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How To Make Your Story Stand Out

26 October 2012

Most fundraising messages are overly formal, cold, detached, and abstract, that's according to this PhD analysis. However well intentioned it seems we’re all telling the same story. So how can you make yours stand out?

People not numbers

A sparrow knocked over 23,000 dominoes, spoilt a world record attempt, and was shot dead. Public outrage was swift; a tribute website immediately attracted more than 24,000 hits.

So what does the martyred sparrow have that the 150-200 species made extinct everyday don’t?

An identity.

How can you picture "millions" dying; it’s a fact but how can you feel it?

A test gave people the following options…

To feed a starving girl in Mali named Roika

To help millions of hungry children

The individual child, Roika was given double the amount given to the millions of children.

Hope not hopeless

The United Nations rated the floods in Pakistan as the greatest humanitarian crisis in recent history.

A few days’ later 33 miners in Chile were trapped down a mine.

One of these stories was a worldwide media sensation, dominating both tabloid and broadsheet headlines for months – the other was barely covered.

What was it about a few dozen anonymous Chilean miners that engaged us in a way that the "greatest humanitarian crisis in recent history" did not?


What little coverage Pakistan received focused on the overwhelming scale of faceless despair. There was no sense anything could be done; the victims were doomed. We looked away with a familiar feeling of resigned hopelessness.

Contrast that with the sense of drama with which we avidly followed the minute by minute coverage of the Chilean miners. Their plight wasn’t a "story" when they were simply trapped. But the moment a probe found they were still alive it was an international sensation.

Hope mirrors our desire and we actively seek it. Despair mirrors our worst fears and we do all we can to hide from it.

Focus on what can be done and people take action; focus on what can’t and asking for help seems pointless.

Together not separate

We don’t take action unless we see others doing so.

Can you think of anyone who’d tell you they like canned laughter? So why do the highest grossing sit-coms use it? Because experiments have found that using canned laughter causes an audience to laugh louder and longer.

It’s the same reason advertisers always let us know their product is the "fastest" or "biggest" selling.

This point was made decisively in an experiment asking donors to help raise $3000. Some were told $2000 had already been raised, others just $300.

What happened?

Showing supporters that many others were involved produced a six fold increase in contributions and had a significant effect on both participation rates and average gift size.

If you want people to donate make sure they know that others are. Don’t ask them to join at the starting line, show them the finish line (show them the money)

We like people like us

Rachel Croson and Jen Shang ran a test during a public radio fundraising drive. When donors were told what the previous donor had given, giving was uplifted by 29%.

When told the previous donation was made by someone of the same gender it uplifted giving by 34%. And not only was there an initial uplift, but the higher giving continued in future years.

So if you want to up values and loyalty make sure you know who your audience is and tell them how many young/old, men/women are excited about being a part of your campaign.

Leaders not followers

Researchers arranged for a 31 year old man to cross the street at a red traffic light. The test variable was that some of the time this man was dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, the rest of the time he was dressed in a business suit and tie.

Three times as many people were prepared to follow him and walk in front of moving traffic when he was dressed in a suit.

Rational or not, when it comes to making decisions we seem to be pre-programmed to follow the leader. When in doubt we find a sense of security in purchasing the "leading brand".

Fundraising’s about asking people to invest in values and beliefs so we have to position ourselves as the best place to make that investment.

When telling our stories we need to establish credibility and confidence by demonstrating what we have done. What change have we brought about? What milestones can we highlight? What can someone achieve with us that they won’t anywhere else?

These aren’t stories

Never forget; before you wrote it someone lived it!

Ask yourself, "how close am I to the cause I serve?" If you don’t believe, how can you ask others to?

Charlie Hulme

creative director, Pell & Bales

Charlie has been shaping conversations and driving results for 15 years. From Acquiring new donors to Legacy marketing, he helps charity clients hold insightful, inspiring conversations, driving the best results.