Giving Tuesday logo for NPOs blogYesterday was Giving Tuesday, a global day of charitable giving that follows more self-indulgent “holidays” such as Black Friday and Cyber Monday. The purpose of Giving Tuesday is to encourage people to donate time, money, or support to charitable causes during the time of year when many are thinking about the holidays and end-of-year giving. This movement has become widespread in the digital age with the encouragement of influencers, nonprofits, corporations and businesses who take part in celebrating the act of giving. But what was behind the success of such an endeavor? Storytelling.

Giving Tuesday gained a lot of traction with the advent of “#GivingTuesday” on social media, which provided a platform for people to share their philanthropic stories with the world. The hashtag increased visibility for the movement by connecting people through storytelling, one of the most effective strategies for drawing people in. If you visit the Giving Tuesday website, you’ll even find helpful resources for encouraging people to share their story with the hashtag “#MyGivingStory.” The idea is simple: just respond to the question “Every act of giving has a story. What’s yours?” The more people post their individual stories, the more powerful the emotional connection can become between potential donors and the organizations they give to.

In honor of Giving Tuesday, we’ll examine the importance storytelling has to emotion research and the customer experience, highlighting nonprofit organizations (NPOs) who exemplify these strategies. With the support of our experience in market research for numerous nonprofit organizations and associations, we’ll show you why storytelling and a personal connection are the key to driving donations for your nonprofit organization.

The Power of Storytelling

A recent article in Forbes magazine about the American Cancer Society’s success in building ‘brand love’ touches on an important lesson that we’ve learned in our research on customer emotions and brand loyalty. The piece, written by Carmine Gallo, points to the ACS’s storytelling strategy as a way to connect emotionally with donors to encourage them to open their wallets. As he writes, “Donors don’t connect with titles, statistics, or large numbers; they connect with one person’s story.” This idea is evident in our research on NPOs, which shows that due to the competitiveness of many markets, the ability to emotionally connect with your donors or customers is the key to success. Customers will use products and services to which they are emotionally drawn, whether that be due to advertising, personalized promotions or just the message of the brand itself. It is the same with donors: people want to donate to causes they believe in and feel a connection to.

When you tell a story, you create that emotional connection with your supporters. People are drawn into the story and become emotionally invested in it. It is easier to evoke emotions through a story than through data and statistics. The story brings a sense of humanity to the idea, rather than the clinical feel of numbers and data. We see this in our research everyday, for commercial clients and NPOs alike. Particularly for NPOs, people want more than a product or service, they want an experience that makes them feel good about themselves and the company they’re interacting with. Building an emotional connection, or “brand love,” ensures that customers or donors feel good about your brand or organization. Nowhere is this connection more important than choosing which NPO supporters want to donate their hard earned money to.

Emotional Connections Encourage Donations

As explained in the Forbes article, despite the ACS’s access to impressive statistics and data, they chose to go the storytelling route. While the facts may inspire trust, to really hammer home the inspiration to donate, appeal to the emotions through storytelling and understanding your customer. The better you understand your customer, the better able you are to create an experience for them that fosters a personal connection to your brand.

Creating a personal connection with an audience can be done in a multitude of ways, but the following are two particularly acute examples:


Nonprofits Emotional Storytelling Example - ASPCA

What they do well: Nearly everyone has seen (and cried over) the commercials of scared, abandoned, and abused animals set to Sarah McLachlan’s haunting song, “Angel.” The storytelling in these commercials is sharp and to-the-point: these animals are hurting and they need your help. How can you not feel an emotional connection to the vulnerable “angels” pictured?

This tugging-on-the-heartstrings tactic is simple but effective. Building an emotional connection between your organization and your customers (or, in this case, donors) is essential. As we’ve seen, the stronger the emotional connection, the more likely people are to buy (or donate).

Another effective technique they use is telling the story of one particular animal in their email newsletters. The story paints a picture of how the money given by generous donors saved the life of an animal who had been through trauma or hardship, and leaves the reader feeling satisfied at the happy ending to a story that began with sadness and pain. As potential donors read the story of this animal, they feel emotionally invested in that animal’s outcome, and by the end, grateful to the ASPCA for their work that saved the animal’s life. The urge to support such an organization is that much stronger when donors can see a direct impact from their donation in this way.

Lyric Opera of Chicago

Lyric Opera Chicago logo for NPO blog post

Another successful way to build a strong connection with your donors, or “brand love,” is to focus on their experience with your organization. Increasingly, we’ve found that customers want more than a product or service, they want an experience. They want to walk away from a purchase feeling good about themselves and the company from which they purchased. But how can you foster this feeling in donors? Make them feel like a part of your organization: paint a picture of how their support contributes to the nonprofit or its beneficiaries. Rather than using statistics and data, add a more human (and emotional) touch by describing what their donation can achieve. For an example of this strategy, look to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s effort to engage potential donors by creating an experience that evokes a sense of belonging and acceptance.

What they do well: Lyric makes donors feel a part of their organization. They draw people in, engage with people, listen to what they have to say and give back to the donors themselves, in a sense, by making them feel like they are a part of Lyric Opera. They have posters in their lobby encouraging people to donate, showing patrons what their donation would fund. For example, a donation of X thousands of dollars would fund the entire set in one scene of La Traviata, or a donation of Y dollars would fund the costume Mimi wears in Act I of La Boheme. This is a form of storytelling in its own right, because it paints a picture in the donors mind of the tangible outcome of their monetary donation. They see the story of how their donation funded an integral part of their favorite opera; there is a sense of ownership and belonging that makes them feel even more invested in the organization than if they were to simply write a check for Z dollars and mail it to the Civic Opera building.

They also connect to audiences and donors on their terms, speaking their language, and creating a personalized experience for them. They are active on social media, the voice of their materials fits with the audience they’re targeting, and their high visibility through community outreach grows stronger each year. They clearly know their audience and how to appeal to them. They encourage active engagement through audience feedback in their emails, social media posts, and direct mail. This ability to create a personalized experience that makes donors feel listened to dramatically strengthens the emotional connection with Lyric’s organization.

Understanding Your Audience

Creating an emotional connection between donors and nonprofit organizations may be achieved through storytelling and personalized experiences, but the first step is always understanding your customer or supporter. To know how to appeal to donors and customers, you must understand who they are and what they care about, and the best way to do this is through emotion research. If you understand the emotions of your audience, you can tailor your messages, like Lyric Opera and the ASPCA have done so successfully, to create the essential emotional connection with your organization.

To learn more about how Martec can help you with your customer emotion research or customer experience strategy, please email

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