At 14, I came across Mark Joyner’s Simpleology program. One of the first lessons his students learned from his videos was about crystallizing vision. In the video, he asks his students to first imagine lots of money. After a short pause, he asks them to imagine a $100 bill. Go on ahead and try it out now. As you can guess, it was easier to imagine the $100 bill than “lots of money.” This was the first lesson I learned about storytelling. Nearly a decade later, I had finally realized what we were doing wrong in non-profit marketing.

Stories have to be simple, relatable, and fathomable. When these conditions are met, it inspires action. A call to action itself is merely a gentle nudge, but by the time the story finishes, the listener has already made up their mind about what they’re going to do. Tweet This

The Problems Non-Profits Tackle – Telling Local or Global Stories

Local non-profit organizations have a goal that address a local problem. Usually, this is about a community or a municipality. For example, a school breakfast program attempts to feed a nutritious breakfast to 100 students whose parents can’t afford it is a local problem with local solutions. The story is simple, its relatable – or at least invokes empathy – and it is fathomable. A hundred students, a breakfast, a school district are all within our frames of reference.

Stories that are simple, relatable, and fathomable inspire actionYou can imagine the support this type of program gets. If I asked you for a $10 monthly contribution to this program, in all likelihood, you would oblige. The same is true of food banks, or bake sales for the local boys and girls scouts associations.

The real problem arises, however, when non-profits tackle larger problems such as global poverty, education, and women empowerment. Think of the Millenium Development Goals, which attempted to save everyone in every way. This Guardian article will tell you how many MDGs missed their mark and how many were achieved.

In fact, the MDGs were perhaps the most noble of established goals. Case studies arising out of the MDGs have actually positively shaped development work today. The problem lies in the fact that while these MDGs were tackling a global problem, many stories that communicators and fundraising professionals tried to push were also global. They became unfathomable.

How many of you reading this blog post, for example, can imagine the 1.9 billion people who lived on less than $2 a day in 1990? Or the 2.6 billion people who got access to drinking water between then and now? I’m going to go all-in and say none of you can relate to or fathom these numbers. Mr. Warren Buffet, if you are reading this, you are exempt from this bet.

Why We Keep Playing the Lottery


The Powerball in North America has been talk of the town for the past several weeks. $1.9 billion? I don’t know how much that is, but it sure would be nice to win sums of money I can’t fathom.

At the same time, I would be a brick wall if you tried to convince me to give away that same amount over the course of my lifetime. What does the lottery have to do with telling stories? Consider the following: In August 2013, Adam Piore wrote an article published in Nautilus about why we keep playing the lottery. That year in May, the jackpot was $590 million. Professor Robert Williams from University of Lethbridge, Alberta put forth the following scenario:


Head down to your local convenience store, slap $2 on the counter, and fill out a six-numbered Powerball ticket. It will take you about 10 seconds. To get your chance of winning down to a coin toss, or 50 percent, you will need to spend 12 hours a day, every day, filling out tickets for the next 55 years. It’s going to be expensive. You will have to plunk down your $2 at least 86 million times.

That makes sense. I can relate. I can fathom those numbers. But none of us could fathom that the odds of winning are 1 in $175 million.

“People just aren’t able to grasp 1 in 175 million,” Williams says, according to the article. “It’s just beyond our experience—we have nothing in our evolutionary history that prepares us or primes us, no intellectual architecture, to try and grasp the remoteness of those odds.”

The Time Imperative in the Context of Global PovertySense of urgency creates cognitive dissonance

Why do we keep telling stories about how more than 3 billion people live on less than $2 a day? What is 3 billion people? Who are these people? Why are they living on less than $2 a day and what can I do about it? Donate to an organization or organizations that promise to eradicate global poverty? How can you eradicate something that no one can fathom?
Forget about it! Let me tackle something I can fix within my lifetime. Let me, in fact, tackle something I can fix by the end of this year. Therein lies one of the keys of telling fathomable stories: timeliness. Fathomability isn’t just about numbers, it’s about time. If there’s something I can’t comprehend, something that is a global problem that I won’t be able to fix before my last breath, something that will probably take several generations, it is also likely to be outside my subjective map of time and frame of reference.

At the same time, the sense of urgency created by fundraisers and non-profits creates significant cognitive dissonance. Word’s like “more than ever before,” “running out of time,” and “now or never” are to blame. Tweet This. On one hand this problem is too big to tackle, while on the other, it needs to be tackled now. On one hand, you will never be able to fix this problem within your lifetime, while on the other, your money and support is still needed in this race to failure. People, we know all to well however, don’t like to be a part of failure. They like to be part of success.

Why do We Keep Telling the Same Stories?

The answer, I think, lies with salesmen and admen. What’s always being sold to donors and stakeholders is utopia. The dream. That a perfect world free of fear, hate, pain, and inequality exist. After all, 62 people own as much wealth as half the world’s population. What we forget is that just like the face cream that promises noticeably wrinkle-free skin in six weeks, the same cannot be offered in international development or any other non-profit mission. The problem is likely to persist even after annual interventions.

“It’s a game where reason and logic are rendered obsolete, and hope and dreams are on sale,” says Piore in his article. This is why the lottery sells. But the same logic applied to non-profits fundraising sells very little. Those that are about entertainment and dreams play the lottery. Those that are about making the world a better place play a different kind of game. They can’t be sold the same way we’ve been re-marketed and sold our insecurities, desires, and fears.

Appealing to the King of Hearts

Leah Eustace on the psychic numbing impact of big numbersThe Eagles’ song, Desperado has a verse part of which is: “You know the Queen of Hearts is always your best bet.” My friend Leah Eustace of Good Works is a great storytelling trainer who talks about the psychic numbing impact of big numbers. She shared a study with me conducted by Deborah Small, a Wharton Marketing Professor. In essence, the study looked at two stories, one that had an emotional appeal, one that had a logical appeal. You can read the case study here. The one that had an emotional appeal was about a seven-year-old girl named Rokia. The one with a logical appeal was all statistics. Guess which appeal worked?

“It’s really about telling the story of one person vs more than one person,” Leah told me. “In the same study, donations went down when they added just one other person (Rokia’s brother) to the story. Incredible.”

My conversation with Leah also brought up another case study about how human compassion is surprisingly limited. In the study, Paul Slovic, a researcher from the University of Oregon demonstrated – in several ways – how our ability to sympathize significantly drops when more and more people are added to a story.

In his latest research, Slovic and colleagues showed three photos to participants: a starving African girl, a starving African boy and a photo of both of them together.

Participants felt equivalent amounts of sympathy for each child when viewed separately, but compassion levels declined when the children were viewed together.

Hypnotic Storytelling

One of the most inspiring and probably the most helpful person I know is Shakeel Bharmal, Chief Shakeel Bharmal tells fathomable stories in a unique wayOperating Officer at Aga Khan Foundation Canada for which I conducted a development audit. Shakeel made it happen.

Shakeel tells stories about international development and starts by creating a picture for his audience – one in which they can put themselves.

I was driving across the country this summer with my boys and during the 7 hours of driving through the Saskatchewan prairies, I looked to the left and I saw canola fields, to the right and I saw wheat fields and then I looked behind me and I saw my kids fast asleep with their headphones on and wearing their Roots sweatshirts.  I turned on a podcast called Planet Money and listened to an episode about the process of manufacturing a t-shirt in Bangladesh from the perspective of two sisters that left their village (and their children) to earn money at a textile factory to improve the life of their family.

He went on to compare the opportunities available to those two girls and those available to his boys before proceeding to talk about the Early Childhood Development work that Aga Khan Foundation Canada does in Bangladesh, the day care centres and literacy programs they create in textile factories.

The opening of the story is designed so that the audience feels like they are in the car with me and they can see my kids and imagine their own. I have created a picture in their mind and they can compare the story with theirs.  Then I let them into my mind and my thinking as I listen to the podcast and they are personally with me.  Then [I] pivot into the solution and they think about how they are – and continue to be – part of the solution.

And Shakeel had me hooked at this part of the conversation. The truth is, I felt like I was there. In that car, driving through the prairies. My frame of reference matched. Shakeel made something complex, half way across the world, relatable. I don’t have kids – my mind adjusted that dissonance with my brothers. This is hypnotic storytelling.

The Answer and Conclusion

Many non-profits in the international development realm have already understood this – and that’s where the problem really lies. Local non-profits have no trouble telling local stories. They’re about Billy, the boy with a prosthetic hand down the street. Or about Tina, whose mother works two 8-hour shifts a day to feed her and her four sisters. Or about Chris who is a homeless war veteran on the streets of Boston, suffering from night terrors caused by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Non-profits that operate on a global scale need to start sharing local stories. Small stories about small achievements. Small successes. Those that go unnoticed by most, but not by the donor who knows that his dollars have helped a family of five get access to sustainable livelihood. Or two children who can focus on going to elementary school instead of helping out on the family farm.

I mentioned earlier that people don’t like to be a part of failure. They like to be part of success. If we tell stories that have a higher probability of turning problems around and bringing solutions, we’re more likely to funnel prospects into our donor list. It doesn’t matter if it’s about that one person or family. Or a village the size of your average residential block. We have to talk about global problems with a sense of localization. That’s the key to success and that’s what it means to tell a fathomable story. Maybe one day, we will be able to talk about all these local stories that helped eradicate global poverty or achieve universal education.

Do you have anything to add? Please feel to comment below.

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