The 3 Key Elements of a Good Fundraising Story

What’s it about?
Many stories can be good stories. But a good fundraising story must do something specific. It must lead to a gift. This simple fact reveals something important. A good fundraising story, ultimately, is about the donor’s gift.

Story means character and plot. In a story about the donor’s gift, who is the key character? That’s obvious. It’s the donor. What is a key action in the plot? That’s also obvious. It’s the donor’s action of making the gift.

Whose story?
This might seem obvious, but it’s rare. Charities love to tell stories. Mostly they love to tell stories about themselves. This is natural. The most interesting story for me is my story. The most interesting story for you is your story. The most interesting story for charity insiders is their charity’s story. But the most interesting story for the donor is the donor’s story.

When is a story the donor’s story? When the donor either is or identifies with the main character. Either way, the story is – to some degree – about the donor.

But this isn’t enough. To be the donor’s story, the donor’s action must be key to the plot. The plot must hinge on the donor’s gift. Plot requires change. If the gift doesn’t change anything, it’s not part of the plot.

Plot elements: The narrative arc
A story needs character and plot. Plot requires change. This change arises through a narrative arc. This includes

1. Backstory and setting
Backstory shows the main character’s original identity. This comes from his people, values, and life story. Setting shows the environmental norms in the story’s world. These develop motivation for action before the challenge.

2. The inciting incident
This shows the main character’s challenge.

3. Climax and resolution
These show the main character’s victory and altered (or enhanced) identity.

Plot elements: The narrative arc in fundraising
Fundraising story can follow this narrative arc.

1. Backstory and setting
These develop motivation for the gift before the ask. Backstory connects the gift request (challenge) to the donor’s identity (life history, people, and values). Setting creates an environment in which sharing is a social norm.

2. Inciting incident
This is the challenge. It’s the ask. It is:

  • A crisis (threat or opportunity) for the donor’s people or values
  • Promising the hope of a victory
  • That forces a response.

3. Climax and resolution
At the story climax, the gift achieves a victory. The resolution confirms the donor’s resulting heroism or other positive identity traits. These come from impact reporting, gratitude, and publicity.

The fundraising story cycle
Applying this narrative arc to fundraising story creates a cycle.

Identity at bottom left with arrow pointing to Challenge at center top with arrow pointing to Victory at bottom right with arrow pointing back to Identity at the bottom left

The challenge is the fundraising ask. It’s the inciting incident in the donor’s story. But the story doesn’t start at the ask.

The story starts with backstory and setting. These connect the donor’s original identity with the challenge. They develop giving motivation from life history, values, and social norms before the ask.

Also, the story doesn’t end at the ask. The donor’s gift must do something. Accepting the challenge should lead to a meaningful victory. This happens at the climax.

A good story alters the main character’s identity. The character must arc. This change is confirmed at the resolution. In fundraising, the victory leads to an enhanced identity for the donor. It might enhance personal meaning (internal identity). It might enhance public reputation (external identity). It might do both. Impact reporting, gratitude, and publicity can confirm this enhanced identity.

Bad fundraising is bad story
Understanding fundraising as a narrative arc is powerful. It makes fundraising intuitive. Consider these comparisons:

What if a story had great backstory and setting, but never went further? That story can’t succeed. It never progresses to an inciting incident. It’s bad story.

What if a charity had great social events and “friend-raising,” but never went further? It never led to a compelling ask. That story can’t succeed either. It never progresses to an inciting incident. It’s bad fundraising because it’s bad story.

Story needs an inciting incident. The main character must respond to a crisis (threat or opportunity). He must face a compelling choice with the hope of victory.

But the story can’t start there. The audience must first identify with the character, values, or theme. Without a relatable backstory, the inciting incident won’t be compelling. The audience won’t care. Starting at the inciting incident is bad story.

In fundraising, the ask is critical. The donor must face a compelling choice with a promise of victory.

But the fundraising story can’t start there. The donor must first identify with the charity, the beneficiaries, or the values. Otherwise, the ask won’t be compelling. The donor won’t care. Starting at the ask is bad fundraising. It’s bad fundraising because it’s bad story.

A story could build to a compelling inciting incident. A crisis arises. The hero faces a choice. He can hide in his self-focused world. Or he can go on an adventure promising a victory for the larger world. He resists. But finally, things change. He commits to go on the journey. And then … the book ends. Or the credits roll.

That’s a terrible story! There’s no adventure. No climax. No resolution. You would never tell a story like that. And you wouldn’t return to an author or director who did so.

A story shouldn’t end at the inciting incident. And fundraising shouldn’t end at the ask. Yet this often happens. The donor says, “Yes.” But then, nothing. There’s no reporting of the impact of the gift. There’s no recognition, no gratitude, no publicity.

This is bad fundraising. It’s bad fundraising because it’s a bad story. There’s no adventure. No climax. No resolution. Why would a donor repeat an experience like that?

Stopping at the ask is bad fundraising. So is starting at the ask. So is leaving out the ask. These are bad fundraising because they are bad stories.

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Story: The inciting incident
In a story, the main character must face a challenge. This comes at the inciting incident.[1]

Different story experts call this step by different names. Robert McKee coined the term “inciting incident.” Blake Snyder called it the “catalyst.”[2] Others name it the “call to action.”[3] In the universal hero story, Joseph Campbell dubs it the “call to adventure.”[4]

Regardless of the name, the elements are similar. A crisis (threat or opportunity) arises for the main character. He can’t just ignore it. It forces him to respond. But the crisis is not hopeless. It holds the promise of a solution. The main character accepts the challenge. He takes off in pursuit of the goal. And so, the action begins!

Fundraising: The ask
In fundraising story, the inciting incident is the ask.[5] A crisis (threat or opportunity) arises for the donor’s people or values. The ask forces the donor to respond. It’s a challenge. But it’s a challenge that promises a solution. It promises the hope of victory over the crisis.

Story needs an inciting incident. Fundraising needs an ask. Research results agree: Asking works. Asking increases both current[6] and bequest[7] gifts. In-person asking works best.[8]

One study examined a university phone-a-thon campaign. The campaign made it part way through an alphabetical alumni list. Those with names earlier in the alphabet were more likely to be asked. The result? They gave more.[9] This didn’t just happen once. Position in the alphabet actually predicted lifetime giving to the university.[10] More asking led to more giving.

In another study, people were completing their will documents. Some were asked, “Would you like to leave anything to charity?” Others weren’t. The result? Asking more than doubled the share including charity in their wills.[11]

One national-level study explored what factors cause donations. It looked at everything from empathic concern, trust, and religiosity to education and income. The result? The most important factor wasn’t any of these. Instead, the researchers explained, “the study reveals that being asked to donate has the highest explanatory power regarding the incidence of giving among all causes investigated.”[12]

Good fundraising is good story. It includes each story element. Bad fundraising is bad story. It often leaves out parts.

Fundraising tends to focus on the ask. That’s fine. A good story needs an inciting incident. But what makes a fundraising ask a good one? What makes it compelling? The next article explores this question. The answer, once again, is found in story.


[1] In describing a scale “for measuring the degree of good storytelling,” Woodside notes, “The story has an inciting event (a crisis or turning point) involving the protagonist, along with a beginning and a resolution;” Woodside, A. G. (2010). Storytelling theory and research. In Case study research: Theory, methods, practice (pp. 41-83). Emerald Group Publishing Limited.

See also, “A good story displays tension that includes one or more inciting incidents preceded by conditions or settings that initiate the unconscious/conscious identification of one or more goals, with actions by a protagonist and possibly additional actors resulting in an outcome;” Woodside, A. G., Sood, S., & Miller, K. E. (2008). When consumers and brands talk: Storytelling theory and research in psychology and marketing. Psychology & Marketing, 25(2), 97-145. p. 101.

[2] Snyder, B. (2005). Save the cat! The last book on screenwriting you’ll ever need. Michael Wiese Productions. [At the time of this writing, this book was listed as the best seller in the screenwriting category on]
Tim Stout describes the Catalyst as “The moment where life as it is changes. It is the telegram, the act of catching your loved-one cheating, allowing a monster onboard the ship, meeting the true love of your life, etc. The “before” world is no more, change is underway.”]

[3] Sublett, S. W. (2014). Screenwriting for neurotics: A beginner’s guide to writing a feature-length screenplay from start to finish. University of Iowa Press. p. 72.

[4] Campbell, J. (2004/1949). The Hero with a Thousand Faces (commemorative ed.). Princeton University Press. p. 45

[5] See, Merchant, A., Ford, J. B., & Sargeant, A. (2010). Charitable organizations’ storytelling influence on donors’ emotions and intentions. Journal of Business Research, 63(7), 754-762.

[6] Herzog, P. S., & Yang, S. (2018). Social networks and charitable giving: Trusting, doing, asking, and alter primacy. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 47(2), 376-394; Meer, J., & Rosen, H. S. (2011). The ABCs of charitable solicitation. Journal of Public Economics, 95(5-6), 363-371; Neumayr, M., & Handy, F. (2019). Charitable giving: What influences donors’ choice among different causes? VOLUNTAS: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations, 30(4), 783-799; Yörük, B. K. (2009). How responsive are charitable donors to requests to give? Journal of Public Economics, 93(9-10), 1111-1117.

[7] Sanders, M., & Smith, S. (2016). Can simple prompts increase bequest giving? Field evidence from a legal call centre. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 125, 179-191.

[8] Oh, J., & Ki, E. J. (2019). What makes association members donate more? Factors influencing members’ donation amount in membership-based professional associations. VOLUNTAS: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations, 30(4), 800-810. p. 805 (“The results of the full model show that the mere act of face-to-face solicitation significantly increases the amount of donation among respondents (β = .065, p < .001).”); Yörük, B. K. (2012). Do charitable solicitations matter? A comparative analysis of fundraising methods. Fiscal Studies, 33(4), 467-487. p. 469. (“The results show that the amount of money donated to charity differs considerably in response to alternative fundraising methods. In particular, compared with impersonal fundraising techniques such as direct-mail or telephone solicitations and media ads, charitable donors are not only more likely to donate but also donate more on average as a response to personal requests.”) See also, Alston, M., Eckel, C., Meer, J., & Zhan, W. (2018). High-capacity donors’ preferences for charitable giving (No. w25290). National Bureau of Economic Research. (“We found that high-income donors are not responsive to letters or e-mails… Our results suggest that motivating high-income donors requires more personal communication.”)

[9] Meer, J., & Rosen, H. S. (2011). The ABCs of charitable solicitation. Journal of Public Economics, 95(5-6), 363-371.

[10] Id at p. 366 fn 13. (“We examined the effect of alphabet position on lifetime giving (defined as the log of the sum of an alumnus’s giving in each year since graduation) and found that those in A to F give, on average, 5.7% more than those in S to Z (s.e.= 2.6%), while those in G to L give 2.2% (s.e.= 2.7%) more, and those in M to R give 0.95% (s.e.= 2.8%) more.”)

[11] Sanders, M., & Smith, S. (2016). Can simple prompts increase bequest giving? Field evidence from a legal call centre. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 125, 179-191.

[12] Neumayr, M., & Handy, F. (2019). Charitable giving: What influences donors’ choice among different causes? VOLUNTAS: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations, 30(4), 783-799. p. 783.


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