers to give:

1. A Compelling Character: Identify your protagonist. This is the main character of your story who has (or will) overcome a significant challenge with the help of your organization. She/he is living proof that your organization’s solution to a major problem works.

Your main character should be likable, easy to relate to, and very human. He or she should also have the kind of qualities that appeal to your audiences’ personal values.

You may only have a few seconds to grab your readers attention, so introduce your main character right off the bat. Here’s an example of a fictional story featuring a character called Mary, a client we’ll continue to refer to throughout this piece.

Hi Jill,

When I first met Mary, she was sitting in front of her modest but tidy mud-brick home, expertly braiding her 6-year-old daughter’s hair into neat rows. Occasionally she stopped to playfully splash the toddler sitting next to her in a basin of water.

“We may not have much, but my children always appear neat and clean,” Mary said.

In this fictional story, you’re introduced to a mother who’s tending to her children’s needs…something almost any mom, dad, daughter or son can relate to.

She playfully interacts with her children and works hard to ensure they’re well-groomed. What’s not to like?

Mary is clearly determined, hardworking, and loving – all qualities people value.

2. An Emotional Connection: The next step involves forging an emotional connection between your readers and the main character. This helps the reader feel emotionally invested in the character.

Perhaps, like Mary, your protagonist has qualities that appeal to your donor’s values – hardworking, persistent, trustworthy or honorable. Maybe your character and the reader share a dream – to send their children to college, to keep their family safe from disease, to start a business. Maybe they share a common need.

An emotional connection can most easily be forged by revealing a universal human need: food, water, shelter, health, safety, education, emotional support, etc.

Back to Mary’s story:

25698_388505388253_6246445_n“This is the end of the water for today,” Mary said, pointing to the basin beside her. “It took me all morning to find the water and bring it home. I wanted to get more, but there wasn’t time.”

Even though carrying two 40-pound water jugs long distances is tough, Mary said she’s determined to make sure her family has enough water for drinking, cooking, cleaning, and bathing every day.

During the dry season, she often walks hours to find water. Sometimes she makes her way to a muddy swamp. Other times she comes across a watering hole for cattle that she dips her containers into.

Alone in the wilderness, Mary is always at risk of being ambushed by rebel military groups or wild animals.

“Sometimes I am frightened, but what choice do I have?” Mary said.  

Now we’ve established an emotional connection by taking the reader on a journey with Mary as she collects water. During the journey, the reader begins to understand just how hard it is to find clean water. The reader also starts to understand the risks Mary takes every day to bring this precious resource to her family.

The photo enhances the readers’ connection by establishing eye-contact with Mary.

3. A Conflict: The emotional connection becomes even deeper when you present a big conflict or challenge that puts your character in danger or prevents them from obtaining what they so desperately need.

Make your story twice as powerful by demonstrating both the emotional and physical effects of the conflict on your character.

Mary and her children are often sick because they don’t have access to clean water. The children are sometimes too ill to attend school. Mary says she often feels anxious and glum about her family’s situation, but she’s not giving up.

“I want my daughters to live in a world where they don’t have to spend their days collecting water. I want all my children to be healthy so they can receive an education and make better lives for themselves.”

The Challenge: Mary does not have access to clean water.

The Physical Impact: Mary and her children often suffer from water-borne illnesses.

The Emotional Impact: Mary experiences anxiety and depression as a result.

A couple of key points to consider here:

  • While the conflict must formidable, it shouldn’t appear too daunting to overcome. Otherwise, the reader will feel ill-equipped to help or unconvinced that any amount of support can remedy the situation.
  • This is where you begin to answer the important question, “Why should I care?” In the example above, the reader may begin thinking: “No child should miss school because they don’t have clean water. There must be something I can do to help.”

4. The Solution: Now it’s time to present your solution and the positive lasting impact it will make on the client/community you serve.

Mary is one of the thousands of people in the Yuzda settlement who lack access to clean water. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

With a Water is Life borehole, clean, life-giving water can flow directly into the heart of the Yuzda community.

 Long hours spent searching for water in perilous conditions can be replaced by more time with family, at work, or at school. And since our boreholes pump clean water from fresh clean-water springs, the entire community will experience healthier living.

“Clean water would be the greatest gift this village has ever received,” Mary said. “I can’t imagine a life with water outside my door, but I pray we will have the chance to experience this kind of life one day soon.”

The Solution: A borehole for Mary and the entire community.

The Benefits: More time for family, work, and school; improved health for the entire community.

The four pillars above represent the foundational elements of your emotional story. Now that you’ve gone to such lengths to share a story that’s powerful enough to tug on the heartstrings of your donors, don’t leave them, or Mary, hanging. Wrap your story up with your unique value proposition and a strong call-to-action.

If you like this post, I’d really appreciate you giving it a share. Here’s a pre-populated Tweet you can use, or a link you can share on LinkedIn.

Are you leveraging the power of emotional storytelling to inspire your donors to give? Do you have additional suggestions for writing memorable stories that make deep connections with readers? Please share your feedback and advice in the comments below.


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