By Julie Holdaway

Published in the Orange County Register on September 16, 2013

Data are important, but emotions are what drive donations that can help nonprofits.

A while back a Wharton professor studied what entices people to give. The study tested the following two scenarios, ending with a request for a donation:

"Food shortages in Malawi affect more than 3 million children. In Zambia, severe rainfall deficits have resulted in a 42% drop in maize production and 3 million Zambians face hunger. More than 11 million people in Ethiopia need immediate food assistance."

"Rokia, a 7-year-old girl living in Mali in Africa, is desperately poor and faces a threat of starvation. Your support will help feed and educate Rokia, and help provide her with a future."

Both pleas worked. Nearly every student donated something.

Still, there was a difference. Given the first scenario, with dire statistics about hunger in Africa, the average student donated $1.14. Those moved by Rokia's scenario donated more than twice as much, $2.38.

The lesson?

Stories—specific stories about named individuals—can be critical in sharing your cause and appealing to the heart.

Stories are more compelling than facts. Stories convince us to give.

We're not giving up on data and stats. They justify donor decisions. But emotion—not analytical thinking—drives donations.

Stories mirror human thought. We think in narrative structures. It is how we learn and remember. I do not remember what year the Pilgrims came over on the Mayflower, yet I certainly recall that "In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue."

Storytelling, universally, is an integral component of our histories and identities. It's how we learn and remember things. And, critically, it's how we give.

Most newspaper articles, radio stories and novels tell stories about individuals.

As nonprofits, we sometimes have difficulty telling about one person, particularly when we work so hard to help masses. But storytelling is about one person. More than any research, the story of a single Holocaust victim, "The Diary of Anne Frank," has taught generations about Auschwitz.

Identify a handful of key stories in which your clients are stars, success stories or stories about people still hoping for success. And tell them to represent your cause. Ensure that all your stakeholders know the stories and experience the stories.

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