Which skill is more important—telling a great story or being especially successful at eliciting donors’ stories?

Many fundraisers are instructed to “tell the story” of their organizations. They may do this by focusing on an individual: “When Sara came to us, she was a high-school dropout with two children and no skills. With our help, she earned a GED and has started her first job in data entry.” Or they may focus on a group: “Financial support from grateful alumni made it possible for 15 art history majors to study at the Louvre last summer.”

While great storytelling can be tremendously helpful in engaging potential donors, describing the organizational impact of philanthropy, and enabling a deeper emotional connection that leads to passion-based philanthropy, it must occur within the appropriate context.

For the real story behind storytelling, consider these questions:

Are you telling a story or providing a testimonial?

Success stories that relate the outcomes of donor investments in our organizations are vastly different than the personal testimonials that some development professionals mistake for appropriate stories. Many fundraisers are drawn to the organizations they work with because of their own personal experiences – the terrific college years that set us up for professional success; the children’s hospital that saved the life of our premature baby; the justice organization that defends a civil right we are passionate about; the addiction center that helped a family member get clean and sober. Whatever the calling, we can and should feel passion for our causes. The challenge comes in balancing our enthusiasm for telling our own personal stories with the need to connect people with our organizations. If the story is all about you, consider a different approach.

Are you the right person to tell the story?

Is there someone else in your organization who is closer to the impact and could relate the story better? Perhaps the program director, medical professional, dean, professorship holder, or researcher could share a more powerful version of the story because they have played an important role in accomplishing something meaningful to donors. Working with others to help them craft a story that is compelling to potential donors requires some time and attention to detail, but it can be well worth the effort.

Is the story repeatable?

When people hear compelling stories, they are inclined to repeat them, so consider whether donors can successfully share the basics of the story, even if they aren’t particularly skilled at storytelling. Does the story include a lot of organization-specific jargon? A fairly complex tale that assumes great familiarity with the work of the organization may be helpful in connecting with your nearest and dearest donors, but it may not be “scalable,” so its power to inspire beyond your organization’s inner circle is diminished when donors attempt to relay it to others within their spheres of influence.

Are you a good story listener?

While you may have carefully crafted your story for maximum impact in inspiring philanthropy, you must be willing to ask high-value questions that draw out donors’ personal stories which frequently come out in bits and pieces. Are you patient enough to recognize that a story exists, and that you are learning something of value to both you and the donor?

Are you using those donor stories to connect with others?

Each of us needs a “file drawer” of story components that we can draw from in our conversations with donors and potential donors. These elements can be melded together into the kinds of stories that are most appropriate for each personality type. For instance, the story you tell to the high-dominance donor may need to focus on the economic impact of a program your organization runs, whereas the high-extroversion donor wants to hear more details about the individuals you help.

Do you weave storytelling into your conversations?

If you think that your stories have to be structured and distinct, consider that many of the most successful development professionals actually tell stories all the time. Their stories about philanthropy, donor engagement, and return on philanthropic investment are interwoven with the organizational information they share. These aren’t obvious stories, but instead short vignettes that help advance donor conversations that lead to deeper commitment.


Storytelling can be a powerful tool in inspiring engagement and describing return on philanthropic investment. Development professionals who understand and apply a balance between storytelling and story listening can find greater success in their work.


To learn more about how to communicate with your donors effectively, attend The Art and Science of Donor Development workshop.

The Art and Science of Donor Development