The 6 Core Elements of a Well-Told, Well-Executed Donor Fundraising Story

Before you think this is another post about how to tell great fundraising stories, read this:
This article is not about the elements of how to tell fundraising stories about the people, places, or animals who benefit from the work of your nonprofit. Those are important too. But today, we’re talking about a different kind of fundraising story. The fundraising stories of your major donors.

Your donors have their own stories.
Their stories have led them to you, sitting with you in a meeting, attending an event, or responding to your invitation to have a call.

Your nonprofit has its own story too. But that story has little to do with the story your donors are looking to tell themselves and their loved ones about their own lives.

In this article, you’re going to learn the key elements of a donor’s fundraising story.
Once you discover how to help your donors tell and advance their own stories, your major gifts and planned giving fundraising program will reach heights you never dreamed of. We know this because research has borne it out, particularly the research from Dr. Russell James, a Hall of Fame researcher in major gifts fundraising (including planned gifts), named by The National Association of Charitable Gift Planners.

Dr. James’ research has concluded that your single most important fundraising goal should be to help your donors advance their personal hero story. That, more than anything else, leads to more gifts, bigger gifts, and transformational gifts.

So, let’s look at the key elements of a fundraising story.

What Makes a Great Story?
Joseph Campbell is well known for his writings of how great stories and myths work to capture the minds and hearts of readers, listeners, and viewers. When you look at the most famous stories and movies, you see the patterns he observed. Think about Star Wars, and then read this quote from Campbell:

“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered, and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

To be clear, Campbell didn’t write this about Star Wars. In fact, he wrote it decades before that film was produced. The point being, that description of great hero stories applies to all stories. And the ones that do it exceedingly well, such as Star Wars, make an impact that lasts for decades, even centuries.

Your donors want to tell themselves and their loved ones stories like that about their own lives — and your role is to help them do that.

Here are the elements of a great donor fundraising story you need to understand, based on Campbell’s work, applied to fundraising by Dr. James.

1. Backstory and Setting
Screenwriting books refer to this as the story world, or normal world. It’s the place where your donor lives now. It’s who they are — their current identity.

In this place, they have needs, desires, and motivations, but they haven’t yet taken the big risk to step outside of their normal everyday existence to do something transformational – though they may want to. Again, they have a desire to do something great. They have a need that right now is unmet – to make a profound difference in some part of the world.

In this part of the story, your goal as a fundraiser is to understand why this donor cares about the work your charity does. What has happened in their life that has led them to you? Who has influenced them? Where have they been? What have they heard?

When you understand where they’re coming from, you will know how to use philanthropy to take them where they want to go.

2. The Challenge
The challenge is often referred to as the inciting incident. This is the moment in the story when the hero is forced to make a choice. There is a problem, a threat, an opportunity – something that cannot be ignored. You must make a choice to get involved or not, and if you do get involved, nothing after that will ever be the same.

In movies, this usually happens about 20 minutes into the story, sometimes less.

No one in stories responds to the challenge with despair. This moment is usually hopeful, optimistic, and positive: We are going to do this, and we’re going to succeed, no matter what it takes.

In fundraising, this might be the ask. If the donor has signaled they want to give, then your job is to ask them to give an amount that challenges them. If you fail at this, the story is over. You didn’t challenge them enough or your challenge failed to resonate, which means they aren’t leaving their normal world. They may be giving, but it’s not a transformational gift.

In other donor stories, the donor may not be ready to give, but they want to hear more.

In that case, the challenge might be the problem the donor can solve by giving. What happened in the world of your nonprofit? Did another funding source suddenly get taken away? Is a capital campaign under threat? Is a new group of beneficiaries waiting for help but there’s no one to help them?

The challenge here – the incident that provokes a response from the donor – may seem external, but for the donor, it’s also internal, because they want to help in such a profound way that it will make them a different person.

In other words, after they give this gift, life will never be the same. This gift will redefine them. It will become part of their identity. In fact, it will enhance their identity.

3. Plot
The plot – the heart of the story – begins once the challenge is accepted. Plot begins when the donor chooses to go on the journey, take the quest, pursue the goal, and meet their internal needs that will be satisfied by giving a transformational gift.

Plot might mean a small gift comes first, then larger gifts later. It might mean simply agreeing to meet with you a second time and staying in communication afterward. It might mean touring your facility, attending or speaking at an event, volunteering in a significant way, or many other actions.

You can’t force the donor into a plot of your choice. You must empower them and facilitate their journey into their own story.

For planned giving, for example, a donor might agree to put your nonprofit in their estate plan. But they aren’t going to die tomorrow. So what happens between their choice to give – acceptance of the challenge – and when you actually receive the gift?

There’s a story there, and you must help the donor tell it. What difference might their gift make? Who will benefit? Why does that matter? What happens if no gift comes through? Raise the stakes of inaction as time passes.

For that donor, the plot is going to consist of reinforcing and solidifying their commitment to give, so they don’t ever consider amending their will and taking you out of it, even twenty years later.

The plot for each donor’s story will be different, because each donor’s life and context for making the gift is different. But at its core, you are the one who must help the donor tell their story.

The decision to give once isn’t the end of the story either – even if they never give again. Is that a contradiction? Not to the donor, it isn’t.

4. Opposition and Villains
Every story features an antagonist – the villain who opposes the hero’s journey. Some stories have more than one. Villains can be people, companies, systems, computers, and even entrenched ideas.

Who are the villains in a donor’s fundraising story?

The villain is whatever or whoever will prevent them from accepting and following through on the challenge to give a transformational gift.

And guess what?

Most of the villains in the donor’s story come from the nonprofit itself!

Scary thought, but it’s true.


Dr. James’ research found, for example, that math works antagonistically against fundraising. Show your potential donors lots of numbers, graphs, and data, and the rational parts of their brain start churning.

When that happens – giving declines. His research observed this outcome over and over again.


Logic is another villain in the fundraiser’s story. Why? Because giving isn’t logical. There is no rational reason to give away wealth. It reduces your own personal security. It disregards all the hard work that was spent to acquire that wealth. “If your father could see you now,” logic might say to a donor who has decided to give away six or seven figures of wealth, “he’d be ashamed and embarrassed.”

All that hard work, and you’re just giving it away? It’s not logical.

Logic is not the reason people give. If you try to appeal to logic in your fundraising, you are introducing a villain, an enemy of generosity. And that villain will inhibit your donors from giving.


Another villain is complexity. Introduce too much complexity anywhere in the process – how to give, why to give – and your donors won’t give as easily. Why? Because complexity is a puzzle, and a puzzle needs to be solved. How do we solve puzzles? With logic and reasoning. This is not where you want your donors’ brains to be going.


Believe it or not, according to Dr. James, the administrator is actually an archetype villain in a fundraising story, something we’ll discuss more in a later post.

The administrator can be such a powerful villain because so many nonprofits feel compelled to tell the story of their key administrator, or founder, or some other organization-centric story. It can dominate the narrative. You can easily recognize this villain in fundraising communications that essentially say: “Look how great we are” or “Look what we did.”

But this is not the story that moves a donor to give. They aren’t giving to the administrator or their team. They’re giving through the administrator’s organization to advance their own heroic story. What drives them to give is the inner transformation and identity enhancement they will gain.

When you come at donors with the administrator’s story or the organization’s story, you are attacking their reason for wanting to give.

Private Family Foundations

This is the only external villain on this list. Foundations (including donor-advised funds) are really the supervillain in this story, because they provide a way for donors to give their big gifts, but to something other than a nonprofit.

And since foundations control where their money goes, the donor doesn’t usually get much say in what happens. So they are left on the sidelines. And their money’s impact is kept at a distance.

Private foundations relegate the donor to a supporting role in the story, at best, if not just a cameo.

5. Self-Revelation and New Identity
This is the moment in the movie when people in the audience cheer, or cry, or shout in triumph. This is the moment of revelation. Of inner and outer transformation. This is when the goal has been reached, victory is won, and the world will never be the same.

In The Matrix (spoiler alert), this is when Neo comes back to life, stands up, and sees his ‘world’ for what it really is. When he sees this, he knows who he is now. The moment of self-revelation is the moment of victory, and the enemy doesn’t have a chance.

In a fundraising story, this happens after the impact of the donor’s gift is made evident to them. It’s when we can all see the real change their gift has produced.

This is why you can’t stop communicating with donors after the gift. You must drive home to them, in powerful images and words, what their gift has accomplished. The lives it has changed. The people it has saved. The research it has made possible.

The donor will now see themselves in a new light, as a powerful, influential person doing good in the world. They’ll feel like a better person – meeting their internal need. And they have a better reputation in the eyes of others – meeting their external need. They’ll have a new, enhanced identity.

Neglecting this step in the story is like watching The Birds, a famous Hitchcock film. The movie is impressive, but the ending is … absent? It just stops. There is no victory, and no self-revelation or new understanding for any of the characters. And it is thus unsatisfying (apologies to those who love this movie, but even you have to admit that the ending is a little abrupt).

Don’t let your donors experience an unsatisfying ending to their story.

6. The Sequel
After the gift, and after the new revelation, the story still doesn’t end.

Stewardship and continual follow-up will eventually lead to a new challenge, a new threat, a new opportunity to solve yet another problem. A new plot begins, and the villains are still there trying to stop it.

You might remind donors of their previous wins and the great story they told before. But you can’t dwell there too long, because that’s now the normal world. That’s the beginning of the sequel.

Stay in touch with them. Keep meeting. Keep inviting. Keep thanking. And when the time is right, present them with the next challenge and start asking again.

Want to Learn More About How You Can Leverage Technology to Help Your Supporters Tell Their Story (So You Raise More Gifts At Low Cost)?

Schedule a 15-minute call with one of our Solutionists to learn more.

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