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Donor Participation Project Resources

Why Donors Give: The Role of Social Emotion and Character

Fundraising is ultimately about storytelling.

According to researcher and fundraising expert Dr. Russell James, the most compelling stories evoke a clear visual image that generates social emotion for donors. Without this, fundraising appeals fall flat.

Social emotion refers to feelings like empathy, compassion, and sympathy that connect us to others. Stories that trigger social emotion for donors are most likely to motivate giving.

How do you spark social emotion? Focus on character.

Characters are the heart of an impactful story. But not just any character will do.

Donors must be able to identify with the characters in your story. They need to be able to see through the character’s eyes and feel empathy for their circumstances. Vague, confusing or overly complicated stories won’t achieve this, so keep your story simple with a clear and empathetic character.

Specific details about a character, like a name, photo, age or location, help donors visualize them, enhancing social emotion and giving.

Use details judiciously, as too much information can make a story convoluted. And choose details, images and stories that donors can personally relate to for maximum effect.

For major gifts and long-term relationships, make the donor the main character. Ask open-ended questions to discover donors’ values, life stories and what they care most about. Then, share information about your mission and work that connects to what they share. This helps donors see themselves in your story and organization, priming them for significant and sustained support.

Fundraisers often focus on facts and figures, but people give to people.

Stories cultivate meaning, relationships and social good. By putting character and social emotion at the center of your fundraising efforts, you’ll transform donors from observers into characters in their own stories of generosity, partnership and change.

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

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