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Why fundraisers need to master the art of storytelling

Giving is emotional and people can be inspired through stories, so the art of storytelling is an essential craft for fundraisers to master. Matt Finlayson at Campfire Marketing shares his reasons why humans just can't do without stories...

Once, there was a young client in the world of fundraising. After a hard day’s graft in the office, she liked nothing better than to curl up on the sofa and watch a juicy box set on telly. The majesty of The Crown. The scandal of The Affair. The intrigue of Game of Thrones. She loved being swept away by the drama of it all.

Then, before she dropped off to sleep, she would lose herself in the latest trashy novel. OMG, how could Rex do that to Jemima? Didn’t he know she’d been in love with him since the yachting accident in Monte Carlo?

The next day at work, however, it was back to reality. The young client was immersed in campaign deliverables, strategic objectives and five-point plans for growth. So these were the things she expected to see expressed in the work presented by her creative agency. But time and time again, she would read what they’d written and throw her hands up in exasperation: “Why, oh why, do they keep trying to tell me stories…?”

Inspire people through stories

OK, so I made up this little tale. I’m a copywriter; that’s what I do. But as someone who’s penned fundraising campaigns for more than 20 years, I can tell you there’s a large dollop of truth in it. Ever since humans first gathered together under a tree, we’ve told stories to one another. Stories that move us, scare us, illuminate our minds and inspire us to see the world anew. So why, when it comes to moving and inspiring people to give to a charitable cause, do so many in our industry resist the power of the story?

Giving is an emotional response. A visceral reaction to the drama we’ve been presented with. Someone doesn’t give £10 to help an emaciated donkey because the charity has a particular strategic objective. They give because they feel anguish in their gut, injustice in their heart, and the glorious possibility of redemption. Which is pretty much the DNA of every movie made and every novel written.

Subjectivity of stories

I do understand, though, why many clients are unnerved by an overtly storytelling style. Stories are subjective. A singular view. Lightning in a bottle. There are a million ways to tell the same tale (and as someone who’s attempted a novel or three, I should know.) Jane Austen began Pride and Prejudice with, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” We’re so glad she did, but on another day she might have kicked off with the bleak English weather or a description of Mrs Bennet’s hat.

The point is that, even in the hard-nosed world of fundraising marketing, we should put our trust in the storyteller. In my long experience writing for charities, a good story that’s well told always, always works.

The story of Lily-Grace

At Campfire, for example, RNIB recently asked us to create a warm Christmas appeal to raise funds for their Talking Books service. After some thought, we chose to tell the story of a brave young girl called Lily-Grace. Blind since birth, nine-year-old Lily-Grace adored listening to books, but the one title she dearly wanted to hear – The Nutcracker – wasn’t available as a Talking Book. So we designed the appeal as one little girl’s storybook quest to find The Nutcracker Prince. The result? This touching, captivating appeal won the hearts of supporters who gave more than they had ever done at Christmas.

lilygrace.jpg

It’s no great surprise, really. Our appetite for emotionally involving stories is growing, not diminishing. Netflix, for instance, just announced that they now have 117 million subscribers, valuing their business at a mind-boggling $100 billion. What’s more, the Publishers Association recently reported a record year for book sales – that’s £3.5 billion worth of ripping yarns and absorbing prose. So much for smartphones killing off our attention span.

From prehistoric cave paintings to the latest goings-on down Coronation Street, it’s clear that humans can’t do without stories. Like air, we need them to make us laugh, cry, ache and hope for the future. Which is why, no matter which charity I’m writing for, I always start with that time-honoured phrase in my head: Once upon a time…

Matt Finlayson is a Senior Copywriter at Campfire Marketing

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