Monday, June 1, 2015

Stories vs. Statistics: What Raise More Money?

Three different studies highlight a fascinating discussion going on in the nonprofit world about the relative effectiveness of storytelling versus statistical data in fundraising:

1) Wharton School of Business Professor Deborah Small wrote about an experiment where people were given $5, then instructed to respond to various charitable solicitation letters. Stories generated the biggest response; in fact, the more statistics provided, the less generous people were. Her conclusion? To fundraise effectively, you need to appeal to the heart with a touching story rather than to the head with statistics.

2) Princeton University Professor Peter Singer wrote about another study in which individuals shown a picture of a girl named Rokia and told her story were willing to give far more than when asked to help three million hungry children in Malawi. His conclusion? Individuals are more amenable to contributing towards saving one person than to save thousands.

3) M+R Strategic Services did their own survey and came to a very different conclusion. They showed two random groups one letter using the old-fashioned approach outlining accomplishments and needs, and a second version based on a personal story. The first letter generated four times as much money, almost twice as many donors, and a higher average gift.

So what does this mean for you as the average grassroots nonprofit desperately trying to raise more money for your good work?
  • Statistics are powerful. Numbers provide insight into community need, let people know how many people you are serving, outline your demographic reach, and demonstrate the quantifiable impact of your services. Yet so many nonprofit appeals stop right there, assuming impressive statistics will move people to donate.
  • Stories are powerful. People who care about your cause will respond deeply and generously to a story told from the heart. This works best when you tell your own true story with passion and well-chosen words. What doesn't work are sappy stories clearly crafted to manipulate emotions.
  • Storytelling is also a comfortable entryway into fundraising. People like to hear and tell stories; using them in personal asks can help folks make the leap away from fear of fundraising. Try this: practice telling 90-second stories about the direct impact of your work. Yep - keep it that short! It keeps people focused, and it's fun. And you'll see how very engaged everyone will be.
  • How you use them depends on the context. Online and email appeals need to be very short and sweet, coupling visuals with a quick story, and sending the reader to your website to donate. Solicitation letters should include a quick story along with a selected few key achievements and statistics. Personal phone calls or meetings should include time of story and data, as well as the opportunity for the donor to ask questions and tell his/her own story. 
My final conclusion? Use them both. Numbers provide valuable data; stories invite action by appealing to donor emotion and empathy. And keeping track of your response rate will allow you to pinpoint what works best in your community for your organization.

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