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— by Deborah Niski – 8 min read

So, it’s a sunny morning. A Tuesday. You bought milk this morning. And bread. Why? Because you’d run out? Because your kids only eat toast for breakfast? You could have made the purchase for any number of rational, easy-to-understand reasons.

Now think of the last time you put your hand in your pocket to purchase something that wasn’t strictly necessary. A fun new gadget, a delicious desert, or a super-cool App. Why did you purchase it? To make yourself feel good? Perhaps it was a ‘reward’? Or maybe you told yourself a little story about why you really do need it.

No doubt the reason was complex and largely emotional. Drivers for non-essential purchase usually are. It’s the time when the rational takes a backseat, and we’re motivated by a multifaceted emotional network of hopes, fears and desires.

All around the country charities are asking people every day to donate money to the most moving, the most world-changing causes. As fundraisers, you’re asking the public to take part in the act of making the world a better, more sustainable, fairer place. The work you’re doing is 100% essential. But you’re asking people to reach into their pockets – foregoing wages, savings or other purchases – to give money to something that (until we convince them otherwise) they see as a non-essential purchase.

So, how do we convince people to donate?
How do we move donating to charity up the consideration set, from non-essential to must-do?


At Marlin we believe that we must connect with people in a way that’s honest, emotional, and most of all, motivating. We want to rouse our audience, awaken them, and move them to join with you to change the world.

One of the most powerful ways we can do this is through stories.

Hollywood’s most successful story-guru, and story-advisor to clients including Microsoft, Mercedes-Benz and HP, Robert McKee says: ”Purpose-told stories do far more than entertain. They trigger an action: a purchase, an investment, or a job well done.” Or in our case, a donation.

Studies show that modern audiences view facts with scepticism, yet our intellectual guard is weakened as we absorb stories. Emotionally rich, authentic stories connect the heart of the donor with the heart of your charity. Well-told, moving stories give insight into your charity, stir passion and bond your audience with your beneficiaries.

Stories make donors feel, and compel them to act. They’re rousing and upsetting, exciting and moving. At their best, they’re more than a communication tool – they’re a decision making tool. “Lawyers understand this,” says McKee. “Evidence has its place, but a trial tells two stories – one of which the jury believes.”

And, in the case of charities, facts can even be a barrier to donation. A study from the University of Oregon shows that the presence of just one statistic reduces the response to a campaign by over 25%.[1]

To capitalise on the power of stories, Marlin feel that we need to start a meaningful, long-term conversation with supporters by employing carefully plotted storytelling to create a well crafted, journey full of highs and lows that is logical, emotionally satisfying and unfolds over time. An ongoing story that keeps donors ‘tuned in’ to your cause, waiting to see what happens next, keen to see how their response has affected an outcome, satisfied by news of improvement, saddened by a broader need, buoyed by new innovations.

Stories have power. But using them powerfully comes down to timing.

Emotional Arcs

The “tuned in” TV reference above is no coincidence. If you’ve ever been ‘addicted’ to a TV drama series, desperate to see what happens next, you know the power of episodic storytelling. We feel that harnessing the story structure and emotional logic of episodic television drama has the potential to bring out the very best in emotional storytelling and effective fundraising.

If we see every communication we have with a donor as an episode in a series, and each year as a season, we can harness the power of connection and take our audience on a truly satisfying, motivating emotional journey. We can create emotional arcs within each single appeal and have ongoing emotional arcs that span the entirety of communications for year and other arcs that span a full five years.

A donor’s emotional journey needs to be carefully shaped and plotted so that the right measure of hope, fear, need and satisfaction are delivered at well-timed intervals. As donors take action (donate), the onus is on us to reflect the change their action has inspired. By reinforcing the donor’s role as an agent of change, we give them the true satisfaction of their role. The emotional high that says: “I did something good today.”

Status is the enemy here. A constant stream of need or fear is at risk of becoming ineffectual “white noise”, which elicits little response and is easily ignored. When there is all ‘low’ and no ‘high’ the audience can become worn out or injured to the message, no matter how important. At the other end of the spectrum, a continuously positive ‘after’ message encourages a donor to believe “our work is done”.

Purposefully shaping the conversations (communications) you’re having with your donors, will create a powerful, emotional journey full of highs, lows, ups, downs, cliff-hangers and interactivity that will keep your donors actively engaged and capture the hearts of prospects. It also gives you the scope to reveal a whole range of inspiring stories that bust open your hearts and shout to the world, “this is what we believe and this is why we need you.”[2]

Imagine creating an episodic, emotional communications that supporters look forward to the way they look forward to House of Cards or Game of Thrones.

You can. Those are examples of TV fiction, but the true stories charities have to tell are many, many times more engaging, more moving and more meaningful. Truth is not only stranger than fiction, it has the power to change the way we think and act. A brave and emotional fundraising approach filled with unforgettable stories may just be the way to flip a ‘maybe’ to a ‘yes’ and move charity giving from a non-essential to a monthly must-have.


An emotional arc is the emotional journey that a person (or character) goes on. A typical emotional arc has a beginning in which the person feels a certain way, an end in which their emotional state of mind has undergone a change and a turning point that triggers the change. Turning points, triggers and arcs must make logical as well as emotional sense to a reader.

A story arc is an extended or continuing storyline that unfolds over time. Commonly used in episodic storytelling media, like television, story arcs can feature in both fiction and non-fiction stories.

[1] Västfjäll D, Slovic P & Mayorga M, Whoever Saves One Life Saves the World: Confronting the Challenge of Pseudoinefficacy, University of Oregon
[2] Small D, Loewenstein G, Slovic P, Sympathy and callousness: The impact of deliberative thought on donations to identifiable and statistical victims, Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 102 (2007).