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The Power of Story: Engaging Funders via Compelling Storytelling

Filed in Core Communications, Hero's Journey Series — December 17, 2019

In our blog we’ve pulled back the veil on our approach and methodologies through a largely ‘plug and play’ resources and Masterclasses so you can skillfully engage the funding partners your mission deserves.

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by Natalie Rekstad, Founder & CEO of Black Fox Philanthropy, LLC

One of the ways Black Fox Philanthropy serves the social sector is to be an open-source on much of the content we’ve developed. We recognize that less-resourced NGOs can’t afford to engage our fundraising services. We regularly release this content via our blog, and today is one of those days.  

This blog focuses upon The Hero’s Journey as a narrative arc in compelling storytelling and kicks off a series that highlights sector leaders who have embarked upon their own Hero’s Journey toward social change.  Watch this space for the first in the installment, which will feature Heather Hiebsch of TeachUNITED.  If you are interested in being profiled in this series, please reach out to Julie Cullings at

The Power of Story | Engaging Funders via Compelling Storytelling

Neuroscience shows the brain is wired to respond to storytelling, making it a uniquely effective way to capture an audience’s attention. The listener’s empathy increases as they put themselves in the character’s place. It helps them to understand an issue from a different perspective, ideally from a “felt” sense of being in the protagonist’s shoes. Thus, stories powerfully influence how funders think, feel, and act.

Yet researchers estimate the average person spends over 12 hours per day consuming various types of media. Your job is to cut through the noise by telling your story in a compelling, engaging way that inspires your audience wanting to join you in changing the world for the better. 

In his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell set forth the common patterns running through hero myths and stories from around the world and through the centuries. He discovered that there are stages of almost every hero’s quest, no matter the culture.  He called this narrative arc the “Hero’s Journey”, and we see it come alive in films such as Star Wars, The Wizard of Oz, and The Lion King.

This arc can be an effective tool by engaging your audience through compelling storytelling about you, your mission and vision. It begins with a quest that’s deeply personal to you, a “Call to Adventure.” In my case in working toward gender equality, I’ve often shared my belief that our deepest passions often spring from our deepest wounds; my quest toward a more just and gender-balanced world stems from my experience of feeling marginalized in my family and culture for being female.  

Why did you create your organization?  Why your vision, and why you? What’s at stake if your vision is not realized? And to do with fundraising, why should the funder care?  Each journey differs but the following core ingredients have been used through the ages as illustrated by Campbell:  

  1. The Quest. As a social entrepreneur, your life’s work is to solve something fundamental to the core of who you are and pursuing what is uniquely yours to do.
  2. Obstacles. As individuals, we don’t have all that we need at the beginning of the journey, and callings call for us to grow into them. It is the same with your organization. The obstacles each organization faces may be different, but each has obstacles to overcome. For example, you may be dealing with cultural, environmental, political, or financial issues, and so on.
  3. Helper or Guide. These are your funders, consultants, board members, and mentors. The leaders from the communities themselves are helpers and guides as the sector has thankfully become more human-design centered.  The guides come in at certain inflection points in the story. In fact, during your story arc, you’ll see countless cycles of obstacles, helpers, and triumphs.
  4. Transformation. For the people with whom you are in a community with and serving, there is transformation via your work, for your organization as it evolves, but there is also your own transformation as a leader.  

And yet when telling our story or the story of our organizations, many of us come at it from a “neck up” perspective, using practical, data-driven narratives. While it is important to give supporting evidence, to engage funders initially, employ “neck down” emotional texture through inspiring storytelling about why your work matters, why now, and what’s at stake. And because we are hard-wired to feel more for a single person than a large group, stories about individuals have been shown to directly increase funding amounts.  When doing so, illustrate how the problem affects the individual’s life in profound ways. Whenever possible, use visuals — 65% of the population consists of visual learners. “Do you mind if I show, not tell?” Have a slide show and/or video with your live narrative (auditory learners), and talk about someone very specific (who is on their own hero’s journey) in the slides/video by name in a way that illustrates the bigger issue, while still humanizing it in a way that anchors in your mission. For example, the following story of Anna follows the storytelling arc, but would become more alive combined with visuals:

Anna is a 13-year- old girl living in an impoverished rural village in western Malawi. Anna is the oldest girl among six siblings and therefore, in addition to school, spends about eight hours each day helping her mother care for her family. Despite this hard work, Anna is a bright, funny girl who loves to make people laugh. She is a dedicated student and aspires to be a doctor. 

To illustrate the problem you exist to solve, the story continues:

Despite her determination and sunny disposition, Anna struggles every month to overcome the many cultural barriers that can derail her education, robbing her of the chance at a better life. Among these challenges is a lack of resources to cope with her monthly menstrual cycle. With no money to purchase a washable, reusable sanitary pad, Anna must stay home from school for 5 days out of every month or risk humiliation and/or attack for bleeding through her skirt. Or endure the alternative of trading sex for sanitary pads in order to stay in school.  With each passing month of her adolescence, Anna falls further behind in her schoolwork and will ultimately be forced to drop out of school. With no education, it is likely Anna will find herself pregnant, HIV positive and doomed to a life of poverty by the age of 14.

Every good story arc has waves of triumphs and defeats that build toward a climax. Sometimes they are one step forward, two steps back, but eventually, they lead toward the achievement of the overarching goal. For example, the following illustrates the challenges of the journey, but also how your organization  was able to contribute to “The Solution”:  

(Your organization’s name here) began working in Western Malawi in 2012 and has since established women’s co-ops in 22 villages where women sew and sell reusable menstrual pads at affordable prices. In each village, (your org) encountered more resistance than expected from the male village leaders and, as a result, women were slow to participate in the co-ops. But we persevered through investing extra time/effort in whole-community education and engagement. While this learning curve was costly in both time and treasure, it was valuable for building a stronger model moving forward and allowed (your org) to bring its program to Anna’s village. After hearing about (your org), Anna’s mother was able to buy Anna a pad with little economic hardship to the family. Since then Anna has not missed a day of school in seven months and her academic performance is soaring. She is closer every day to her goal of becoming a doctor!

Anna’s story becomes even more powerful when told in her own voice.  This is easier to do with video or written communications; however, in a face-to-face meeting you can pull quotes from her first-person narrative:  

“My friends and I want to have a better life, but some of them trade sex for sanitary pads so they can stay in school.  I want to be a doctor someday, but I’m scared that will be my fate too. Or worse, I get so sick or pregnant and leave school anyway – no education, no skills, and no hope.  I want to show my brothers and sisters that I am strong and smart, and there is a better future for us.”

It matters how you tell the story as well – with passion and authenticity – to inspire confidence that this issue area is indeed uniquely yours to help solve.  And while your story is highlighting a problem and the suffering caused by it, convey the triumphs along the way, and a sense of hope for completion of the quest. This is an inspirational story of slaying dragons and bringing about wellbeing and prosperity for the communities you serve.  This is where you can bring in the supporting evidence of your work that illustrates your track record, your Case for Support, and the obstacles/battles ahead in fulfilling the quest. Sharing those obstacles is a segue to the “Ask” and your invitation to them to become part of the story that leads to “Transformation”, ideally theirs as well as that of your organization and the communities you serve.  


By relating your organization’s cause using the timeless and resonant narrative arc of a Hero’s Journey, you’ll capture your audience’s imagination more effectively. Compelling stories such as your hero’s journey develop meaningful connections that inspire and motivate through empathy, and understanding what’s at stake for your issue area from a different perspective.  We’re wired to root for the hero, but it is even more thrilling for a funder to join the hero on his or her Quest. 

  • Note that each of these helpers has their own Hero’s Journey as well, and a personal “why” they care about the quest.