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Ahern 14.29 - Stories or stats: Which works best, science says?
Tom Ahern

December, 2014

Name the #1 distraction in fundraising?  
  
Bosses, bless their hearts

Which approach raises the most funds: (1) a well-argued appeal that explains the problem and offers statistical proof; or (2) an emotional appeal that tells a sad story? In short, which is better: stories or statistics?

 

------

 

Answer: Stories

 

Let's get a little technical.

 

Here's Professor Paul J. Zak writing in the Harvard Business Review, in an Oct. 28, 2014 article titled "Why Your Brain Loves Good Storytelling":

 

"Many business people have already discovered the power of storytelling in a practical sense - they have observed how compelling a well-constructed narrative can be. But recent scientific work is putting a much finer point on just how stories change our attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors....

 

"By taking blood draws before and after the narrative, we found that character-driven stories do consistently cause oxytocin synthesis." [Oxytocin is a neurochemical that motivates us to cooperate.] "Further, 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."

 

Stories do that. Statistics don't. 

 

The whole "statistics vs. stories" debate is pointless, according to the laboratory. And yet it's harder to kill than an urban myth. I guess because it all seems so obvious: "Some people like stories. Some people like numbers." Stories, numbers: even-steven.

 

But even-steven is not true.

 

Correctly, it should be stated: "ALL people like stories" - there's feel-good neurochemistry involved after all - "and a few people like numbers, too."

 

Storytelling - narrative, if you prefer a fancier name - is universal. It has been more important to human evolution than opposable thumbs, as Lisa Cron points out in her excellent book, Wired for Story: The Writer's Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence.

 

Story: it is how we learn most of what we know. It is how we trigger empathy (and gifts) in others. 

 

And yet....

 

November 13, 2014. I'm speaking in Huntsville, Alabama, to the AFP chapter.

 

It's National Philanthropy Day. Lunch has been served. Jay Dryden - a Tennessee Valley philanthropist with the right stuff - has accepted an award. Now for dessert the audience gets to endure me for 2.5 hours.

 

I'm rattling along like a loose muffler about stories and their importance in fundraising communications.

 

We all admire a famous six-word "novel." Hemingway purportedly wrote it to win a bet. "For sale: baby shoes, never worn." It's been made into a dozen movies, in every culture.

 

We talk about Seth Godin's profound idea that when someone makes a gift to charity, that person is composing a story - a very personal, very meaningful story where she's doing good, where she's contributing to society, where she's doing something that makes her love herself a little more. Charity is good for the soul. Charity is good for the complexion. Charity is good for your self-esteem.

 

A hand pops up, attached to a mid-30s fundraiser. "Question?"

 

Of course.

 

She's frowning slightly. I've seen this expression before. Often. I know what's coming. It comes up pretty much every time I speak to fundraisers. 

 

"Do you have any advice?" she starts. "I want to tell stories. But my boss insists we talk about the agency's statistics. He is very firm. He says people need to know the numbers before they'll invest in us. What can I do to change his mind?"

 

On bleak days I've muttered, "Nothing. Get a different boss. And next time? One not utterly unaware of sales and modern neuroscience."

 

The art of managing up 

 

But I'm not feeling bleak.

 

Just last week at the inaugural (& totally awesome) Nonprofit Storytelling Conference in Seattle I heard Peter Drury of Splash.org, a shockingly impactful clean-water charity, talk at length about "managing up."

 

As I understand him, you're responsible for "educating" those above you, the ones who hold approval power.

 

In Peter's view (& mine), it's a key part of the fundraiser's (or any communicator's) job: managing up.

 

I saw instantly: Peter is SO right. I do this all the time; I've done it for years, in fact. Because -- yoohoo, fundraisers -- I've smashed my classic Roman nose against the same brick walls you do.

 

The e-newsletter you're reading at this very moment, honestly?  

 

It's just a grand "managing up" enterprise, meant to condition an entire industry (or at least the 9,000-plus in that industry who subscribe) to a different, more lucrative, way of doing donor communications.

 

Futile? Sometimes.

 

But you gotta try. And sometimes managing up works beyond your wildest....

 

One small triumph for FR kind

 

Last year, I needed to convince a review panel of world-class scientists to adopt the theme of "good vs. evil" for their campaign case.

 

I managed up.

 

For these heavy thinkers, I wrote a 4,632-word footnoted briefing paper explaining in detail the target audience (Ultra High Net Worth Individuals);

 

>> what key informant interviews with top people had revealed about our messaging prospects, positive and negative;

 

>> the four-part narrative structure I recommended we adopt and why it worked;

 

>> why "complexity kills the cat in fundraising" ... and a lot more (lord, I flailed on).

 

Given this closely-argued, well-sourced, unemotional briefing, my scientist reviewers not only accepted "good vs. evil" as the campaign theme, they pushed me to go even further than I'd dared.

 

So, yeah, you can change the minds of reasonable people. It just takes some 'splaining.



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