“People hear statistics, but they feel stories.”

Brent dykes

I heard an incredible story the other day about an alumna–a single mom of three, attending university full-time while working to support her family. Being extremely tired, she decided to take some time off of school, but had a persistent professor who was determined to see her continue. He offered her a $500 bursary to keep her going, which she did. She not only went on to graduate with her Bachelor’s degree, but proceeded to complete a Masters program. Further, she ended up in Law School, passed the bar and worked in a role which profoundly impacted the lives of others for many years. All of this was made possible by one generously donated bursary.

Storytelling in advancement has been gaining significant traction in its ability to evoke feelings and incite action, but are we telling the right stories? Even more, are we leveraging our stories in the best way to achieve our goals? Storytelling is so incredibly powerful, but how can we derive all of the benefits for our own organizations.

1. Start with your engagement goals

With the astronomical pace of the world between technology, marketing, and communications, we often get swept up into the “next greatest thing” syndrome. Before we get ahead of ourselves and start writing those incredible stories, we need to decide exactly what we want them to do.

But a story is a story, right?

Not all stories are created equal. For example, a lovely heartfelt story about a donor who made a difference might not work for a solicitation, but might be fantastic for a stewardship letter. This is why we must begin with defining our engagement goals so we know which stories we should be seeking out. Examples of engagement goals in advancement:

  • Acquire new donors
  • Retain current donors
  • Re-engage lapsed donors
  • Cultivate a philanthropic connection with alumni
  • Donor stewardship
  • Staff engagement

These goals can then be used to categorize your stories as you collect them. Once our engagement goals are defined we can direct our efforts accordingly and ensure we are capturing stories that encourage our desired engagements.

2. Identify the problem and make your reader a part of the solution

Too often in higher education we send out solicitations to the tune of “Look at all of this really cool stuff we’re doing here at *insert institution here*…”. We tend to lead off with the solution, perhaps because it makes us feel good as members of the institution to talk about the amazing things we’ve accomplished, but does identifying the solution inspire action? In higher education, it can be difficult identifying the problem since we aren’t a charitable organization centered on one cause such as providing clean water to communities in need. The reality is that post-secondary institutions address a significant amount of global problems through research and teaching the next generation of humans who will be leading this world.

“Research has shown that appeals to donate that evoke negative emotions help enhance the empathy felt by the consumer”

Merchant, ford, & Sargeant, 2010

It’s important to create a sense of urgency through storytelling that incites prospective donors to take action. Prospective donors read a story and experience negative emotions when faced with the problem, they then seek to overcome those negative emotions. This is where your story must pull the reader in as the protagonist who can help to resolve the problem through a charitable donation.

3. Think digital!

Remember, there is more than one way to tell a story. When appealing to generations of young alumni who grew up in the digital age, static stories don’t always make the cut. With limited availability of donor attention, universities must take advantage of digital tools to encourage their audience to read their stories.

  • Get Social – According to the 2018 Global Trends in Giving Report, 25% of donors are most inspired to give by social media. Platforms such as Facebook and Instagram allow for digital storytelling that reaches a younger audience and provides an easy mechanism for sharing to wider audiences.
  • Animate Your Story – Sometimes a quick glance at an email is all we get in advancement communications, so how can we engage our audience enough during that quick glance? Animate! It could be as simple as a GIF header in an email or as intricate as an animated explainer video (we do have some complicated research in higher education that may benefit from this approach), but animation is a great way to capture attention. Check out this phenomenal example of a stewardship email from charity: water:
charity: Water
  • Keep Telling the Story During Checkout – We sometimes forget that our job isn’t over when a prospective donor hits that “Give Now” button. Institutions must provide an engaging online giving experience that continues to tell the story and communicate impact.

4. Don’t forget the happily ever after

You’ve asked your donor to play a role in impacting a cause that is important to them and they have generously given, now what? When a millennial donor makes a gift, research shows they want regular updates from the organization on the impact their investment is making (Morgan, 2014).  Advancement shops are accountable for reminding donors that their gift is making the impact they desired it to make; show them the happy ending they invested in.

Having a solid stewardship strategy is a critical pillar of effective storytelling. Stewardship is an outlet for feedback and this feedback allows donors to learn if their investment achieved the impact they had hoped it would. Learning their impact elicits positive emotions in the donor and it’s these emotions that increase the likelihood of future donations (Merchant et al., 2010).

So tell your donors how they helped to create the happily ever after!

Storytelling is the driver of engagement. Incredible stories can engage new donors behind a cause, reignite the philanthropic flame in lapsed donors, and provide impact accountability through strategic stewardship. Decide what you want your stories to achieve and use those goals to direct the stories you’re seeking out. We deal with diverse audiences in advancement so don’t be afraid to repurpose stories in different ways and across different channels to captivate those audiences.

Happy storytelling!


Merchant, A., Ford, J. B., & Sargeant, A. (2010). Charitable organizations’ storytelling influence on donors’ emotions and intentions. Journal of Business Research, 63:7, 754-762. Retrieved from: https://www-sciencedirect-com.subzero.lib.uoguelph.ca/science/article/pii/S0148296309001702

Morgan, R. A. (2014). Factors that lead millennial alumni to donate to their alma mater. Dissertations. Paper 839. Retrieved from: https://opensiuc.lib.siu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://www.google.com/&httpsredir=1&article=1842&context=dissertations


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