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Why Do People Give to Charity? The Psychology of Storytelling and Its Impact on Nonprofit Fundraising

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Published September 7, 2023 Reading Time: 5 minutes

This blog was written in collaboration with Kevin Schulman, an academically trained social scientist focused on answering the why behind human behavior. He’s the founder of DonorVoice, a full-service fundraising agency, and DVCanvass, a canvassing and telefundraising firm that shares the red thread of applying behavioral science for better outcomes. 

A well-told story lights up the same parts of the brain as if we experienced it directly.

The good news is that everyone has a story. Unfortunately, we often forget writing is technical, and to communicate to inspire action, we need to learn and implement those technicalities.

Below, we dive into foundational storytelling techniques and the associated effective psychological principles. We explore the emotional and psychological reasons why people give to charity and how nonprofits can leverage those insights in charitable gift appeals. Plus, learn what tool our team at DonorVoice created to help organizations elevate their fundraising messages.

Let’s get started.

Psychology of Storytelling 101

There’s a niche academic field called narrative psychology. These academics confirmed that our memories aren’t chronological encyclopedias but rather stories. They found that sharing and distilling stories with personal narrative arcs, where a challenge gives way to triumph, is common in highly generative adults who desire to provide for future generations and make a positive impact on the world.

These same people who tell redemption stories also tend to be happier.

This is what charitable causes want to achieve with fundraising appeals. The goal is to share a redemption story that compels people to want to make the world a better place while simultaneously making themselves happier.

Here are the key elements of a redemptive arc story:

  • A challenge: The specific, timely obstacle a character faces.
  • An intervention: The ways the nonprofit and individual donors offer support.
  • A positive, agentive change: The ways in which the character’s life or situation improved as a result.

Applying These Psychological Storytelling Principles to Increase Impact

Our team at DonorVoice recognized the urgent need for nonprofits to elevate their stories to givers in ways that inspire them to get involved, and we wanted to help people and organizations do that at scale.

We built a linguistic science application, Copy Optimizer, to objectively score hundreds of fundraising copy samples based on alignment with behavioral science principles. The results and research show a need for learning, with the average Story Score netting 50 out of 100 points. We see optimizing these stories as a simple and impactful way to leverage the psychology of giving to effectively combat downward donor trends.

In one of the copy snippets we evaluated for a local food bank, the control letter had none of the elements listed above, resulting in a Story Score of zero. It was all need-and-ask statements with a few supporting sentences about a family member’s experience post-war in Korea.

After optimizing this story to account for the technical elements of an effective appeal, the snippet became:

“He fought in Korea for you and me and our way of life. He suffered a lot and worked odd jobs after the war but never really got his life back. He never complained.

He’s 80 now, living in the same house he grew up in with his sister, Julia. She looks after him nowadays as best she can. She has been so grateful for those senior boxes they offer at her senior center. She gets him one box a month; it’s enough for 25 meals.”

It’s only seven brief sentences and took about 20 minutes to rework. The Story Score for this snippet is now 100 out of 100.

4 Attributes of Storytelling Success

The redemptive arc discussed above is the 30,000-foot view of a story. The details of how we zoom in from that point to ensure it resonates with readers are critical to storytelling effectiveness.

Here are the four key attributes of a smooth, meaningful reading experience to keep in mind:

1. Speed

Addressing how quickly or slowly your story takes readers from one emotion to the next is critical. How much distance is there between your story’s plot points that stimulate opposing reactions?

If you introduce a beneficiary’s challenge in the first paragraph but hold off until the last sentence to celebrate resolving those challenges, your speed is too slow. On the other hand, if you solve the problem before the end of the first paragraph, the reader doesn’t have enough time to settle into the initial emotion. Balance is key.

2. Volatility

Volatility means your story includes swings in emotion and sentiment. It’s a crucial element of impactful nonprofit appeals and is often a case of “more is more.”

Consider the two video types in the illustration below: high volatility, represented by the solid line, and low volatility, represented by the dotted line. The average sentiment is the same for both videos. Both also have the same peak beginning and end. The only difference is the emotional peaks and valleys.

The video with high volatility had higher engagement and a longer watch time. Plus, readers view these types of stories more favorably when evaluated qualitatively. A larger number of people admit to liking and sharing them more.

Story volatility chart

3. Volume

It’s best practice for a story to take readers from point A to point B, but some get lost along the way. While certain additions help provide context and benefit the reading experience, several deter donors from the story’s intent, resulting in a disjointed connection to the characters and plot. These unrelated stops increase the volume of your story. And unless it’s a two-hour movie, high volume can hinder your ability to effectively get your message across.

4. Circuitousness

Similarly, two stories may have the same semantic and emotional starting and end point. While one goes through several psychological (and fewer interrelated) states to get there, the other takes a psychologically easy glide path. The latter has traveled less mental distance, making it less circuitous. This is the most effective format to inspire action in nearly all charitable giving cases.

Putting the Plot Points Together to Establish an Emotional Connection

At the start of your narrative, you have a blank canvas. The reader hasn’t met any of your characters or the setting. This is your opportunity to vividly describe the people, places, and things involved in your story to help paint the picture.

When that’s complete, it’s critical to progress at a pace that allows readers to develop relationships with the characters, establish a connection to the plot, and become emotionally invested in the resolution. Here, you should demonstrate a material change in circumstance—in most cases, from bad to good. Show the main character gaining greater autonomy and, as a result, enjoying improvements in their overall well-being.

Once readers have become familiar with your evolving plot points, you’re ready to accelerate. A slow start followed by a fast story build accomplishes several key psychological elements. Without it, most stories remain unmotivating.

Here’s the evidence:

Chart demonstrating the relationship between speed and ratings of a story

This chart analyzes a story divided into five equal-length parts. Parts one and two received low scores, representing readers’ unfavorable opinions of how quickly the plot moved before they could establish an understanding of the story. Parts three, four, and five show positive scores as readers prefer a quicker pace. They’re eager to see a resolution of the conflict now that they’ve established a connection to the cause.

Adopt Technical Writing to Inspire People to Give

Storytelling is standard practice for nonprofit organizations, but technical storytelling is where many still fall short when conducting outreach for an upcoming fundraising event, Giving Tuesday campaign, or general appeal for charitable donations. By understanding the principles summarized below, emerging, growing, and booming nonprofits can raise more and do more for their missions and communities:

  • Use the redemptive arc in stories, starting with context, characters, and the primary struggle. Move to an intervention next and, most importantly, agentic, positive change with the beneficiary serving as an active participant.
  • Lead with a story before closing with an ask. This presents the best chance of getting and holding the reader’s attention, especially on social media.
  • Use volatility and pacing to establish and maintain donors’ emotional investment in a story.
  • Add detail where necessary for context and understanding, but avoid taking readers on a roundabout ride to the resolution. More twists and turns add volume to the story and risk tiring readers out before they reach the end.

Copy Editor: Ayanna Julien

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How to Tell a Story Worksheet

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