What’s the evidence on fundraising with language of pity v language of dignity? Testing the Narrative Project

July 15, 2016 9 By Duncan Green

alison carlmanGuest post by Alison Carlman of GlobalGivingCarlman 1


A report was published last week shedding new light on the Narrative Project.  In case you’re not familiar, The Narrative Project was a wide-scale research project driven by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, InterAction, and other major NGOs in the lead-up to 2015 (and the new Sustainable Development Goals), aiming to improve US, UK, French, and German public perceptions of aid and development cooperation. The Narrative Project researchers claim that messages and stories carrying certain narrative themes—independence, shared values, partnership, and progress—motivated certain segments of the population to change their attitude about global aid. It also found an increase in the target group’s self-reported likelihood to take action to support global development causes.

The Narrative Project Themes: Independence, Shared Values, Partnership, Progress

The Narrative Project Themes: Independence, Shared Values, Partnership, Progress

I was one of ten nonprofit communicators awarded a grant to test the Narrative Project last year. I wanted to know whether using Narrative Project recommendations could go beyond attitude change; could they influence behavior and motivate people to give? After all, most of us who work in smaller nonprofits don’t have the luxury of aiming only for long-term perception change with our day-to-day work.

You’ve probably seen plenty of evidence that pity-based fundraising appeals motivate people to open their wallets, but as a reader of this blog, you and your team have also probably long-abandoned those flies-in-the-eyes fundraising approaches in favor of more dignifying, nuanced storytelling. The Narrative Project was exciting to me because it was the first empirical study I’d seen that offered a dignifying approach that had the promise to be more powerful than pity-based approaches AND other empathy-based approaches that we’ve been employing. Could the Narrative Project findings and recommendations really be that powerful?


Sample Revisions in the Narrative Project User Guide

Sample Revisions in the Narrative Project User Guide

Diving Into Data

My colleagues and I analyzed GlobalGiving’s database of 50,000 “project reports” (stories) written by our nonprofit partners from 165+ countries over the past eight years to see how Narrative-Project-aligned reports performed in terms of fundraising compared to others. We also conducted six A/B tests with more than 160,000 newsletter subscribers to see how our normal appeals fared compared to Narrative Project appeals that highlighted independence, shared values, partnership, and progress, according to the user guide. Here are examples of an A (control) and B (test) version of an appeal we sent.


What did we find? The Narrative Project didn’t work. Not for fundraising, at least. During our data dive, I was surprised to find the Narrative Project-aligned reports triggered a statistically significant lower number of average donations in aggregate than the non-aligned reports (some which may have been pity-based, but others were not). After the six A/B tests, I was also surprised to find that the Narrative Project wording performed significantly worse than our normal empathy-based appeals. Ouch.

But Wait! There’s More!

While we were examining the fundraising effects of different types of narratives, we did uncover something exciting: the reports and stories that included first-person pronouns were actually more successful at driving donations. What did that mean? Allowing people to tell their own stories in their own words can be an effective fundraising strategy. What’s more, first-person narratives might not only raise more money, but I suspect they also help empower storytellers and strengthen the nonprofit ecosystem as well.

The Triple Bottom Line

The Triple Bottom Line

In the corporate world we talk of the triple bottom line: responsible companies make decisions that help them benefit People, Planet, and Profit. I believe that a triple-bottom-line also exists for nonprofit communicators and fundraisers: we have the responsibility to share narratives that edify the People we ultimately intend to help, and also support the Planet (the nonprofit/global development ecosystem) and also drive Profit (or funding for the cause).

We can’t only ask whether a communication strategy “works” for fundraising; we should also ask ourselves: “How are we empowering this girl by helping tell her story, rather than objectifying and further marginalizing her on a public scale? Are our stories damaging the public’s understanding of the problem, and their perceived ability to make a difference? How does our content affect the way nonprofits and so-called ‘beneficiaries’ view themselves in the system?”

As the Narrative Project gains influence in our sector, I hope we’ll see it as fuel for an ongoing conversation about better storytelling in global development, but not a silver bullet for all nonprofit communications. This year at GlobalGiving we’ll be diving deeper into our counter-hypothesis, that first-person narratives could be more powerful and effective at benefiting the people we intend to help, the social sector ecosystem, and the funding channels that support our work. Read more about our Narrative Project research on our Tools + Training Blog.