Nonprofit Storytelling is Not Just a Buzzword, it’s a Power Tool

Storytelling. It’s the latest buzzword for nonprofits. For good reason.

Storytelling is inherently part of being human; it’s how we relate to one another, how we learn, how we teach and how we influence. Storytelling is so tied into our survival as a species, that without it, we would have gone extinct a long time ago.

It makes sense that nonprofits, doing the work of saving the world would want to tap into the most effective power tool at their disposal – the power of story.

Do you remember being a child and being swept away by a story? Maybe you daydreamed a lot (I did) and the narrative in your head took you to a way more interesting place than that boring math class. It was as if you were actually in the story. That’s how powerful stories are – a good story can transport us to somewhere else and we feel as if we are actually there.

Whether someone is telling you a story, or you’re watching it in a movie or on TV, whether it’s in a daydream; the result is the same. The story creates an emotional response and you learn from it, whether you realize you are learning or not. You modify behavior because of it, whether you realize it or not.

It isn’t just the stories you hear (or daydream) that influence you. The stories you tell also influence you. When you tell a story that recreates an event, or you share something from your imagination; those stories are like throwing spaghetti on a wall to see if it will stick. You test your belief system against the reactions of others, and you keep or change your belief or behavior because of that reaction.

In nonprofits, especially in fundraising – the right kind of story can lead to more support and more engagement in your mission.


Let’s start with brain chemicals; specifically, cortisol, oxytocin and dopamine.

Because nonprofits are dealing with difficult and sometimes horrendous situations, the stories you tell will most certainly trigger cortisol, the stress hormone. It’s the chemical in the brain that yells “DISTRESS!” in all caps.

This is what the Sarah McLachlan video for the ASPCA did (you know which one, don’t make me put a link). Those ads were all about distress. They were so distressful, people have said they just turned off the TV. Not exactly the response you’re looking for as a nonprofit trying to tell your story.

You would think you would want to keep your wonderful supporters free of all cortisol, but that’s not true. Some nonprofits  try to do that, telling only happy, feel-good stories because they believe that distressing their supporters will drive them away. Not true! What happens instead is that their supporters fail to recognize that action is necessary. Cortisol is something you want released in your donor’s brain. Why? Because cortisol demands that they wake up and pay attention.

Cortisol is not enough to motivate support however. While distress can and does often motivate a gift; that kind of motivation is not sustainable unless you plan to attack your donors with distressful information every time you need their support. Trust me, they will start to avoid you (and turn off the TV).

That brings us to the next component of a good fundraising story – empathy. Many fundraising stories fail to elicit empathy, which in the brain is a release of oxytocin. A person who does not feel empathy when you tell your story will not CARE about what you are telling them. This means, your story needs to speak to what they CARE about – not what you think is important.

Below is a video from neuroeconomist Paul Zak that explains:

Once  this brain cocktail of distress and empathy is going, people are more likely to give to a charitable cause. Your job is to provide a means for them to do that, which then causes a little hit in the brain of that fabulous neurotransmitter, dopamine, the feel-good, reward-motivated driver.

Asking for a gift and giving someone a way to make a difference will trigger dopamine when they give (in both your brains!) When you thank them, more dopamine. When you report how their gift made a difference, also dopamine.

All that dopamine when we give. That’s why giving feels so damn good.

In addition, more parts of the brain activate when a person is told a story versus a litany of facts. Without going into all the science, I’ll summarize what researchers in Spain found. 

When you share an experience with someone through a story, their brain synchronizes with it and they feel like they’ve experienced the same thing.

Tell a good story and your audience will actually feel like they are part of the story. 

Because science.

What does all of this mean and why does it matter? Because the more you understand why people respond (or don’t respond) to your stories, the better you will be able to craft a story that meets everyone’s needs.

Below is a simple formula I was taught 20 years ago, and knowing some of the brain science behind why a good story raises more money – this formula is still solid two decades later.

  • There is a need (cortisol) – DISTRESS! make sure your story is an experience demonstrating the need, one that shows the problem you are trying to fix. Tell it as an experience, something the brain can synchronize to – not a bunch of facts and stats.
  • This is why you, the donor, should care (oxytocin) – Empathy. Why should this person care about what you are telling them? Do you know who you are talking to and what problem they want to solve in the world? Focus on why they care, not what you are doing.
  • Please give (provide an easy way to give) because your gift will make a difference to…the problem they want to solve (dopamine) – Feelin’ So Good

Then, after the gift:

  • Thank them for their gift, Tell them they’ve made a difference solving…the problem they want to solve (dopamine). Tell this as an experiential story; you want their brain to synchronize with the story and feel like they were part of it. Remember, the brain can’t distinguish between real and story. Help your donors feel like they were there for the solution. “Thank you for your gift” has zero synchronization potential.

And later:

  • Here’s how your gift helpedthe problem they want to solve (dopamine) You know this by now – but this must be a story that relates to why they cared to give. While you can use stats – please remember, they need to help make the emotional point of the story.

Storytelling is a powerful tool. As with anything of power, you must wield it wisely and go forth to do good with it.

“You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone’s soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows that they might do because of it, because of your words. That is your role, your gift.”Erin Morgenstern,

Use the science, and use your gift,


Fundraising Plan template – easy to use!

General George S. Patton said, “A good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week”

I don’t like the feels that come with the word “violently” and I know this quote has been reworded many times with nicer words than violently – but I always prefer to reference the original source, so General Patton gets the lead.

Here’s another way to say the same thing, “An imperfect plan executed with purpose today is better than a perfect plan never executed”.

You know how when you go to an online recipe site and there’s all this content before the actual recipe? I’m not going to do that.

I’m going to give you the ingredients and recipe for a SMARTplan first, and then over the next few Friday posts, I’ll provide lots of content on how to build a SMARTplan in more detail.

Here are the ingredients for a quick SMARTplan:

S   Story and Strategy (that’s double the impact for being Specific)

M   Metrics and Milestones (that’s twice as good, wouldn’cha say?)

A    Action and Assigned (Whaaaa?! that’s so much better than Attainable)

R    Roles and Responsibilities (well, now this is just getting too robust)

T    Timed and Timed (Gotcha! there’s a reason for this double timed)

Below is a link to download a simple plan template. If you don’t have a written plan in place, and you need something quickly, this will do. Please note, the R sections are removed – they require a little more explanation.

Here’s the template link – instructions are on the second tab.

Note: Template is not loading into the website right now – please email me at for a copy. I promise – this is not a pitch for business, and I will not send you emails in the future. As soon as we get this website glitch fixed, you’ll be able to download the template from here.

If the SMART ingredients and the plan template make sense to you – go for it!

Purposeful planning and execution, Go!


Start – Commit – Trust – Iterate (and don’t forget to breathe)

It’s ski season. The Pacific Northwest is not seeing the kind of snowfall we got last year, but there’s still enough to make  turns (and as my snowboarding daughter says, “shred some gnar”).

Skiing last weekend made me remember a post I did awhile back on my other (now defunct) blog.

When I reread it I realized it fit this week’s theme of “Plan – Do – Check – Adjust”. If those are the main points, then this fills in some of the gaps, like Start – Commit – Trust – Iterate.

Here is that post, recycled for #WednesdayWisdom

A good ski turn. Simple enough in concept that a beginner can learn it, and hard enough to get exactly right that an expert is still always working on improving it.

Everyone falls down sometimes. The key is to get up, recognize what you did and fix it on the next turn. It takes practice. And perseverance.

External conditions change from day to day, sometimes hour to hour, and even on the same run. Snow, sleet, rain, sun, powder, packed groomers, ice, hero snow.

Internal conditions change too; muscle strength, mental acuity, flexibility, rested, exhausted.

The basics of a good ski turn can be applied to every situation in life. And each turn sets up and links to the next. As you get better and better, you move to even tougher terrain and challenges.

What’s in a good ski turn, and each turn in life?

Pick a line and have a plan. Initiate action (start) at the top of the turn and commit. Stay in balance. Dive in, and trust yourself. Stay committed through the scary part in the fall line.


Stay centered, and know the rest of the turn will take care of itself as you prepare for the next turn.


Check out my favorite ski areas in the Pacific Northwest to make turns (in order of my current preference):

Whistler Blackcomb


Mt. Bachelor

Stevens Pass

Mission Ridge


Curated Content: Plan, Do, Check, Adjust

I’m excited to evaluate and curate these resources for you, because I know you’re busy making the world a better place.

This week’s theme: Plan, Do, Check, Adjust:

Plan: “The Goal is to amplify the things that work”

Do: “Execution centers on doing”

Check: “It’s not enough to remove the negative”

Forget New Year’s Resolutions and Conduct a ‘Past Year Review’ Instead

Adjust: “saying yes to everything is a quick road to mediocrity”

Understanding Speed and Velocity: Saying “NO” to the Non-Essential

That’s it for this week! Enjoy!

The Power of Story in Nonprofit – It’s a Brain Thing

Once Upon a Time…

I was on the plane to Orlando, Florida. It was way too early in the morning and I had grabbed a coffee at the airport, but I was still under-caffeinated, tired and unmotivated. I was headed to The Nonprofit Storytelling Conference and I was looking forward to it, but I also had a lot on my mind. I had a file folder full of paper with me, the rough draft I had written for a guide on how to write a fundraising plan.

My intention for the six-hour flight from Seattle to Orlando was to edit the draft and develop instructions for the coding guy to take my spreadsheet templates and code them into interactive versions.

You know how sometimes you just can’t get the energy or interest together to do work? Instead of editing the draft, I opened the book I had ordered online and that had just arrived before my trip. I was excited about this book because I like to write fiction and I’m also a data nerd. I loved that it was focused on the science behind why stories capture us and why they don’t. Maybe this book, I thought, will help me get that damn novel written.

Then it happened.

What I knew, what I had worked on and built my expertise in; data driven strategies, goal setting, complex processes and systems for executing on a plan all crashed headlong into the power of story.

The next few days continued to completely destroy the guide I had painstakingly written– every page I read in Wired for Story by Lisa Cron, killed every last darling in the document (Thanks a lot Lady).

Flash forward a few days and I’m home – my mind full of ideas about completely reworking the guide and the templates to incorporate story.

Why? Because most people hate planning. I know this because of the resistance to it I get from clients who are actually paying me to help them plan and they still won’t do it! (Weird, right?)

And if, as Ms. Cron tells us in her book, we  internalize stories, we learn from stories and we can influence through stories; then stories should be part of the planning process. Slam dunk. Drop the Mic.

Imagine if  we can use the power of story to help our nonprofits set goals, manage projects and deliver on mission in a better way? It doesn’t hurt that stories can help us raise money too. Missions don’t get delivered on rainbows and the backs of unicorns – exceptional mission delivery requires investment (money) from donors. Those donors want the stories of how they are helping – and they want them told in a way that moves them.

On Saturdays, I will explore the power of story in nonprofit (fundraising, internal and external communications, marketing, finance, data analysis, program development and goal setting). In the meantime, I encourage you to pick up the book Wired for Story by Lisa Cron, available here.

While it’s not written for the nonprofit sector, read it with your nonprofit glasses on and see how it resonates with what you do and how you can use the science of the brain to do what you do a little better.

The End.


You Need a Fundraising Plan and You Need it Now

Fundraising for a non-profit is not easy. If it were, there wouldn’t be so many nonprofits struggling to meet their revenue budgets. The sector is filled with amazing dedicated professionals who are trying hard (and working hard) to meet the revenue expectations of their CEO, their board and their donors; all wanting the same thing, that the mission of the organization can be delivered with excellence. These dedicated fundraising warriors are often overworked and frustrated as they find themselves pushed and pulled in a million directions, expected to perform miracles, producing cash where before there hasn’t been any. Sound familiar? In my nearly 20 years of raising money for non-profits, I’ve found very few resources that provide tangible ways to put fundraising strategies and best practices into a plan that can be implemented. Or in other words – a way to actually operationalize the strategies. There are books and blogs and conferences on how to raise more money, and you’ve probably used those resources or attended those conferences to help you with strategy, or how to write better donor communications, or how to cultivate major donors. The problem is, there is so much good advice out there that it’s hard to know what to do to execute on it while you also perform your day-to-day duties! Not to mention, your executive director, development team or board might not be aligned to the strategies you’ve so thoughtfully gathered – they can’t see what you will do to make the strategies pay off. But if you have a written plan, complete with data driven goals and strategies, assignments, deadlines and milestones – it’s amazing how quickly key stakeholders will back you up. And, how quickly revenue will increase. The magic bullet to raising more money? Plan the Work and Work the Plan. Writing a plan (especially while you’re also trying to raise money at the same time) is hard. So, this blog will give you easy to use, step by step instructions to write your fundraising plan and templates to help organize the strategies. Cool beans, right? Posts on planning will happen each Friday. Each post will include instructions, advice and templates to make plan writing simple; easy to finish and easy to act on (because what’s the point of writing a plan if you don’t have a great way to execute?) Remember, the person with the plan wins! Aimee

Blog Schedule


you just have to start

Welcome to Our Fundraising Plan blog!I’ll focus on storytelling (the secret sauce for nonprofits) and will provide as much background material as I can gather. I’ll also post an ongoing series on writing plans. I’m starting with the tools to write and execute on a fundraising plan, but expect more on strategic planning, business planning and whatever other kind of planning you would like to see covered (let me know). Thank you for making the world a better place, Aimee