December 3, 2013 \ Geoff Birmingham
For Fundraising Success, Think Stories, not Stats

December 4, 2013

A little while back, I attended a fine webinar, presented by communications guru Tom Ahern. I suspect that he did not intend to have one, overriding theme in what he discussed. What stood out to me, however, was his suggestion that many nonprofits are failing in their communications. The reason? They spend too much time focused on themselves rather than their donors or prospective donors.

This focus on “we” is more in line with corporate communications. Ford Motor Company, for example, boasting about one of its sports cars that goes 0-60mph in four seconds. Or a beer company pitching one of its beverages that has fewer calories than the competition. But in donor communications, the focus needs to be on the “you.” The donor, in other words.

Ahern suggests that donors want to feel good, loved, smart, needed and important. They want to belong. They want to see their values in action. And they want to win (do good in the world). Engendering these feelings is far more challenging when a newsletter or video spends an inordinate amount of time reciting numbers and statistics to demonstrate its value.

A far more effective way to accomplish this is, no surprise, telling stories. Citing Duke University professor, Dan Ariely, as a source, Ahern offered a series of compelling numbers: 2.38 to 1.14 to 1.43. Ahern explains that these are “the relative amounts of giving generated by the story of a single person who needs help (2.38) vs. statistics about the need for help (1.14) vs. when you mix stories and stats together to make your case for support (1.43).

“I explain it this way: stories by themselves raise more than twice as much money as statistics. And if you mix stats in with your stories, the mere presence of the data reduces giving. Stories generate empathy. Stats generate thinking. Thinking is a cheapskate. Empathy is a spendthrift.”

All of these points apply to video communications as well. In the video above, Water is Life doesn’t spend any time talking about itself as an organization or the number of children it’s saved. It picks one story to tell and does it to great effect. The story generates empathy rather than thinking, and it encourages the spendthrift in all of us.