Engaging Donors Through Strength-Based Storytelling


By Andrea Topham, MBA, Executive Director of ATN Access for Persons with Disabilities

The term content creation, at its core, is a millennial-era moniker for a time-honored tradition: storytelling. The ability to create content, arguably one of the most valuable commodities in the age of social media, can mean the difference between attaining your fundraising goals or falling short on your targets. For years, fundraisers have known that storytelling provides the connection point between potential donors and the causes for which we so passionately seek support. However, even though content reigns king in today's media-focused culture, are all stories created equally?

Do tales of tragedy bring sustainable dough?

We know that the path to donor engagement starts with engaging people’s emotions.  The charitable sector has long used storytelling to engage donors, both large and small. In the wake of unexpected tragedy, stories and images of despair tug at heartstrings around the world, causing people to mobilize, and charitable donations to rapidly follow. While these stories often create a deluge of one-time donations, what are the long term effects of crisis or tragedy-based storytelling, both on the NGO’s long-term fundraising sustainability, and more importantly on the people who benefit from the NGO’s services?

The Radi-Aid Research Project, a collaboration between The Norwegian Students’ and Academics’ International Assistance Fund (SAIH) and the School of International Development, claims that the prevalent use of stories and images of starving children by INGOs during the 1980’s Ethiopian famine has created persistent, lingering and entrenched stereotypes about African cultures that still exist today. So pervasive were these stories that according to a research report called "The Live Aid Legacy" 80% of British citizens still associate low and middle-income countries with stark images of disaster, famine, and a desperate need for Western aid. Similarly, many well-meaning NGOs supporting people with disabilities tend to use stories that unintentionally reinforce demeaning stereotypes in their efforts to fund necessary and important work. The late Stella Young, a disability activist, coined the phrase "inspiration-porn" in her 2014 TED Talk. Young explains that while the aim of many messages are meant to be positive, many still rely on and perpetuate the assumption that disability is tragic. Why? Because if having a disability wasn't perceived as tragic, then a disabled person who was talented, determined, or upbeat wouldn’t be overly inspiring.

Interested in learning more about fundraising? Read Betsy Mehlman's piece, "Why I Became a CFRE."

 While we all aim to do the best for those we serve, the reality is that budgets are tight, resources are stretched and the need for services is increasing.  Despite the potentially adverse effects, it may still be tempting to use tragedy-based storytelling in our fundraising efforts, under the auspice of the end justifies the means. However, according to Susan Moeller’s book, “Compassion Fatigue: How the Media Sell Disease, Famine, War, and Death,” the volume of tragic stories we are now inundated with, potentially leads people to “collapse into a compassion fatigue stupor." Research conducted by the London School of Economics and Birkbeck University supports Moeller’s claim, showing that that the public resents overly traumatic fundraising campaigns and has negative associations with NGO’s who use such tactics. Thus heuristically, potential donors who have negative associations will be less likely to contribute.

A Story in the Making

Given the dichotomy between the need to engage donors through compelling storytelling, and that inundating potential donors with negative stories may cause compassion fatigue, what’s a storytelling fundraiser to do?

Strength-based narratives, a common therapeutic practice that empowers individuals and builds upon natural resiliency, offers a positive approach to philanthropic storytelling and donor engagement. Rather than starting from a position of tragedy, storytellers can deliver their message from a favorable position by shining a light on both individual and agency strengths. A 2018 study published in the Journal of Nonprofit & Public Sector Marketing found that survey participants had more favorable attitudes toward positive appeals for donations rather than negative appeals. 

The methodology for creating strength-based narratives is relatively straight forward requiring a slight shift in both the focal point and the voice of the story. The following offers a few tips for strength-based storytelling:

  1. Nothing about someone, without them. Simply put, the person who has lived the story owns the story. If possible, a person's account told from their own voice holds more power than told by someone else. However, if this is not possible, the owner of the story should have ample input and ultimate authority over what gets published.
  2. Start with strength. The storyteller should begin the narrative on a positive note. Perhaps begin with the person's accomplishments, goals, or dreams or what they are most proud of achieving.
  3. Don’t define a person using tragedy or trauma. The heavier subject matter has a place in the story, but it should not be the focus or a defining factor, rather it should be used to describe part of a person’s journey.
  4. Describe solutions, not problems. Traditional NGO storytelling focuses on the problems people face. Strengths-based stories concentrate on solutions.  In other words, the great work your organization does to support change.

Although strength-based narratives differ from more traditional NGO storytelling methods, the results can significantly increase donor engagement, brand recognition, and assist with reaching fundraising goals. The SickKids Foundation, located in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, offers a real-life example that demonstrates the power of strength-based storytelling. Starting in 2016, SickKids shifted from previous fundraising campaigns depicting sad stories set to melancholy music and launched the "SickKids VS" campaign. SickKids VS shows SickKids patients, their families, and the hospital's staff as larger than life superheroes battling illness with strength and tenacity. The campaign, which has gained international recognition, is the largest fundraiser in Canadian health care history and, to date, has raised 75 percent of its $1.3 billion goal, demonstrating the power of using hope, not tragedy to engage the public.     

The demands of today’s digital landscape means an ever constant and often overwhelming need to create brand-building and fundraising content. To succeed, we need to find new and unique voices to tell our stories. If the ultimate purpose of charity, regardless of impact area, is to lift up humanity, why not start with hope? Strength based storytelling, allows charities to pivot away from tragedy, and engage donors differently. As Booker T. Washingon stated “There are two ways of exerting one's strength: one is pushing down, the other is pulling up.”

Recent Stories
Apra Connections Chapter Capture — Q2 2022

Prospect Identification as a Tipping Point to Hire for Research

Willkommen, Bienvenue, Welcome, C'mon In: Onboarding for Success and Retention