Our Storytelling Research Raised More Questions Than It Answered, and That’s OK

There are 101 ways to tell a story.

This #GivingTuesday, you will search for the best way to tell yours.

What story will inspire the public to support your nonprofit’s solution? Our jobs would be so much easier if there were sure-fire answer. The Narrative Project set out to find one.

The large-scale research project—driven by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, InterAction, and other major NGOs—aims to build public support for global development. It suggests four story themes may move people to become supporters: independence, shared values, partnership and progress.

Last year, The Narrative Project turned to 10 organizations, including ours, to test its findings.

GlobalGiving connects nonprofits to the funding, tools, training and support they need to become more effective and make our world a better place. We’re committed to testing theories so our nonprofit partners can focus on feeding the hungry, preserving our environment, building houses, and hundreds of other amazing things. For many of our partners, fundraising is imperative to overall success. So, we wanted to know if Narrative Project themes could go beyond shifting perceptions; could they motivate people to donate?

A Tale of Two Tests

GlobalGiving launched two experiments to test The Narrative Project’s fundraising efficacy.

We analyzed 50,000 stories that our nonprofit partners from 165+ countries shared with supporters over the past eight years. What we found surprised us. Stories that aligned with the four Narrative Project themes (independence, shared values, partnership and progress) triggered a statistically significant lower number of average donations than the non-aligned reports. We came to the same conclusion through six A/B email tests to more than 160,000 subscribers. Our Narrative-aligned email appeals, on average, performed 117% worse than non-aligned appeals.

The Narrative Project recently released findings from each of the organizations that ‘road tested’ its findings. All but one of organizations that the tested the project’s fundraising effectiveness reported mixed, null or negative findings. So, where do go from here?

Let’s Continue to Ask Questions

Our Narrative Project experiments inspired us to run a parallel study. We wanted to know if stories told from a first-person perspective would drive more fundraising. Imagine a girl from Afghanistan who beat the odds to graduate from high school.

What if she told her own story, in her own words? Would more people be inspired to give?

Our results were promising.  We discovered that reports written written with a singular pronoun (I, he, she) drove the most donations, and the results were even slightly higher if the report was written from a first-person (I, me) perspective. Letting your constituents speak for themselves can be powerful!

This year, we’re diving deeper into our counter-hypothesis, and we’re eager to see if a first-person method is as powerful as our first tests suggest.

Have we completely invalidated The Narrative Project’s potential as an effective fundraising tool? Not at all.

Our experimentation is admittedly limited, and there’s so much left to ask. Perhaps more importantly, The Narrative Project is sparking crucial conversations about how we communicate in the development sector: Do the stories we share empower or further marginalize those we seek to support? How can our communications platforms amplify seldom-heard voices? Are our stories damaging the public’s understanding of the problem, and their perceived ability to make a difference?

These are urgent questions. At GlobalGiving, we’re rooted in the belief that real change happens from the ground up. We’re certain the best answers to the narrative quest will come from there, too.

Follow our future experiments on our Tools + Training Blog.