A View from Blue Grotto

Monday, February 02, 2015

Statistics versus Storytelling

I love it when other people cite Harvard Business Review! Guidestar cites Claremont Graduate University Professor Paul J. Zak’s October 28, 2014, article titled, "Why Your Brain Loves Good Storytelling” for their January 2015 newsletter article: Using Stories for Fundraising.

Now, to be fair, Guidestar’s mission relies on providing accurate, detailed information:

To revolutionize philanthropy by providing information that advances transparency, enables users to make better decisions, and encourages charitable giving

but, Guidestar also recognizes that donors can pretty quickly source the statistical evidence they need in funding decisions. What donors – everyone from grant makers to major gift makers to episodic Give to the Max Day donors find more compelling are the narratives that express the impact an organization or program has.

Guidestar even quotes Professor Zak’s hard evidence of the impact stories have on your brain: "By taking blood draws before and after the narrative, we found that character-driven stories do consistently cause oxytocin synthesis…the amount of oxytocin released by the brain predicted how much people were willing to help others; for example, donating money to a charity associated with the narrative."

Every nonprofit has a carefully thought-out mission statement, how can you communicate more effectively with those stakeholders and decision-makers who will sustain you and help you grow?

Maybe, most challenging for nonprofits today: the need to communicate, or narrate your story in 140 characters or less. Social media and all of the channels open to us through social media are challenging the traditional story-telling process. You can embed video clips, you can take a “picture is worth a thousand words” approach, you can #hashtag your message. But are those the best way to share your stories?

People across Minnesota learned recently of local nonprofit Hope 4 Youth as they raised $1M in just 45 days at the end of 2014, and then an additional $77K just after the first of the year. The campaign relied heavily on the incredible speed of word of mouth from Facebook and other social channels. A strong narrative pivot was to tell the story of their development chair John Sitarz and his passion for the organization’s mission. Hope 4 Youth also tried hard to include their major gifts, matching gifts and in-kind gift donors in the storyline. An element of urgency also likely helped Hope 4 Youth’s storyline – no one wants to imagine anyone homeless in a Minnesota winter, especially a young person.

And though statistics are an organization like Hope 4 Youth’s friend (“…on any given night there are 4,000 youth and young adults who are homeless and unaccompanied by an adult”) the story of their Angels 4 Youth challenge is as compelling as any individual’s narrative. Exactly as Guidestar and Professor Zak described – “your brain loves good storytelling.”

A huge round of applause goes out to them, for not only telling their story right, but for compelling their donor base into action. $1M + is no small feat, but then neither is solving the homeless youth crisis.

I would love to know: what was the most compelling nonprofit story of 2014?
Hope 4 Youth’s Facebook page is the best place to find out more info about the successful campaign: https://www.facebook.com/pages/HOPE-4-Youth/387555927998095
Here's the video that kicked it all off for the Angels 4 Youth:

You can find Professor Paul Zak’s article in the Harvard Business Review: https://hbr.org/2014/10/why-your-brain-loves-good-storytelling. And, of course he has a TED Talk, my favorite!

Yvonne Hundshamer
President, Blue Grotto Inc.