The Secret of Successful Fundraising

“In any situation that calls for you to persuade, convince or manage someone or a group of people to do something, the ability to tell a purposeful story will be your secret sauce.”  ~ Peter Guber (CEO, Mandalay Entertainment)


Successful fundraising is the result of strategic storytelling. In fact, the realization of grand institutional visions are closely tied to the degree to which their Cases for Support have been persuasively voiced. Rather than rely on slick videos, interactive websites, and glossy brochures to do so, effective nonprofit leaders realize the importance of utilizing the alchemy of thoughtful narrations to passionately express the philanthropic stories associated with their respective concerns. Only when the chronicle of their distinctive profile is genuinely advanced in a personalized fashion can agencies of humanitarian provision effectively engage the hearts of potential donors and thereby elicit the generous financial contributions required to realize their noble aspirations.

On average, Americans are confronted with 100,000 digital words each day. Ninety-two (92%) indicate that they prefer and would be more apt to internalize the meaning of these words, if they were delivered to them in the form of a story. If leaders want to successfully inspire and influence constituents and potential donors they should communicate their charitable ambitions through authentic storytelling. Every faith and philanthropic-based organization has uplifting stories of how its existence has positively affected the lives of people. More favorable results would ensue from financial campaigns if the power of storytelling would be used to develop Case Statements that emotionally weave an agency’s proficiencies with its aspirational ideals.

While religious leaders have long understood the inherent value of purposeful narratives, storytelling’s emotional and cognitive effects have only recently fascinated psychologists and neuroscientists. Research indicates that the human brain produces the stress hormone cortisol during the tense moments in a story, which allows listeners to focus on what is being expressed. A happy ending to a story triggers the limbic reward center of the brain to release dopamine that, in turn, produces feelings of hope and optimism. In fact, after study participants were asked to watch an emotionally charged movie about a father and son, the individuals whose brains exhibited higher levels of oxytocin gave larger donations to soliciting strangers.

Apart from its religious and physiological effects, the motivational value of strategic storytelling is well highlighted in a recent Forbes interview with Peter Guber, former CEO of Columbia Pictures. When asked to describe how he was able to resuscitate the then beleaguered music company after Sony acquired it for $3.4 billion in 1989, the successful movie producer, entrepreneur, professional sports team co-owner, and current CEO of Mandalay Entertainment insisted that he used “purposeful storytelling” to sustain Columbia’s identity. More specifically, Guber disclosed that the film Quest for Fire was chiefly responsible for inspiring his personnel to “reclaim the company’s illustrious heritage.”

Quest for Fire is the 1981 Academy Award (makeup) winning film adaptation of the Belgian novel by J. H. Rosny (1911). Directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, the plot of the eccentric motion picture focuses on humanity’s Paleolithic (80,000 years ago) struggle to control fire. Ignorant of its creation, tribesmen Naoh, Gaw, and Amoukar are sent on a “quest” to acquire a new source of sizzling tinder when embers of their village fire are tragically extinguished. After several days of wandering across deadly prehistoric landscapes, the itinerant triad stumbled upon a group of cannibals that had uncovered the secret of fire’s genesis. Though used for abnormal purposes, the tribe’s knowledge was nonetheless a windfall for the three cavemen. The film ends with Naoh surrounded by his awestruck fellow villagers using two sticks and a small pile of straw to wondrously generate fire on his own.

The emotive quest of Naoh, Gaw, and Amoukar was leveraged by Guber to inspire the employees of Columbia Pictures to rekindle the spark of their company’s cinematic legacy. Fire’s metaphorical verve was so potent that it was able to effectively persuade the then unsteady media corporation to uncompromisingly fan its artistic embers back into flame. As a result, by not allowing its new owner/partner to cannibalize the fire of its creativity, a revitalized Columbia was able to maintain its integrity and, later, confidently advance its reputation worldwide.

According to Guber, the “secret sauce” of his robust inspiration-based method of persuasion is humanity’s “God-given ability to tell oral stories.” In his book, Tell to Win (2011) Guber reveals the key elements that “tellers” of purposeful stories should utilize to engage their listener(s) and, thereby, turn them into viral advocates.  Humans, he argues, are not moved to action by data dumps, dense PowerPoint slides, or spreadsheets, but by purposeful stories that include a call to action.

Since people are more effectively motivated by sentiment rather than impersonal information, Guber suggests that persuasion might first begin with the phrase: “Once upon a time…” Like Homer’s bloody metaphor of the Trojan Horse, however, Mandalay’s business leader cautions that the “fire” of such strategic storytelling should be ethically used. Tellers must, therefore, guard against the manipulative use of story by always maintaining congruence and authenticity. Consequently, unlike its consuming employ by Quest for Fire’s portrayal of Paleolithic cannibals, the “fire of narrative” should be used to “warm a city . . . and not burn it down!”

Guber’s warnings are most insightful as fundraising Case Statements must strive to intimately warm people’s hearts before attempting to steward their portfolios. A Case Statement (Case for Support) is generally a document that verifies a problem, expresses why it should be addressed, who will lead the effort, and how the problem will be remedied as a result of a fundraising campaign. It is a valuable prospectus that provides the logic for shaping for general communications and all donor appeals. It may be brief (executive summary) or a longer narrative (12-15 pages).

A Case Statement is typically developed after a thorough study has been conducted to test the feasibility of an organization’s capacity to advance its vision with a cross section of constituencies and potential donors.  Unfortunately, many nonprofit and faith-based entities develop overly ambitious campaign case statements without expending the time and resources to ascertain confirmation of their aspirations.  At best, the omission of trustworthy feasibility data obtained thru listening sessions and confidential interviews results in pedestrian financial pledge levels. At worse, misaligned aspirations lead to donor irritation, member ennui, and finally, campaign goal reassignment.

Alternatively, a Case Statement should focus on a project’s distinctive impact, sustainability, and societal significance and not on soliciting an organization’s inter-logistic budgetary penuries. As counter-intuitive as it may at first appear, supporting case material should emphasize legacy and the positive impact that a contribution, like an investment, may have on societal needs, and not on social guilt or donor obligation.

Three key components, each with their respective elements, should help guide the strategic development of a well-designed case statement: (a) mission/vision, (b) impact/significance, and (c) rationale/appeal. If leaders of philanthropic agencies aspire to generate inspirational conflagration in the hearts of potential supporters, like the discovery of Quest for Fire’s three Paleolithic cavemen of the Combustion Triangle (oxygen, heat, and fuel), they too must learn to strategically communicate these three vital components in a narrative fashion. The following table provides an outline of the three key components that should be included for a case to reach donor combustion levels.

Case Statement Combustion Triangle


(Mission &


  1. Passionate narrative (story) of entity’s aspirational vision and how it advances its mission
  2. Brief history of organization
  3. 3.     Description of programs and services
  • Potential donors will choose to read the rest of the document.


  • Donor interests will link with one or more aspirations of vision.


(Impact & Significance)

  1. Testimonial stories that describe personal impact of entity’s distinct significance
  2. Statistical outcome data and charts
  3. Rationale for entity’s belief that they have the capacity to advance prospective vision
  4. Proof of entity’s financial and operational sustainability
  5. Description of campaign monitoring and evaluation procedures
  • Donor confidence/trust concerning the effectiveness of the agency will increase.


  • Donors will identify and consent to organization’s vision.


  • Donor confidence concerning the trustworthiness of the campaign’s monitoring of financial transactions


(Rationale & Appeal)

  1. Demonstration of campaign’s financial need(s)
  2. Amount of campaign’s financial need
  3. Logic for current timing of campaign implementation
  4. Means/opportunities of providing support
  5. Planned giving options
  6. Schedule of personal visitations
  • Donors discover the rationale for the campaign.


  • Donors will identify level of campaign authenticity.


  • Donors will identify level, mode, and timing of participation/contribution.


  • Donor’s desire to participate increases.


Apart from including a brief description of an agency’s primary mission and current programs/services, the primary fuel of a case statement is the element of a well-written strategic narrative that passionately expresses its grand aspirational vision. The oxygen of a case statement includes testimonial stories and statistical data that overwhelmingly corroborate the positive impact(s) and significance of the soliciting organization. Finally, the financial resources required to advance the aspirational vision of an organization are the elements of a case statement’s heat.

Successful leaders realize that while persuasive, data alone does not have the power to inspire action. They recognize that when properly articulated and linked to a Case Statement’s Combustion Triangle (fuel, oxygen, and heat) strategic storytelling has the power to generate intense donor engagement (participation).  As such, they are willing to surrender control of their entity’s narrative and create a gap for the listener(s) to willingly take ownership.  As a result, once a campaign’s aspirations have been verified, the credulity of its underlying vision can be strategically wrapped in a donor-centric story that ignites a fire in the soul. The language of such case statement narratives should be artfully crafted to connect a soliciting organization’s vision to the deepest longings of potential contributors. Only when individual donors recognize that their gifts will provide a way for them to link their own stories to an organization’s overarching narrative, will storytelling inspire them to provide the most sizeable financial donations.

The ancient human muscle of storytelling has been one of humanity’s most fundamental yet powerful communication strategies. Long before Columbia, Sony, and Pixar, Paleolithic wall cave painting represented humanity’s first attempts at cinematography. Cave paintings found on dark cavern walls and ceilings date back 40,000 years in both Asia and Europe! Although the exact purpose of these societal narratives is not known, evidence suggests that they were not simply decorative and/or ceremonial but may have additionally been a way of storytelling – now a glimpse into the otherwise inaccessible prehistoric heart.

As long as there have been campfires, communities have gathered around them to bequeath vital worldviews to younger generations through the use of inspirational narratives.  One of the most important principles that nonprofit philanthropic organizations should, therefore, come to understand is that the reagent of storytelling defines community, nurtures relationships, and activates humanity’s sensibility for generosity.  In the end, while online giving software, phone, and direct mail solicitations can obtain some contributions, only the fire of strategic storytelling has the power to ignite the combustion levels of shared experience, and provide the valuable subsidy of ongoing financial sustainability.

Dr. Frank Marangos is CEO and Founder of OINOS Educational Consulting. He received a Doctors Degree in Adult Education (Ed.D.) from NOVA Southeastern University (Ft. Lauderdale, FL) and a Doctorate in Ministry and Childhood Education (D.Min.) from Southern Methodist University (Dallas, TX). He is also a Certified Charitable Estate Planner (FCEP).

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"Frank’s insight and unique perspective have paid dividends for Heartbeat International Foundation. He helped chart new pathways to led us past long-standing challenges. He brought creativity and fresh thinking to our strategic planning and fundraising endeavors."
Dr. Benedict Maniscalco, MD
Chairman and CEO of Heartbeat International Foundation, Inc.

“Frank’s professional background speaks for itself. His skills are unmatched. He has successfully led entire teams of professionals, clergy, and volunteers through complex strategic and development planning efforts and then rallied them to make those plans and their associated fundraising and capital formation programs a reality. Frank’s leadership skills are not born of a false sense of authority, but rather knowledge, experience, and true charity for those he serves.”
Frank Ferguson, President
The Pelican Group

"Frank Marangos is a very intelligent, creative, and a dynamic speaker who can hold the attention of an audience for lengths of time. He is a multi-talented visionary and leader of people of all faiths and ages. His ability to lead, raise money, and manage a large, diverse organization are truly gifts he possesses. His educational background is stellar."
Paul Panagos, CPA
Panagos, Salver & Cook

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