For nonprofits, the pursuit of noble causes intersects with the need for sustainable funding. As the world finds itself in the grip of numerous crises, both natural and man-made, these causes multiply, and the strain on funding becomes ever more acute.

It should be noted that funding for humanitarian crises has risen over the last few years. According to the Global Humanitarian Assistance Development Report 2023, absolute global funding for humanitarian crises between 2021 and 2022 increased from US$36.9 billion to US$46.9 billion, some 27 per cent.

But that doesn’t mean that the needs of each crisis were met, let alone resolved. Statistics drawn up by the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs demonstrate that the total amount of global appeal requirements for 2022 stood at a (then) record US$52.4 billion, an increase of 37 per cent from 2021. Furthermore, the total level of appeals by the end of 2023 stood at US$56.7 billion, with just US$21.8 billion raised by 31st December. More strikingly, the amount of funding reported in the last quarter of 2023 was the lowest since 2019.

More funding required if humanitarian needs are to be met

Clearly more funding is needed. This is not to suggest that donors of any form – governments, regional institutions such as the EU, business corporations or individual givers – are ungenerous, more a simple statement of fact: more funding is required if humanitarian needs are to be met. And it is my contention that targeted storytelling could help with closing this deeply troubling gap.

Let’s recap for a moment. Why tell stories to raise funds? Why not just list data and statistics, which after all form the basis of our evidence that things are so awry?

I’ve written before about how stories are better at engaging readers than data and statistics alone. Stories evoke emotions that allow readers to connect with the hero of a story on a personal level. When readers are emotionally invested in the story of an organisation’s beneficial work – told through the eyes of those it has helped – they are more likely to perceive that organisation in a positive light. This in turn makes it more likely they will become advocates for the cause, in whatever form that takes. A study by Harvard Business Review has even suggested that across a sample of nine categories, customers with a full emotional connection to a brand are 52 per cent more valuable, on average, to an organisation than those who are just ‘highly satisfied’.

Perhaps more importantly though, storytelling provides dignity and context to the beneficiaries themselves. Stories of beneficiary lives mean they do not become just another statistic: their voice and your organisation’s message become one and the same thing.

Successful fundraising is about building and retaining trust

But donors – who range along a spectrum from anywhere between a wealthy nation of the global north to an individual only able to give a few dollars a month – need to know that their money is going to be spent well. Successful fundraising is about building and retaining this trust.

When we are with people we love or feel affection for, our bodies release the hormone oxytocin. Academic research has indicated that oxytocin makes people more trustful in general, with subsequent research demonstrating that storytelling itself produces oxytocin. One study even revealed that a group of participants given oxytocin donated to 57 per cent more causes, and donated 56 per cent more money, than those participants to whom only a placebo was administered.

Maintaining trust through transparency

Trust is also maintained through transparency. Authentic storytelling allows organisations to demonstrate impact, successes, challenges – and if really courageous, where they have failed and need to do better. Openly sharing stories about an organisation’s outcomes and financial professionalism demonstrates accountability. Again, this reassures donors at whatever level that their contributions make a meaningful difference.

What we would all like to see is a direct causal link between effective storytelling and increased funding in the NGO sector. There is some evidence for this. A paper in the journal Nature cites the example of the Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria (Global Fund) and their ‘Here I Am Campaign’.

Fundraising successes of the Global Fund and Charity:Water

In November 2011 the Global Fund’s board announced that it was cancelling the next round of grants for 2012, as it seemed that donor commitments would not meet projected targets. In response, the Here I Am Campaign was created to tell the stories of individuals benefiting from treatment paid for by the Fund. The campaign shot nearly 200 video testimonies of individuals around the world, and as well as posting them on the campaign’s website and YouTube, several were shown to government representatives of donor nations in individual meetings. In December 2013, 25 countries pledged US $12 billion, a 30 per cent increase from pledges secured in the previous round of replenishments.

As the author of the paper notes: “It is impossible to know the extent to which the stories of the Here I Am Campaign contributed to this success, but from their individual interactions with decision-makers, the advocates believe that these stories made an important contribution.”

Another example is that of charity:water which has masterfully deployed storytelling to engage donors and drive fundraising efforts. Through powerful visuals and compelling written stories from communities damaged by the global water crisis, charity:water has raised over $750 million to provide clean water to millions of people.

Beneficiary stories should be included in donor reports

In conclusion, by harnessing the emotive power of storytelling, NGOs can deepen donor relationships and elevate their fundraising efforts. There is no reason why beneficiary stories cannot be included in donor reports, especially as these reports are so necessarily packed with data and statistics on key performance indicators. In an increasingly competitive landscape, the ability to craft compelling narratives sets organisations apart, offering a powerful advantage in the dual quest for financial sustainability and positive change.

If you’ve enjoyed reading my articles, don’t forget sign up for a free story audit consultation or check out my LinkedIn page. 

Similar Content

How to conduct a successful interview as the basis of your Hero’s Journey

This piece offers a guide to getting the best out of potential interviewees. Research, permission and the structure of your questions are all key ingredients.

How to tell a compelling story: The Hero’s Journey

This post offers a step-by-step guide for the well-told story. The Hero’s Journey is a structure that is timeless, and deployed across all industries and sectors.

Different responses: a benefit not a hindrance to effective Corporate Storytelling training

This post looks at the importance of transparency in the non-profit sector, and how storytelling can encourage greater transparency.

Corporate Storytelling: A vital tool for NGOs to build successful partnerships

This post examines the role of Corporate Storytelling in promoting NGO partnerships and why the storytelling focus needs to be adapted for each partner’s needs.

What does successful storytelling in pharma look like?

This article examines measuring Corporate Storytelling success in the pharma sector: what the specific challenges are, and my suggestion as to how best to measure that success.