Why fundraisers must understand the 6 common elements of every donor’s hero story

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As fundraisers, what exactly do we have to offer donors?

Their gift goes away. Even if we call it an “investment,” it doesn’t give them any financial benefits. (Or at least none worth the cost of the gift.)

What do we offer that can compete with a cruise, a luxury car, or a bigger house?

We actually do have something. Something important.

The heroic donor

Consuming more stuff is fine. But it doesn’t make an inspirational story. Piling up more things is nice. But it doesn’t make a meaningful journey.

Spending money only on yourself is not noble. Its impact is temporary. It ends when you end. No matter what you eat, wear, drive, or own, if your life is only about your own consumption, it’s ultimately pretty meaningless. No one wants an obituary that reads simply, “He made a lot of money. The end.”

That’s where philanthropy comes in. Through philanthropy, donors can support meaningful values that transcend their own lives. They can impact others beyond themselves. They can leave a legacy that will last beyond their own lives. In short, philanthropy allows donors to be heroic.

The universal hero story

The desire for heroism is universal. It expresses what psychologist Carl Jung called an archetype. This is, “a spiritual goal toward which the whole nature of man strives.”[1]

These universal, ancient patterns are, he explained, “inherited with the brain structure – indeed they are its psychic aspect.”[2]

But it’s not just the desire for heroism that is universal. The hero story itself is universal. In 1949, Professor Joseph Campbell published his famous book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. In it, he examined hero stories from across the globe. He looked at hero stories in western cultures, eastern cultures, and island cultures. He looked at hero stories from indigenous tribes and industrialized societies. He looked at hero stories from history and modern day.

What he concluded was this: There may be a thousand different hero stories in a thousand different cultures. But each is just a variation of a single, underlying, primal hero story. He called this core human hero story the monomyth.

This universal monomyth contains specific story elements. The hero…

  1. Begins in the ordinary world
  2. Is faced with a challenge (the call to adventure)
  3. Rejects then accepts the call and enters the new world
  4. Undergoes ordeals and overcomes an enemy
  5. Gains a reward or transformation, and
  6. Returns to the place of beginning with a gift to improve that world.[3]

How important is this hero’s journey?

Bestselling author and screenwriter Steven Pressfield explains, “The hero’s journey arose, both [Jung & Campbell] speculated, from the accumulated experience of the human race over millions of years. The hero’s journey is like an operating system (or software in an operating system) that each of us receives at birth, hard-wired into our psyches, to help us navigate our passage through life.”[4]

Humans are hardwired to communicate by story. So, too, we are hardwired to think in terms of the hero story. Pressfield explains, “The hero’s journey is … the primal myth of the human race, the cosmic pattern that each of our lives follows (and a thousand increments thereof), whether we know it or not, whether we like it or not.”[5]

The donor’s hero story

How does this connect to fundraising? Philanthropy can address the core human need for heroism. By doing so, it becomes profoundly compelling. It becomes personally transformational.

This need for heroism is exactly fulfilled through the classic elements of the universal hero story. These story elements function as primal “flags.” They trigger a deep resonance in humans.[6]

But let’s get practical. How do these elements relate to the stories behind major donations? Consider the successful entrepreneur making a major gift to her alma mater:

  • Does she go forth from the university (graduate) to enter a new world (the business world)? Yes.
  • Does she undergo an ordeal and overcome enemies in that new world (building the business)? Yes.
  • Does she gain a reward (wealth) and personal transformation? Yes.
  • Does she return to her place of beginning (university) with a gift to improve that original world? Yes. (For example, establishing a scholarship for other women like her.)

Consider the cancer survivor giving back to support research and treatment:

  • Does he face a challenge that interrupts his ordinary world (diagnosis)? Yes.
  • Does he accept it and go forth, undergoing an ordeal (treatment)? Yes.
  • Does he gain a reward (remission) and personal transformation? Yes.
  • Does he then return to his place of beginning (diagnosis) with a gift to improve that original world? Yes. (For example, funding new research or treatment for others like him.)

The universal hero story can fit any charitable cause. The place of beginning might be:

  • Growing up in a church
  • Economic hardship
  • The love for a pet, or
  • Experiences in nature.

The gift might improve the world for other believers, others in need, animals, or the environment. Our causes may differ, but the core elements still apply.[7] And they don’t apply just once. The hero’s journey is not just a one-shot story. It’s a continuing, circular narrative in our lives. It’s repeated, ongoing, and overlapping, but always relevant and always compelling.

This universal journey is common to all forms of storytelling.

Professor Philip Zimbardo explains, “[Joseph Campbell’s] highlighting of the special journey any person takes on the path to becoming a true hero has been the heart and soul of storytelling in movies, classical drama and literature.” [8]

Spoiler alert: Epic Hollywood movies

The universal hero story deserves the ultimate “spoiler alert!” Now that you know the elements, you also know the plot for most epic Hollywood movies. The hero might be

  • Luke Skywalker in Star Wars
  • Neo in The Matrix, or
  • Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit.

But the universal hero story is the same. The hero begins in his ordinary (small, self-focused) world. For example,

  • Luke is a Tatooine farm boy
  • Neo is a dissatisfied corporate drone, or
  • Bilbo is a Hobbit in the shire.

The hero faces the call to adventure. For example,

  • Save Princess Leia
  • Take the red pill, or
  • Join the expedition.

The hero accepts, goes forth, and enters a new world. He undergoes an ordeal. He gains a reward or transformation. He returns with a gift to improve the world. For example,

  • Luke destroys the Death Star. He becomes a Jedi Warrior who defends against the empire.
  • Neo defeats Agent Smith. He becomes “the one” with the power to set the prisoners free.
  • Bilbo helps defeat the Goblins. He becomes the keeper of the ring with peace restored.

The same story elements appear in all types of movies. The heroes can be

  • Historical women (Mulan)
  • Modern women (The Devil Wears Prada)
  • Cartoon women (Moana)
  • Lions (The Lion King)
  • Ogres (Shrek)
  • Wizards (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone), or
  • Superheroes (Avengers: Endgame)

Why does Hollywood keep reusing this same universal hero story?

Because it works.

The highest-grossing film franchises are all hero stories.[9] It works because it’s “hard wired into our psyches.”[10]

As fundraisers, it’s not enough just to use a story. We need to use the right story. And the right story – although it may have a thousand different faces – is actually the same story.[11]

It is the donor’s story. It is the donor’s hero story.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Jung, C. (1953-1978). On the nature of the psyche. In H. Read, M. Fordham, & G. Adler (Eds.), The collected works of C. G. Jung (20 vols). Routledge. Volume VIII, para. 414.

[2] Jung, C. (1953-1978). Mind and earth. In H. Read, M. Fordham, & G. Adler (Eds.), The collected works of C. G. Jung (20 vols). Routledge. Volume X, para. 53.

[3] This element can distinguish the hero’s journey from the fairy tale. In a fairy tale, the protagonists may live happily ever after. But if the goal is not to return to a place of beginning to bring a benefit to that world, then the story isn’t heroic. The victory in a fairy tale is, essentially, a personal or selfish one.

[4] Pressfield, S. (2016). Nobody wants to read your sh*t and other tough-love truths to make you a better writer. Black Irish Entertainment LLC. p. 68.

[5] Pressfield, S. (2016, Sept. 17). The inciting incident and “the call”. [Website]. https://stevenpressfield.com/2016/09/the-inciting-incident-and-the-call/

[6] “Ethologists call these structures innate releasing mechanisms, or IRMs. Each IRM is primed to become active when an appropriate stimulus – called a sign stimulus – is encountered in the environment. When such a stimulus appears, the innate mechanism is released, and the animal responds with a characteristic pattern of behavior …” Stevents, A. (2001). Jung: A very short introduction. Oxford University Press. pp. 51-52.

[7] One study analyzed the letters accompanying 187 billionaires “giving pledge” commitments. (These were pledges to give at least half of their wealth to charity.) The researchers found that most letters included two elements. First, they included an origin story. The letters referenced family upbringing as the source motivating generosity. In the same way, the monomyth begins with the hero’s origin story in his ordinary world.

Second, they referenced a desire not to give, but to “give back.” Giving back is different than giving. It references a circular process. In the monomyth, the hero returns to the original world. The hero returns with a gift or “boon” to improve that world.

These letters also typically included a victory reference, mentioning how the giving would make an impact, make a difference, and help solve societal problems. Additionally, they also tended to include references to the personal benefits from giving. This included terms such as ‘‘enjoyment,’’ ‘‘satisfaction,’’ ‘‘psychological returns,’’ or ‘‘pleasure’’. The donor experience justified the gift. (It is also interesting to note that none of the letters referenced wealth inequality and only one referenced guilt.)

The monomyth can be thought of as progressing through original identity → challenge → victory → enhanced identity. The justification given in these largest of all gifts tended to include these same elements.
Schmitz, H. P., Mitchell, G. E., & McCollim, E. M. (2021). How billionaires explain their philanthropy: A mixed-method analysis of the giving pledge letters. VOLUNTAS: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations, 1-12.

[8] Philip Zimbardo, Professor Emeritus at Stanford and Founder/President of the Heroic Imagination Project. Zimbardo, P. (2017). Foreword. in S.T. Allison, G.R. Goethals, & R. M. Kramer (Eds.), Handbook of heroism and heroic leadership. Routledge. p. xxi.

[9] For example: Avengers (Marvel), Star Wars, Harry Potter, James Bond, The Lord of the Rings, X-Men, The Fast and the Furious, Jurassic Park, Spiderman, and Batman.

[10] Pressfield, S. (2016). Nobody wants to read your sh*t and other tough-love truths to make you a better writer. Black Irish Entertainment LLC. p. 68.

[11] Indeed, these same themes emerge in observational analysis research. For example, Walker and Frimer (2007) studied a sample of moral heroes (having received either the Caring Canadian Award or the Medal of Bravery) and otherwise similar matched comparisons. They assesed these heroes and controls across the three levels of personality measurement: dispositional traits, motivational aspects, and integrative life narratives. They found significant differences only at the “deeper life-narrative level of personality description.” In other words, the dispositions (e.g., extraversion) weren’t different. The motivations weren’t different. But the life stories were different. They were different in five specific ways. “Of the set of personality variables analyzed, five were identified as foundational, all at the life-narrative level of personality description: both agentic and communal motivation, themes of redemption, and intimation of formative relationships in early life as evidenced by secure attachments and the presence of ‘helpers’ who scaffolded development.” Walker, L. J. (2017). The moral character of heroes. In S. T. Allison, G. R. Goethals, & R. M. Kramer (Eds.), Handbook of heroism and heroic leadership (pp. 99-119). Routledge. p. 109.

These elements also appear in the monomyth. Redemption themes arise when a person has overcome and benefitted from negative events. (The hero undergoes a struggle, but ultimately comes out transformed and bearing a gift for the original world.) Agentic motives is about the belief that one can do or achieve something. (The hero succeeds.) Communal motives are about caring for others in the group. (The hero returns with a gift to support the community.) Finally, the presence of helpers along the journey is a universal characteristic of the monomyth. See, Walker, L. J., & Frimer, J. A. (2007). Moral personality of brave and caring exemplars. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 93, 845-860.

 

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