Nonprofit 411: New Year’s Resolution for 2015: Enhance Storytelling for Fundraising

mechthildBy Mechthild von Knobelsdorff, Founder of Story Connect

If there is one resolution that you want to make for 2015, it is to enhance your storytelling. Why storytelling? Unlike working out, it isn’t very effortful. Unlike dieting, it will make you happier. Unlike saving the world, it is actually achievable. So it has none of the classic hallmarks of a New Year’s Resolution. But it may help you to transmit your message. Wouldn’t that be something? Reach your audience. Enhance team-building. Increase fund-raising.

Numbers are Anonymous

The reason is that stories are personal and identifiable, whereas numbers are anonymous. Stories tell us about the intensity of the joy or pain involved. Imagine the following: “The unemployment rate has gone up by 3%.” or “100,000 people lost their jobs in December.” What is your reaction. Is 3% a lot? What does the unemployment rate mean? And no one has 100,000 friends, even in the age of Facebook. It is impossible to relate to this. This is equally true of donors, foundations and other decision makers.

On the other hand, most people have a different reaction to personal stories. “My neighbor was devastated, he just got laid off by his company, which kept outsourcing its work over the last couple years.” It is hard to think that it is your neighbor’s fault, and we feel the pain. It also tells us something about the cause, which was absent from the numbers, although we may infer too much.

Singularity Effect

One reason we feel the pain more, is what is called the singularity effect: We don’t feel the pain of 10 people as 10 times worse than the pain of one individual, because empathy works only on the individual level. There is something shocking about the singularity effect: We are less likely to give to a group of people than we are to give to a single identified victim. Do we really not care if thousands of people are laid off? The opposite is true. We do care. But it is hard for us to picture a group of people. “As the numbers grow,” psychologist Slovic explains, “we sort of lose the emotional connection to the people who are in need.” That leaves us hopeless that we can create any change, and we don’t act at all.

What to do about this Resolution

Here is your new-year’s resolution this year: Integrate storytelling into your day-to-day communications, at work or at home. Instead of joining a Gym, you can get trained by a professional. Instead of avoiding lunch time with your co-workers to diet, be social and tell them the story of how you did not lose weight last year, and that the cake tasted delicious, thank-you-very-much. You can collect stories of broken New Year’s Resolutions in a box, and vote on the funniest in the New Year’s story slam.

This may very well be a new year’s resolution you do not want to break. If you keep it up, you will notice the effect of storytelling on your communication and on your fund-raising efforts. But don’t worry if you fall back into quoting long lists of numbers at hapless bystanders. At least you will already have a new year’s resolution for 2016.


Story Connect is an affiliate member of the Massachusetts Nonprofit Network. Click here to learn more about becoming a member of MNN.