The Hero’s Journey: How To Write A Compelling Story That Inspires Donors To Get Involved

Megan Donahue
Megan Donahue

You Are A Storyteller

When you picture a storyteller, what do you see? A mythic figure beside a campfire? A gregarious “life of the party” person? A novelist? A Hollywood director?

Do you see yourself?

Storytelling is essential for fundraising. At CauseVox, we often say storytelling is fundraising fuel. But telling your story in a way that moves people to action and compassion can be tricky. Luckily, storytelling is a learnable skill, and humans are keyed into one story in particular.

You can learn to be an effective, engaging storyteller. You don’t need “talent” or a “gift” or even a campfire. You just need a plan, a monomyth (more on that in a minute) and maybe a little practice. Here’s how you can write a compelling story that inspires donors to get involved.

“You can learn to be an effective, engaging storyteller.” tweet this

What A Story Does

Before we get into telling stories, let’s talk about what they do and why we tell them.

A well-told story:

  • Engages our brains like nothing else
  • Creates a personal connection with information
  • Helps us make sense of complicated situations or concepts
  • Provokes emotion, while shutting down skepticism

In order to make a donation to a cause, a person needs to be engaged, personally connected, and emotionally-provoked. They need to understand why a cause is important, who it impacts, and why their help is necessary. Telling a story accomplishes all of these things in one fell swoop.

The One Story You Need To Tell: The Hero’s Journey

Good news! You don’t need to start from scratch when you’re telling your story. There is one essential story that humans are already looking for: The Hero’s Journey.

Nerd time: The Hero’s Journey was most famously described by American mythologist Joseph Campbell, in his 1949 book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Campbell’s theory of monomyth suggests that all the great myths share common elements and follow the same basic structure.

Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey provides storytelling structure for nonprofits

Audiences automatically know how to follow a Hero’s Journey, because it’s present in most of the stories we know, from The Odyssey to Cinderella to Star Wars.

What Happens To A Hero

So what is this monomyth, anyhow? Campbell identified 17 steps on the Hero’s Journey, but for the purposes of nonprofit storytelling, we’ll streamline. Basically, it goes like this:

The Hero is living in the ordinary world, minding their own business, when they receive a call to adventure. They do not immediately want to answer the call, but eventually do, usually with the help of a guide/mentor figure. The adventure is on!

Next, the Hero encounters trials and tribulations, from which they learn important lessons. These all lead up to a great big ultimate confrontation of a challenge/monster/evil to be defeated. The Hero defeats it!

Finally, the Hero returns from their journey, with new knowledge and a new perspective.

If this all seems kind of esoteric, think about these Hero Journeys:

The Hero's Journey is everywhere.

Tell It Like An Adventure

While Campbell has influenced storytellers from George Lucas to advertising executives, the application to fundraising might not be immediately apparent. “This isn’t Star Wars,” you might say. “This is the Grand Adventure of Please Support Environmental Policy Advocacy.’ No one is clamoring for the movie rights.”

Don’t worry–your story does not need to be particularly adventurous for you tell it like an adventure. The structure of the story is what makes it appeal to us.

For an update on the Hero’s Journey, take a look at Donald Miller’s Story Brand format:

A character has a problem, they meet a guide who gives them a plan that calls them to action, resulting in comedy or tragedy.

The Donor With A Thousand Faces

You don’t need to go on a quest to find the hero of your story. The best hero of a nonprofit story is always the same: It’s the donor themselves. It’s logical to think that when you’re telling an organizational story that the organization is the hero, but your story will have a lot more impact if you center on the donor. Make it about them.

Beyond Borders is truly doing heroic work to end child slavery in Haiti. Still, their Not Forgotten Haiti campaign on CauseVox put the donor front and center. The donor is immediately given a heroic task: ensuring no child or family is forgotten.Show your nonprofit's impact on real lives.

You’re Our Only Hope: Introducing The Problem

Introducing the problem is where you make the case for why you need your hero’s help. Before they can set off on the Yellow Brick Road, you need to tell them about the Wicked Witch of the West.

Take a look at this story from Nicholas House, a homeless shelter in Atlanta:Nonprofit storytelling is emotional.

Think how you would feel if you had no option but to move your family into a facility that offered no privacy – a place where you had to eat, sleep and sometimes even shower in a room full of strangers, many of them with substance abuse problems, criminal backgrounds and mental disorders.

Now consider about how you would feel if you had to do all of the above while separated from all or part of your family. You know they are someplace similar, but you have no real confidence about where they are, whether or not they are safe, or if they are scared without you. And you are completely powerless to do anything about it.

Nicholas House is very specific, which engages our emotions. We understand the problem emotionally because we can imagine being alone and separated from our families. All of a sudden the fact that Nicholas House keeps families together matters to us.

Be A Good Guide

When you make the donor the hero, the organization takes on the role of the guide or mentor. You give them a plan, and call them to action to solve the problem. You set them on the course to achieve heroic things.

“When you make the donor the hero, the organization takes on the role of the guide…” tweet this

One of the Guide’s most important jobs is to inform the hero of their potential. Every Luke Skywalker needs an Obi Wan Kenobi to tell him that there’s a thing called the Force and he can use it. In the same way, you need to let your donors know that they are heroes who can make big differences for important causes.

In this moving campaign from Home of Hope, founder and director Edith Lukabwe is a thorough guide. She introduces us to the dire situation children with disabilities face in Uganda, and shows us how Home of Hope has found a way to help. She invites us to be heroes for these children.

In addition to their video, Home of Hope uses the About section of their CauseVox campaign to bring home the message that donating to their expansion is a heroic thing to do.

Show how heroic it is to help.
“You can be the reason their lives change forever.” Because you’re a hero.

Even their donor levels reinforce the donor’s heroic status:

Make your donors feel like heroes.

Don’t Worry, We Have A Plan

The plan is how you’re proposing to solve the problem. You must be clear and concise throughout your storytelling, but it’s especially important to be simple and clear when describing what you plan to do.

In the context of the Hero’s Journey, think about Star Wars again. Obi-Wan Kenobi did not tell Luke about ten evil things the Empire was up to, run some ideas for solving the problems by him, and then discuss the details of the history of the Jedi Knights. Instead, he kept it clear: They need to rescue Princess Leia from the Empire, and they need to find a ship.

You need to be as clear as Obi-Wan Kenobi. What, specifically, are you going to do? Why is this the plan?

World Bicycle Relief has a clear plan to solve several problems: Give people bicycles. They can sum up their plan in one sentence: “A strong, reliable bicycle helps people thrive.”

They demonstrate how effective the plan is with personal stories, and facts that show cause and effect.

Tell stories that show your nonprofit results.
World Bicycle Relief shows us the life-changing results of the plan: Georgina has a strong, reliable bicycle, so she can deliver twice as much milk.

Do Something! The Call to Action

It’s time to ask your hero to make a heroic move. Of course, in fundraising, we know that what we’re asking them to do, at its most basic, is give money. However, that isn’t all we’re asking them to do. We’re asking them to make the results of the plan real. We’re asking them to:

  • Make a difference
  • Save the day
  • Protect people
  • Provide for someone
  • Fight evil

A call to action is about acting, so give your donor/hero something active to do. Use powerful verbs like “save,” “help,” and “protect” to describe their heroic contribution.

We Get Results!

Finally, after your call to action, you get to paint a picture of a world in which your plan is working, and show the hero the consequences of their heroism. Show them how they helped with specific examples of their impact.

Show the impact your nonprofit makes every time you ask for donations.

In some instances, you may want to show the results of doing nothing. What does the world look like without your plan going into action? When Royal Expressions OPEN did not receive a grant to continue their dance program, they showed the sad impact on the children they serve.

“To feel that others do not care if you succeed in life or not is tragic.”
Crowdfunding on CauseVox keeps kids dancing.
OPEN ran a successful fundraising campaign on CauseVox and showed children they care.

Get Started Telling Your Story

Use our helpful worksheet to embark on your own heroic journey.

The Hero’s Journey: A Storytelling Worksheet

Brainstorm: 5 Things

  1. What is the heroic thing you’re asking the donor to do?
  2. What is the problem you’re asking them to face?
    • What is the emotional impact of this problem?
    • Why is it important?
  3. Why are you qualified to solve this problem?
  4. What is your problem-solving plan?
  5. What are the results of their heroic action?

Introduce The Problem:

The problem is______________________. This means ________________. This affects people because _________________. The problem makes them feel ____________.

Ex: The problem is transportation is hard to come by in rural Africa. This means people can only travel as far as they can walk. This affects people because it limits their access to work and school,and  limits their earning potential to walkable distances, which may not be enough to make a living. The problem makes them feel trapped and hopeless.

Introduce Yourself

Our organization is ready to solve this problem because_________________.

Ex: We’ve been tackling it for 30 years. We’ve solved this problem in another place. We’ve done tons of research that says this is the way to solve it.

Give Them A Plan

We will address the problem by____________________________.

This will work because______________________.

Ex: We will address the problem by supplying bicycles to 100 people in rural Africa. This will work, because a person with a bicycle can travel further for work and school opportunities.

Talk Results

The specific result of the plan is________________.

The emotional impact of the plan is_____________.

If we don’t implement the plan, __________________________.

Ex: The result of the plan is 100 individuals are able to work and study when they couldn’t before. The emotional impact of the plan is hope and opportunity. If we don’t implement the plan, these 100 people and their families may not be able to work or attend school.

Call To Action

End your story with a concrete call to action. Ask your hero/donor to do something specific to make the plan work to get the results you hope for. Use powerful words like, “help,” “donate,” “give,” and “support.”

You can help by_____________________.

Donate _____________________ to____________________.

Support____________________ by____________________.

Ex: “Donate $XXX today to provide a bicycle for a high school student in rural Africa.

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