The Benefits of Storytelling as a Fundraising Tool

By XiXi Dong  |  July 1, 2019

The Benefits of Storytelling as a Fundraising Tool

“A dog is the only thing on earth that loves you more than he loves himself.” – Josh Billings

Each year, approximately 2.7 million dogs and cats are killed because of overcrowding in shelters.1 One organization working to change that is North Shore Animal League America, which has been saving the lives of defenseless dogs, cats, puppies and kittens since 1944 – over 1,000,000 animals to date. They are the world’s largest no-kill animal rescue and adoption organization, with 2,000 shelter partners across the country and around the globe, and each year, North Shore Animal League America places nearly 18,000 pets into loving homes. In a single year, their medical staff performs over 58,000 exams and provides crucial vaccines for nearly 65,000 animals. 

To continue their mission and operate on such scale, North Shore Animal League America’s funding relies heavily on contributions. Additionally, as a tax-exempt public charity, they are obligated to meet the public support test each year – meaning the organization must receive a substantial part of its income from the general public. Therefore, fundraising is so important to organizations like North Shore Animal League America. And while there are many ways a charitable nonprofit organization can fundraise, including traditional direct mail, newsletters and appeals, special events, capital campaigns, legacy gifts, social media and more, North Shore Animal League America successfully utilizes one very important tool in all of their fundraising efforts: storytelling.

North Shore Animal League America skillfully showcases the great work they do through the stories they tell on their website, in their marketing materials and across their social media channels. These stories, especially stories of animals in need, help to raise awareness of the organization’s mission. Most importantly, they Encourage people to act based on specific situations.

A great story motivates donors to act on their emotions and inspires generosity. Below are some key considerations for all nonprofits to consider when telling a story:

  • Start with a character: Your story should start with a character - someone who is affected by your cause. Depending on the population that your organization serves, the character could be a victim of crime, a homeless individual, families confronted with crisis, etc.
  • Introduce the conflict: Conflicts are the challenges and obstacles that the character faces. This could be a need for shelter, emergency assistance, job placement, etc.
  • Demonstrate the Impact: This is where you showcase how your organization’s support made a difference in the character’s life. North Shore Animal League America tells how they provide rescued animals with the urgent medical care they need to grow strong enough to be adopted.
  • Don’t forget the power of pictures/videos: A picture is worth a thousand words! Visual communication is an effective way to establish an emotional connection between the character and the donors. The images of animals in need used by North Shore Animal League America help donors connect to their cause.
  • Identify the call-to-action: After the story is told, invite donors to participate and make it clear how they can make a difference in the lives of others (such as your story’s main character). For North Shore Animal League America, this means encouraging pet adoption or donations to the organization to help more animals in need.


An additional benefit of effective storytelling, and one that North Shore Animal League America has been able to successfully employ for their organization, is the ability to use storytelling to manage your organization’s fundraising ratio.

Nonprofits are rated by their fundraising ratios and efficiencies by charity watchdogs and are often scrutinized for not spending enough on their mission. Many organizations feel the pressure to minimize their fundraising expenses. However, if some activities serve both purposes (mission and fundraising), the expenses incurred from these activities are “joint costs.”

If the following three criteria are met, an organization can allocate the costs of a joint activity between program and fundraising:

  • Purpose: The joint activity must accomplish the organization’s mission and fundraising purposes North Shore Animal League America often sends a direct mail item requesting a donation, but also includes program materials that build awareness of their mission and call for a specific action that will help their mission (other than making a donation) such as opportunities for adoptions, volunteerism within the organization, etc.
  • Audience: The audience of the activity cannot be selected based on prior donors or based on their ability or likelihood to contribute, but they can be selected based on their need to use (or reasonable potential for use of) the specific action called for in the purpose criteria.
  • Content: The joint activity must support program or management and general functions.

Nonprofit organizations can benefit from joint cost allocations by structuring their fundraising materials accordingly. As North Shore Animal League America demonstrates, incorporating storytelling can be an effective fundraising tactic to both raise funds and further an organization’s mission. This way, nonprofits can accomplish fundraising goals while also effectively managing costs to keep fundraising ratios within an acceptable range.

Learn more about North Shore Animal League America:

To adopt a pet, save a life and add to your loving family, visit:


1According to “Pet Statistics” published by American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

About XiXi Dong

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Xixi Dong, CPA, is a Director in the Nonprofit, Government & Healthcare Group at Marks Paneth LLP. In this capacity, she is responsible for planning and supervising audit engagements for a variety of nonprofit organizations, including large social service organizations, third party funded organizations, educational institutions, charitable, and fundraising and membership organizations including those requiring Single Audits. Ms. Dong also has considerable experience in conducting audits of employee benefit plans, including defined contribution, defined benefit... READ MORE +

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