Alison Carlman, GlobalGiving
When the results of our first test of The Narrative Project email appeal started to appear, I hoped they were just a fluke. But soon the numbers grew to statistical significance: the Narrative Project language was performing significantly worse than our control language in terms of dollars raised per email opened. I suspected it could just be a matter of the particular cause featured in the email appeal, so then we ran tests with entirely different topics. When that test copy also underperformed the control, I blamed it on my own writing. So in our final test we pitted language from another major nonprofit against phrases pulled directly from the Narrative Project User Guide. The Narrative Project language still failed compared to the control.
At the same time that we were running A/B tests, my GlobalGiving colleague was running experiments with stories in our database. We have more than 50,000 reports written over the past 8 years by nonprofit leaders detailing their progress for their donors. While these emailed reports don’t usually generate a high volume of repeat funding, it was still possible to detect that reports that were highly correlated with Narrative Project Themes generally underperformed other reports in a statistically significant way.
After all of our testing, we could not prove that stories and reports that contain the themes of independence, shared values, partnership, and progress drove any more funding via email and online donations than stories or reports that don’t. In fact, they performed worse.
Reasons for Failure
How could it be that the Narrative Project wasn’t working? The focus groups and online interviews in the Narrative Project conducted demonstrated quite clearly that these themes could influence the general public’s self-reported likelihood to support global development. Why couldn’t we get it to work for global development storytelling and fundraising appeals? Here are a few of my hypotheses:
- The Narrative Project was about long-term attitude change; we tested people’s immediate reactions and behaviors. It simply didn’t work to translate one set of recommendations to another set of circumstances.
- Similarly, the Narrative Project study only asked people how they think they will respond. It took place in the context of focus groups and online surveys, but it didn’t actually provide a way for people to act. In our study, we presented the language paired with a specific call-to-action, and we tested how they acted. What people say they think they will do does not always match what they actually do.
- Email fundraising is quirky medium. Successful email appeals often require much more personalization and compelling calls-to-action that aren’t always conducive to the type of storytelling or narrative necessary to develop The Narrative Project language and themes. It’s possible that The Narrative Project could still drive more funding in other media (in-person presentations or long-form magazine articles, for example) even when it might not work in the type of emails and online fundraising appeals we’re sending out.
- Finally: the Narrative Project themes themselves may not be as strongly correlated with fundraising success as other good practices in email marketing and digital storytelling. In order for us to implement The Narrative Project in our emails, we had to go against some of our own learning about what makes a successful email. (For example, there was less personalization, and the text had to be longer than we’d normally have written.) So I suspect that the Narrative Project recommendations can only be successful when they are paired with the most up-to-date fundraising tactics for the medium. The Narrative Project just isn’t strong enough to stand on it’s own for fundraising.
A Counter-Hypothesis: What Might Work Better
We ran a parallel study this summer during our Narrative Project research to find out if there were other ways to improve global development content that might have better results for fundraising. Based on our preliminary searching, we hypothesize that developing content that includes a person speaking in his or her own words would have better fundraising results than The Narrative Project themes or language. Very few of the organizations we surveyed allowed the people they served to tell their own stories in their own words. However, stories with first-person narratives not only raised more money, but I suspect they also experienced benefits of empowering their People and strengthening the nonprofit ecosystem (the Planet) as well. This is an area that we will continue to explore (see my colleague’s musings on this here.)
Have we completely invalidated The Narrative Project research as it relates to fundraising? Not at all. Our experimentation was admittedly limited, and there’s a lot left to test. And perhaps more importantly, the Narrative Project is helping move important conversations about cause-related storytelling that are vital in our sector.
Concurrent research is underway, focusing on the importance of the emotional cues in fundraising appeals, and the perceived trade-off in the between pursuing the Profit and Planet bottom lines. In September 2015, Hudson, vanHeerde-Hudson, Dasandi and Gaines presented a paper, ‘Emotional Pathways to Engagement with Global Poverty,’ at the American Political Science Association Annual Convention. They used experimental data to show the communicators’ trade-off is real: “using pity-based appeals has unintended consequences for broader engagement. Pity appeals trigger negative emotions, which are positively related to donations, but they also suppress positive emotions, which negatively impact feelings of personal efficacy” leading to lower public engagement with international development and reducing support in the long term. But their findings also present some fodder for communicators looking for a way forward. They found, “compelling evidence that the empathy and pity appeals trigger positive and negative emotions in respondents, respectively, and that these emotions are significant factors mediating the relationship between appeals and forms of engagement.” You can watch them present this study here.
If you’re a nonprofit communicator or fundraiser, and you’ve never adopted an empathy- or dignity-based approach, the Narrative Project is a great place to start. Test it out for yourself to see how it compares for your triple bottom line. But let’s not stop there. Let’s keep working toward approaches that deliver more balanced results for all three bottom lines.
Alison Carlman is the Director of Marketing and Communications at GlobalGiving. This is the last article in this three part series. Read the first article here and the second article here. Please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions!