As a nonprofit professional, unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few years, you know that storytelling – sharing the real stories of real people whose lives were enriched by your help – is the best way to reach potential donors.

More and more, causes are using stories in their solicitations. So why do they sometimes not work?

Let’s first examine the psychological context to see why (when done well) real stories do work.

Research suggests that the more involved someone gets in a story, the more likely they are to change their attitudes, beliefs and behaviors.

In a study published in 2012, social psychologists Melanie Green and Jenna Clark were looking at how the rise of movie characters who smoke might affect viewers’ attitudes toward smoking. Turns out that getting wrapped up in a film unwittingly makes us feel emotionally involved in the story. This “transportation effect” then “reduces counter-arguing, creates connections (identification and liking) … and increases perceptions of realism and emotional involvement.”

In a Google Hangout, Green shared how she showed people stories, and then examined the changes in their attitudes in relation to those stories.

“We find that this process of people getting transported into the narrative world – a state of immersion where you’re vividly imagining characters and settings – move the issues implied in that story into people’s real-world judgments and beliefs.”

She held up the introduction of affirmative action as a prime example.

“An evidence-based message didn’t change people. Share the story of a person who’d benefited, and suddenly we’re seeing change,” she said.

In fundraising, then, telling the story of someone who has benefited from your cause is going to take some work. You’ll need to find a subject that supports your messaging approach first. Then, let your writer have the time needed to gather enough information to write a story that will immerse your audience in the stories of the people a donor can help.

One more note: Facts and figures (and infographics) don’t evoke emotion. Yes, people do want to know where their donations are used, but only after they’re hooked by a story.

Tell a good story of a real-life character struggling with your issue, and you’ll have your audience eating out of your hand.

See what happened when Achieve tested an emotional vs. an analytical message in a fundraising campaign and helped Pi Beta Phi Foundation attract new donors.

Cindy Dashnaw is a senior project manager at Achieve, a division of Forte Interactive.