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

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.

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9 Responses to “What’s the evidence on fundraising with language of pity v language of dignity? Testing the Narrative Project”
  1. Irene Guijt

    Really fascinating! I’ll dive into in more detail. If I’m not mistaken, the database of 50,000+ stories was initiated in 2009 by me with GlobalGiving through a Rockfeller grant to do the first testing of SenseMaker for international development use. It did not work at the time, in terms of how we had conceived it, for evaluation purposes. If this is indeed the case, so interesting to see this use of those short accounts. Very thought provoking for all communications folk in international development. Super interesting in particular to think if some narratives are damaging long term aims.

    • Hi Irene! The database of stories that we used for this experiment was actually our database of ‘project reports,’ or stories written by nonprofits to donors. (And as you know, the database of stories you helped develop were written by community members for evaluative purposes; not sent to donors as appeals.) But we’ve learned a lot about storytelling since you helped start that project in 2009. Thanks for your support and your feedback!

  2. I shared this with Duncan after he posted the headline and he recommended I add a comment here. I’d like to be clear about what our findings are NOT: It’s not that pity-based narratives work better than empathy- or dignity-based ones. GlobalGiving already used dignity language (not pity!) before the Narrative Project came along, and our A/B tests involved pitting our existing dignity-based approach (version A) against the Narrative Project approach (version B). But we found that the Narrative Project language weakened our fundraising compared to our usual style.

    So don’t abandon dignity language and go back to pity for the sake of fundraising. Stick with dignity, because it’s good for people, it’s good for the sector. And if done right, I believe it can help raise money too. If adopting the Narrative Project approach is your first try at using dignity and empathy-based appeals, then by all means, start with the Narrative Project. But let’s not end there. Let’s keep searching for approaches that can work for all three bottom lines.

    • Duncan Green

      I’m a bit confused Alison. You say ‘You’ve probably seen plenty of evidence that pity-based fundraising appeals motivate people to open their wallets’. Are you saying that is not true – i.e. that pity-based messaging does not raise more cash, or just that that was not the main issue you were investigating? If the former, what’s the evidence? sounds important

      • The Narrative project appealed to me because a) it might prove that empathy works better than pity (for those NGOs still using pity), but also because B) it might work better than any other approach (since many NGOs don’t use pity but haven’t necessarily established best practices for what works instead.) I investigated the latter. I wanted it to work so I could confidently tell our nonprofit partners that the Narrative Project would help drive funding, no matter what approach you’re taking (pity, not pity, somewhere in between). But it didn’t work any better than what we were already doing. It isn’t ‘best practice.’ I don’t know whether it will work better than pity for fundraising. I just know that it doesn’t always work, and isn’t something we’ll be recommending nonprofits incorporate across the board.

        As I said above, for ethical reasons, If adopting the Narrative Project approach is your first try at using dignity and empathy-based appeals, then by all means, start with the Narrative Project. But don’t just stop there; it’s not a perfect solution.

  3. Stephen Porter

    One thing I would note from the blog is how the narrative project elongated the framing of the issue. Could it be that changing the narrative is right, but it needs to be phrased in a concise manner. In other words, what was tested short messaging empathy based vs. long messaging dignity based. Further the newsletter subscribers are a population likely to have an endogenous variable: they had already signed up to a certain type of newsletter. A comparison with non-supporters or different types of supporter with concise message lengths might also be of interest.

    I agree with the point on the importance of considering the perspective of the rights holder.

  4. Excellent blog, Alison! Thanks for sharing your insights and reflections. I couldn’t agree more.

    Allowing people to tell their own story in their own words is effective – in terms of fundraising and communication. Something we, at BrandOutLoud, have been striving for since the beginning. Moving away from the negative stereotypes was our motivation to start in the first place. Because we always felt, it is about them. It is their story. It is our promise to them to treat them with respect and dignity – in everything we do.

    Within the Netherlands, there has been a similar project called ‘Reframing The Message’. – a cross-sectoral program about communications in global development. Touching on dilemma’s as ‘How to get the public involved with development cooperation without being too simplistic in our communication and fundraising efforts?’
    At BrandOutLoud we participated by providing several presentations, workshops, in-house consultations and debates. Often the question was asked: Where is the voice of the South? Because ‘reframing’ matters to grass-roots organisations, the local partners of the various international NGOs in developing countries. Even more so, it is their message. We have to include the local grassroots organisations. http://www.brandoutloud.org/blog/18/reframing-the-message-let-local-organisations-tell-their-own-story/

    This research – and your insights – certainly amplifies our original thoughts what is best for communications in global development. Bringing in a triple bottom line into global development sounds like a plan to me. We have said this before, but it is time that NGOs take responsibility – for the people they work with/for and the civil society itself. http://www.brandoutloud.org/blog/22/development-photography-more-mistakes-more-to-discuss-more-to-learn/

  5. Really good to see some research has been done on this and as you say empowering people is absolutely the right thing for us all to be doing. However we also have to sell to potential donors. Based on the samples the ‘after’ is a lot more wordy and jargony and that may be part of the problem. It may also be that the donors expectations and experience are around ‘us helping them’ and they may not understand why they need to give money if people are able to help themselves. Maybe there is a comms job for the sector to do around donors understanding ‘helping people to help themselves’ before putting it into asks?

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