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5 Elements of Powerful Storytelling


Humans are wired for storytelling. Through stories, we learn, we make meaningful connections, we engage. It’s why mnemonic devices work (like remembering cardinal directions: Never Eat Sour Worms) and why fables are passed down from generation to generation (Tortoise and the Hare, anyone?). Stories are also the quickest, most impactful way to share information. In fact, the most popular TED Talks all heavily rely on storytelling techniques.

Why is storytelling important for nonprofits?

Storytelling is the driving force behind successful nonprofits. When told effectively, stories turn abstract ideas into relatable moments, create deeper emotional connections with supporters, and make it easier for others to talk about your organization.

As you’re preparing your year-end campaign, share real moments and experiences that resulted from your organization’s amazing work to turn abstract ideas into moments that resonate with donors. For example, many of your supporters may never have been homeless, but they know the feeling of being hungry and cold. “Stories that are personal and emotionally compelling engage more of the brain, and thus are better remembered, than simply stating a set of facts,” says Paul J. Zak Ph.D., director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University.

When emotions are stirred up, it creates a deeper emotional connection with your audience or in this case, your organization’s supporters. As most of us in fundraising know, evoking an emotional response is a key motivator when it comes to drumming up donations and support.

A great story also makes it easier for supporters to talk about your cause. Instead of stating, “The Girl Scouts did a book drive this year,” supporters are more likely to share the story of how volunteers for your organization happily spent two days in a freezing cold warehouse sorting through over 3,000 donated books before ultimately restocking two local school libraries.

What are the elements of good storytelling?

When developing a story, there are 5 essential elements to include: main character, conflict, villain, hero, and impact.

  1. Main Character: Who is the focal point of your story? This might be an individual person, a location (e.g., school or state park), or a treasured object (e.g., artwork, artifact, fossil). Now go deeper and get descriptive: What does your main character look like? What does it sound like? What are its goals, aspirations, or ideal state?
  2. Conflict: Every good story needs a bit of peril. What is preventing your main character from getting what they want or becoming what they desire to be? What has happened that led them to this current unfavorable situation? For example, this could be lack of affordable housing, food deserts, illness, budget cuts, or climate change.
  3. Villain: Who or what is responsible for the conflict? Or, thinking about it another way, who or what is standing in the way of your protagonist? In nonprofit storytelling, this is the opponent that your supporters rally against: the factory pouring chemicals into rivers, cancer, inflation, hurricanes, etc.
  4. Hero: Your nonprofit’s story has one hero: your supporters. How can the hero help the main character? What can they do to slay the villain? Remember, the goal of this story is to rally your heroes into action!
  5. Impact: What impact does your hero’s action have on your main character? How do their actions make a difference? This is where you share how your supporters are the ones who are truly making a difference through making contributions, volunteering, and spreading the word about your organization’s mission.

With the storytelling framework above, your organization can write and share countless stories across social media, email, in-person fundraising events, direct mail, and wherever else you connect with supporters throughout your year-end campaign and beyond. Test out a few versions of the same story or a range of stories with different protagonists or conflicts to see what resonates with your audience.

Looking to give your year-end fundraising campaign a boost?

For more information or assistance with firing up your donors for year-end, check out our 8 Weeks of Year-End Fundraising Resources or contact us at

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