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Donor Participation Project Resources

Simplify Your Story: How Too Much Complexity Hurts Donations

Nonprofit organizations often have intricate, multifaceted stories to tell about their missions and work.

However, sharing too much complexity with donors can hurt fundraising efforts.

According to research by nonprofit fundraising expert Dr. Russell James, a clear and simple story that generates an emotional response is most effective for motivating donors.

Dr. James has studied how our brains respond to stories and complexity in the context of charitable giving. His research using fMRI neuroimaging shows that donating is linked to feeling empathy and identifying with a cause or beneficiary.

This “social-emotional valuation” requires a clear mental image and narrative.

If a story is vague, confusing or overly complicated, it fails to trigger the visualization needed to motivate giving.

In one experiment, donors gave 90% more when asked to help one child with a name, age and photo versus helping eight children. Another study found donations decreased by 58% when a story grew more complex by adding details about eight beneficiaries. However, a cohesive group, like six siblings, can simplify a multi-character story and double gifts. The key is evoking a simple, empathetic image.

Dr. James cautions that while nonprofit experts understand complexity, sharing too many details with donors destroys stories and fundraising potential.

The internal goal of a fundraising story is not just getting a gift, but generating a clear visual and emotional experience that leads to giving.

To achieve this:

  • Make stories specific but keep them simple.
  • Focus on one empathetic character or group, not many individuals.
  • Connect personal details to a meaningful victory or outcome to bring the story to life.

In summary, an effective fundraising story needs a relatable character, not just statistics or facts. Details should enhance a simple story without introducing confusion.

When visualizing the story generates empathy and social emotion, donors are compelled to give to achieve a shared victory. But if a story fails to evoke a clear image and feeling, its fundraising power is lost no matter the details.

The moral for nonprofits: simplify your story and make sure it is one donors can see themselves in.

View the full recording of this Donor Participation Project session in our Resource Library.

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