Evidence – Do stories really increase fundraising income?

Mother Theresa once said, ‘if I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will’. So stories are very useful if you’re in the business of helping people want to give.
Actually I’ve found that the big news is not that telling stories is an essential ingredient of successful fundraising. You have probably been aware of this for years.
After training or coaching more than 5000 fundraisers over the last 10 years, I’ve found the thing that is not immediately obvious is this. However strongly you believe that sharing stories is essential to fundraising success, it is surprisingly hard to make time to apply this truth in practice. Making time to find and practice stories can be harder than we’d expect.
Certainly most people who write fundraising copy tend to use stories, but when I hear people talk about their cause, it is incredibly rare that they proactively include concrete, specific (human / animal) examples in what they say.
How can you help your colleagues value, find and share more stories in your charity?

I was recently asked by a client for advice on how to create a more story-focussed culture in her charity. I replied that much of the problem is that most people have not seen clear evidence that making time for stories helps you raise more money.
So people continue to treat it as an idea that sounds nice – but which they rarely have time to apply in practice. For this reason I told her about two pieces of research that test whether stories affect financial results.
The first is a study described in The small BIG, about how minimal changes in behaviour, lead to large shifts in results. The book describes that when a telephone fundraising team shared stories about their cause at the beginning of their shift, they secured more than twice the number of donations over the phone compared to when they got straight to work.
The second is the Rokia research at Carnegie Mellon University, as told in Made to Stick, a fantastic book about the power of story to deliver bottom line results.
In the experiment, subjects are given $5 to either keep or partly donate to Save the Children. Researchers tested one of two versions of the letter describing why the charity needed money. Version One included factual information about the shortage of food in Zambia and for example, ‘an estimated 3 million Zambians facing hunger’. Version Two gave none of the big picture information, instead talking only about a seven year old girl called Rokia, who is ‘desperately poor and faces the threat of severe hunger or even starvation…’
Which letter raised more money?
If you guessed Version Two, the story not the statistics, you’d be right. On average, the people who read Version Two, gave $1.14 and the people who read the story about Rokia gave $2.38.
So to be clear, in both these studies, using story doubled fundraising income. Broadly, I like to find two kinds of story. Those that demonstrate the problem and those that show that you make an impact on that problem.
Could these studies help you make story-finding, sharing and telling a more important part of how you and your colleagues prepare to be persuasive?
I’d love to hear what your comments – and dare I say it, stories – of how you help yourself or your colleagues make time for stories.