At last, the one big thing every fundraiser needs to know to be successful

After more than a quarter century as a fundraiser and a professor focused on fundraising research, theories, data, and experiments, Dr. Russell James has determined the core role the successful fundraiser must play (or the fundraising operation must perform) is related to advancing the donor’s hero story.

What is a story?
Simply put, a story consists of character and plot (Without these components there cannot be a story.)

What is a fundraising story?
In a fundraising story, the goal is to elicit social emotions. Social emotions depend on the thoughts, feelings or actions of other people, “as experienced, recalled, anticipated or imagined first hand. For instance, empathy is a powerful social emotion that involves taking another person’s perspective and feelings.

In Dr. James’ new book series he explains how neuroimaging studies proved that social emotions drive fundraising stories. They activate the brain region used for valuing social-emotional outcomes and predict charitable giving.

Research also found that the activation of this brain region depends on input from two other brain regions:

  1. One that helps supporters shift their attention to focus on another’s perspective.
  2. Another that plays a role is empathy.

Both perspective and empathy are needed to activate social emotions. But that’s not all you need to develop a powerful fundraising story.

Effective stories involve relatable characters — ones we like and with whom we empathize. Ones we identify with because we can understand their perspective.

This is especially true in a fundraising story. If a supporter doesn’t identify with the character, they won’t accept the story. Then, they won’t donate.

Having said that, the best fundraising stories focus on just one character. And the singular character a supporter can identify with most is themselves. After all, taking one’s own perspective and empathizing with oneself is easy.

It’s about them, not you (or your organization)!
Therefore, a story that involves a supporter’s life (not you or your organization’s successes) is a compelling story indeed!

However, supporters can also identify with others who are like them or who share similar experiences. As a result, any story can become about the supporter as long as they identify with the character.

Bad stories…
Now, let’s consider a bad story. At least, in the supporter’s eyes.
A bad story is the charity’s story. Fundraisers, marketers, and organization administrators might find this story interesting since they know their charity’s characters well. But since a donor can hardly ever identify with those characters, the charity’s story won’t support the advancement of the donor’s story.

After all, those folks are not very relatable to the donor (especially a major donor, in most cases). They aren’t the beneficiaries of the donor’s gifts and they aren’t major donors either. Stories about beneficiaries and other major donors would be more relatable to a donor. Stories about organizational successes that make administrators the heroes compete with the advancement of donor stories thereby creating friction and inhibiting giving.

That’s where fundraisers come into the picture.
Fundraisers have a powerful role in the development of donor stories. They are skilled in helping supporters activate identification by guiding them toward thinking about how their life intersects with the cause. Fundraisers help donors tell THEIR stories. The best, most successful fundraisers do this naturally. Yet, it can be learned and perfected with intention and practice.

Helping supporters tell their stories activates the parts of their brains that drive empathy and perspective. That activates social emotions which lead to charitable giving. You can take that to the bank!

And if you use technology to do what fundraisers do best but at scale, and automatically (even while you sleep), then you multiply yourself and raise more money at lower cost.

So, your role is to help the donor tell their story, not to tell your organization’s story.
Whether you do this individually and one-on-one, or with technology, the key is to recognize that this is what works.

Let’s face it, all of us are a little narcissistic. 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.

Too many times, fundraisers focus on their organization’s story when talking to donors. That’s great for the fundraiser. But as a donor, that gets a little boring. Or even worse, it makes donors think you’re a braggart and, especially, you don’t care about them. You only care about their money.

That’s why, as fundraisers, we should be helping donors tell their stories and we should help them do so in ways that make it possible for them to be the heroes in those stories. After all, who doesn’t want to be a hero?

Never forget that the most interesting story for the donor is their donor story. Help them be the hero of that story and you’ll increase the donor’s involvement and charitable giving.

That’s the one big thing!: Advance the donor’s hero story.
That’s what helps donors move themselves forward in the consideration process when it comes to major gifts.

Always focus on that and you’ll raise more money. I promise!


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