7 Wonders of the Storytelling World

Ancient Tales Offer Templates for Modern Nonprofit Storytellers

Somedays I feel a little like Rumpelstiltskin.

Do you remember that fairy tale? He’s a magical creature that appears to a girl in serious trouble: A king is going to kill her unless she can spin straw into gold (and marry her if she does.)

Whew! There are a lot of things wrong with that relationship. In a way, it reminds me of some of the nonprofit folks I meet with demanding bosses: “Hit this fundraising goal or it’s the gallows for you!”

But near the beginning of this tale, Rumpelstiltskin comes to the girl’s aid and miraculously spins gold.

Stories key to donors’ hearts

I understand that stories, facts and messages are very different things that work together to tell a larger narrative of a nonprofit’s value to donors. I can see gold in the straw pile.

Stories are important because they convey emotion. Too many nonprofits catapult facts and figures at their donors without any emotional context. Neuroscience shows that the human brain reacts to this onslaught by getting defensive.

But the opposite happens when you lead with emotion. Our brains open the gates, invite the facts in and break out the mead for a party. It’s magic!

Stories invite a deeper relationship with your donors. But if you fail to tell great stories – consistently throughout the year – your fundraising revenue will likely suffer.

That’s why I want to teach nonprofits how to spin their own gold.

7 basic story plots

A good place to start is what I call the 7 Wonders of the Storytelling World. In 2004, author Christopher Booker popularized that idea that there are only 7 basic story plots (or structures) in existence, and most of them are ancient.

Here are those plots and some examples of how nonprofits can spin them into gold.

1. Voyage and Return: A normal guy or girl treks to a place that’s enchanting at first. Then, things turn dark and finally resolve before they return home to safety. The Hobbit, Alice and Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz are all examples of Voyage and Return.

Nonprofit example: An organization that sends U.S. students on cultural exchanges might use Voyage and Return to talk about a participant who overcame culture shock and learned to love their adopted home.

2. The Quest: On the surface, this sounds a lot like Voyage and Return. But the big difference is the main character is usually a hero with a focused mission that seems impossible. In the end, they succeed and return home victorious – usually with treasure. The Odyssey, Lord of the Rings and Raiders of the Lost Ark are quest stories.

Nonprofit example: A workforce development program might show a single mother who beats the odds to earn a degree and improve her children’s futures. While not a nonprofit, the University of Phoenix used this story type well in a recent commercial.

3. Overcoming the Monster: This is a very common movie plot. A monster threatens a community and a hero must enter its lair. The hero slays the beast and escapes. Perseus and Medusa, Star Wars: A New Hope and Independence Day are monster movies.

Nonprofit example: A person who wins the battle against addiction or a deadly disease with your nonprofit’s help has overcome a monster.

4. Tragedy: In this story, a character (or characters) typically makes a fatal mistake. Their prosperity and happiness disappear as a result. King Lear, Avengers: Infinity War and Leaving Las Vegas are tragedies.

Nonprofit example: Hurricane Katrina and the failure of levees in New Orleans is a tragedy story. On a smaller scale, a nonprofit may need to tell its donors that an office caught fire or an aid mission failed.

5. Comedy: The classic comedic story involves confusion, extreme circumstances and a solution that unites people. Let’s face it, nonprofit life can be hilarious at times. Just be careful that the butt of your joke is a circumstance, not a person or pet. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Mama Mia and Big are three comedic stories.

Nonprofit example: In one of my writing workshops, I heard a funny story from a food bank that received a very large donation of fresh cranberries. The staff was divided about what to do. In the end, they used it as the hook for a brilliant PR stunt that employed local celebrity chefs and media personalities. Talk about getting out of a jam!

6. Rags to Riches: Someone who is downtrodden has the potential for and achieves greatness. This story can also work in reverse, such as a Wall Street broker who loses it all, but finds his true calling in the process. Pretty Woman, Slumdog Millionaire and Trading Places are rags to riches stories.

Nonprofit example: A man who once sought help at a transitional housing facility goes on to become the center’s director, helping hundreds of other men overcome addiction and homelessness.

7. Rebirth: Hollywood loves this story plot, too. A villain or dark force traps or kills a hero. Then a loving act intervenes and new life is born. The story of Jesus, It’s a Wonderful Life and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows II are examples of rebirth stories.

Nonprofit example: A prison ministry that helps a man change the course of his life. You also see this story used by nonprofits that train shelter pets to help veterans recover from the trauma of war.

Write a happy ending

The best part of the 7 stories is that they’re familiar to the audience. That’s going to increase the likelihood that your donors will let down the drawbridge and invite your story into their hearts. And that’s the first step to them opening their checkbooks or clicking to your donation page.

Now back to Rumpelstiltskin. Like me, you may have forgotten how the story ends. The girl ends up happily married to the king (go figure), and she outsmarts the title character who gets a little too mischievous.

Likewise, if you learn to tell your own stories in an epic way, then you can take charge, deepen your donor relationships and write your own happily ever after.

Laura Ingalls is CEO of Abeja Solutions and co-creator of Beezable, a tool that automates direct mail fundraising. She’s produced for CNN, served as a humanitarian spokesperson in Iraq and led award-winning nonprofit and corporate communications teams. Read more from Laura.