Why public gratitude and admiration are key to the donor’s hero story

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Monomyth ending

The universal hero story (monomyth) ends with the hero’s return. The hero returns to his original world. The return confirms his new heroic status. It confirms his new identity.

This often happens in an ending scene of public acclaim. For example, the original Star Wars film ends this way. So does the final Lord of the Rings film. So does The Lion King. And Shrek. And Moana. And The Karate Kid. And Rocky. And on and on.

Fundraising: Publicity risk and reward

In fundraising, publicity can lead to public acclaim. It can lead others to confirm the donor’s positive identity. It can even confirm the donor’s heroic status.

Building the right message can help. So can building the right audience. For example, a community of fellow supporters can be a great audience. They’re more likely to appreciate and admire the donor’s gift and impact.

Good publicity can deliver the ultimate donor experience. But for many donors, it can be scary. It’s scary because it can go wrong.

Publicity can be risky for the donor’s story. The audience may not be supportive. They can reject the positive identity claim. They can dismiss the donor’s hero story. They can view the publicity as the motivation for the gift. This makes the gift a self-interested transaction. Such a gift doesn’t reflect generosity. It’s not sacrificial. It can’t be heroic. These challenges can destroy the donor’s story.

Yet, publicity can be helpful. It can confirm the donor’s positive identity. It can confirm the donor’s hero story. It can massively increase the value of the donor’s experience. But it’s also risky. It can lead to rejection. This can be scary for the donor.

Delivering this story ending is powerful. But it can come with a barrier. It can require overcoming donor hesitancy. How do we do this? How do we overcome the donor’s fears? The answers appear in the monomyth itself.

Monomyth: The refusal of the return

In the monomyth, the hero returns. He is now personally transformed and meaningfully victorious.[1] The return confirms the hero’s new status. Often, the hero returns to public acclaim.

But the return of the hero isn’t simple. In its classic form, it’s a sequence of six stages.[2] Stage one might surprise you. It’s “1. The Refusal of the Return.”[3]

Why would the hero refuse to return? Because the return can be intimidating. The original world might reject the hero. It might not accept his victory as meaningful. It might not see his transformation as positive or real.

The prospect of the return is risky. The original world might reject the hero’s enhanced identity. In Jung’s work, this enhanced identity is called “individuation.”[4] One researcher explains, “the loss of the personal individuation that had been achieved is a driving fear for the hero in his Return to the known world.”[5]

The hero resists returning to the original world. The return subjects him to public scrutiny. It could lead to public acclaim. Or not. It might instead lead to public dismissal or derision. It’s risky.

These same risks arise in a donor’s fear of publicity. The donor may have had a good experience without publicity. He may have felt an internal identity enhancement. The gift may have been personally meaningful. But once it’s made public, others may reject the meaningfulness of the gift. They can spoil the positive identity experience.

Publicity risks rejection. It risks “the loss of the personal individuation that had been achieved.” It risks a negative reframing of the donor’s story. It can be scary.

Monomyth: Reframing the return

The hero initially resists the return. How is this overcome? First, the return is not framed as a way to gain acclamation. Rather, it is a necessary burden for the hero. The return is not an act of selfishness. Instead, it requires overcoming selfishness. One scholar writes, “Possessing the boon is not an end for the hero; it is the beginning of another stage. The boon is a ‘life-transmuting trophy’ so the hero must return home ‘where the boon may redound to the renewing of his community or the whole world’ (Campbell 2004, 179). Similar to the refusal of the call, this responsibility is also often refused by the hero as he is too selfish to use the boon for others’ good, he does not want to leave the pleasures that this new world offers …”[6]

Joseph Campbell explains the risks of the hero’s return. He writes, “As dreams that were momentous by night may seem simply silly in the light of day, so the poet and the prophet can discover themselves playing the idiot before a jury of sober eyes. The easy thing is to commit the whole community to the devil and retire again into the heavenly rock-dwelling, close the door, and make it fast.” [7]

It would be more comfortable never to return. But it wouldn’t be heroic.

Fundraising: Reframing publicity

In the monomyth, the hero’s return results in public acclaim. But it’s framed as a sacrifice. A donor conversation can use this same framing. For example, “I understand public recognition can be uncomfortable for you. But we’ve found it sets a powerful example that influences others. Allowing us to share your story could inspire other gifts. Think of it like giving a second gift. It could really make a big difference.”

Another fundraiser suggests, “Thank you so much for bearing with me. One last thing – stories of generosity tend to encourage others to be more generous. It would be an honor to publicize your gift to inspire others. Would that be ok?” [8]

Publicity can deliver a powerful experience for the donor. But the motivation shouldn’t be framed as selfish. Instead, the motivation is sacrifice. Allowing publicity is another gift from the donor. It’s the gift of setting a powerful example. It’s a gift that helps the charity. It’s a gift that benefits the donor’s people and values.

Monomyth: Automatic return

In the monomyth, how does the hero return? One way is “2. The Magic Flight.”[9] Here, the hero is forced to return. He’s being chased. (The temporarily beaten enemy is none too happy!) There is no place else to go. The hero must escape back to the original world.

Another way is “3. Rescue from Without.”[10] Here, the hero’s return becomes automatic. He might be given safe and quick passage by those in the new world.[11] Or those in the original world may come and get him.[12]

Thus, the hero’s return is either

  • Compulsory (“2. The Magic Flight”), or
  • Automatic (“3. Rescue from Without”).

Either through outside force or outside aid, the hero returns. He moves to the next stage, “4. The Crossing of the Return Threshold.”[13]

He returns to the original “real” world.

Fundraising: Automatic publicity

In fundraising, publicity pushes the donor’s hero story into the “real” world. It can be scary. But it’s also important. It can dramatically improve the donor’s experience. So, overcoming donor hesitancy is important.

One way to do this is to make publicity feel automatic. It can feel expected, normal, almost mandatory. Of course, an adamant donor could still opt out.[14] But opting out shouldn’t be highlighted, suggested, or even easy. It should trigger resistance. It should lead to conversations. These can be ostensibly to confirm, but also to counsel against, opting out.

Experiments have tested this. Making publicity mandatory, rather than voluntary, works.[15] It increases volunteering and donations. Researchers explain, “Making the publicity of a pro-social behavior mandatory instead of voluntary … makes people more willing to both help and to spread word about the charitable cause, and facilitates a win-win situation among contributors, charity organizations, and their recipients.” [16]

In practice, publicity should be routine and automatic. It should be a normal part of the fundraising process. A donor should never have to ask. Asking for publicity ruins the donor-hero story. Even admitting that publicity is a motivation is anti-heroic.[17] Publicity can still be an important part of the story. It just needs to be automatic not demanded, or even requested. Another study found, “When public recognition is saliently imposed (not requested), donation likelihood increases, suggesting that donors’ potential concerns about observers’ suspicion of their true motives is reduced.” [18]

The monomyth hero often hesitates to return. So, too, the donor hero may hesitate to bring his story into the open. This donor hesitancy can be overcome.

Elements from the monomyth can help. Publicity can be reframed as unselfish and heroic. It can become “magically” automatic.

Monomyth: The ending is vital

The hero story ends with admiration. It ends with a confirmation of heroism. This confirmation isn’t just an add-on. It’s an essential part of the story. It’s even in the definition for “hero.” Merriam-Webster’s definitions for “hero”[19] include,

  • “A person admired for achievements and noble qualities,” and
  • “An object of extreme admiration and devotion.”

A hero whom no one admires isn’t much of a hero. Admiration is important. It’s important to the hero story. And it’s important to the donor’s hero story.

Fundraising: The ending is vital

In fundraising, donor admiration can come from different sources. It can come from beneficiaries or their representatives. This is gratitude. It can come from other appreciative audiences. This is effective publicity. Gratitude and publicity are key parts of the story.

But they’re also key parts of the next story. The ending of one donation story is the beginning of the next. Publicity can encourage the next step. This is true whether that next step is the next gift or fulfilling a previous pledge.

Fundraiser Anne Melvin explains, “every time I got a new pledge, I added (after my ‘thank you!’) ‘Can I let other supporters of Wellesley know you’ll be supporting the Wellesley Scholarship Foundation?’ Not only did I get a yes, but I increased my chance of turning the pledge into a gift by letting the pledgor know that her gift would be public.”[20]

Conclusion: The ending is vital

The return of the hero is the end of the monomyth story. Gratitude and publicity are the end of the fundraising story. Both confirm an enhanced identity.

But in fundraising, this ending is also a beginning. It’s the beginning of the next story. Confirming heroism (or some other positive identity) enhances the donation experience. It delivers real value to the donor. This encourages the next gift. Keeping the donor starts by finishing the story.


[1] This is confirmed in the final steps of the hero’s return: “5. Master of the Two Worlds” and “6. Freedom to Live.” Campbell, J. (1949/2004). The hero with a thousand faces (commemorative ed.). Princeton University Press. p. viii

[2] These are:

  1. Refusal of the Return
  2. The Magic Flight
  3. Rescue from Without
  4. The Crossing of the Return Threshold
  5. Master of the Two Worlds
  6. Freedom to Live

Campbell, J. (1949/2004). The hero with a thousand faces (commemorative ed.). Princeton University Press. p. viii

When looking at these, and other components of the monomyth, it is important to keep in mind that these are general descriptors of a cycle. They will not always appear. They are not mandatory, fixed, sequential steps. Campbell (p. 228) explains, “Many tales isolate and greatly enlarge upon one or two of the typical elements of the full cycle (test motif, flight motif, abduction of the bride), others string a number of independent cycles into a single series (as in the Odyssey). Differing characters or episodes can become fused, or a single element can reduplicate itself and reappear under many changes.”

[3] Campbell, J. (1949/2004). The hero with a thousand faces (commemorative ed.). Princeton University Press. p. viii

[4] Individuation “denotes the process by which a person becomes a psychological ‘in-dividual,’ that is, a separate, indivisible unity or ‘whole.’” Jung, C. G. (1990). The archetypes and the collective unconscious. In H. Read, M. Fordham & G. Adler (Eds.), R.F.C. Hull (Trans.), The collected works of C. G. Jung. Vol 9 (2nd ed.). Princeton University Press. p. 275.

[5] “Campbell explicitly brings up individuation as he is discussing the return of the hero: the loss of the personal individuation that had been achieved is a driving fear for the hero in his Return to the known world.” Butchart, L. (2019). “What man am I?” The Hero’s Journey, the beginning of individuation, and Taran Wanderer. Mythlore, 38(135), 199-218. p. 207.

[6] Zorba, M. G. (2019). A study on Frodo’s quest within the framework of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth. Mediterranean Journal of Humanities, 9(1), 401-416. p. 412.

[7] Campbell, J. (1949/2004). The hero with a thousand faces (commemorative ed.). Princeton University Press. p. 202

[8] Shuba, J. J. (2020, October). Navigating planned gift conversations with your donors. [Paper presentation]. Charitable Gift Planning Conference, online. p. 2.

[9] Campbell, J. (1949/2004). The hero with a thousand faces (commemorative ed.). Princeton University Press. p. viii

[10] Id.

[11] “The final work is that of the return. If the powers have blessed the hero, he now sets forth under their protection (emissary); if not, he flees and is pursued (transformation flight, obstacle flight).” Id. p. 228.

[12] “The hero may have to be brought back from his supernatural adventure by assistance from without. That is to say, the world may have to come and get him.” Id. p. 192.

[13] Id. p. viii.

[14] One study explored the effects of alerting online donors that a thank you message would be posted on the donor’s personal Facebook walls. Doing so increased donations overall. But for less extroverted people (lower “need for social approval”), this announcement reduced their donations. Another approach worked better: making the thank you automatic but allowing for opting out. That approach increased donations for both groups. See Study 1 & Study 2 in Denis, E., Pecheux, C., & Warlop, L. (2020). When public recognition inhibits prosocial behavior: The case of charitable giving. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 49(5), 951-968.

[15] Yang, A., & Hsee, C. (2017). Promoting conspicuous generosity: Justifying the “brag” by removing the choice. Advances in Consumer Research – North American, 45, 70-71. https://www.acrwebsite.org/volumes/v45/acr_vol45_1024800.pdf

[16] In one study, researchers explained, “We show that … “brag-binding”, i.e, making the publicity of a pro-social behavior mandatory instead of voluntary, can … motivate people to engage in conspicuous prosocial behaviors … In sum, by removing contributors’ choice about whether to brag and justifying their prospective conspicuous prosocial behavior, “brag-binding” makes people more willing to both help and to spread word about the charitable cause, and facilitates a win-win situation among contributors, charity organizations, and their recipients.”

Id. p. 70-71.

[17] This is one of the reasons why publicity will rarely be reported by donors as a motivation for the gift. Such reports should not be taken at face value. Across social science research it is well documented that self-reports of motivations will suffer from “social desirability bias.” People will tend to report the most socially acceptable motivations for their actions. This bias is not simply from respondents trying to look good to the person asking the question. It is also about respondents trying to look good to themselves. See Brenner, P. S., & DeLamater, J. (2016). Lies, damned lies, and survey self-reports? Identity as a cause of measurement bias. Social Psychology Quarterly, 79(4), 333-354. Thus, we should expect that few donors will admit to being motivated by any apparently self-interested benefits such as publicity or tax deductions. However, fundraisers who take such reports at face value will have a mistaken impression of reality. Nevertheless, donors’ self-reported motivations are still valuable. This reveals that, although publicity and tax deductions may be highly motivational, they should never be described as the motivation for a gift. Doing so is not socially acceptable. It undermines the pro-social nature of the gift. It ruins the story of the gift.

[18] See Study 3 in Denis, E., Pecheux, C., & Warlop, L. (2020). When public recognition inhibits prosocial behavior: The case of charitable giving. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 49(5), 951-968.

[19] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/hero

[20] Melvin, A. T. (2014, October). The art (and science) of persuasion. [Paper presentation]. National Conference for Philanthropic Planning, Anaheim, CA. p. 9.


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