How To Make Your Donor The Hero Of Your Cause

Khaled Allen
Khaled Allen


Nonprofits used to take a page out of the consumer marketing playbook: make the consumer feel inadequate, guilty, or broken, and offer your product or service as the only thing that can save them. We used to see videos of starving African children or abject wild animals trapped in cages and were guilted into donating. But things have shifted.

According to Jonah Sachs, creative director of Free Range Media, the kinds of stories that last and which have the biggest impact on humans are myths that follow the structure of the hero’s journey. Here is how to use the hero’s journey myth structure in your nonprofit marketing.

Understanding The Hero’s Journey

The most compelling human stories are myths, defined at messages that provide an explanation of the world, the audience’s meaning and purpose within that world, a story about it, and a ritual for how the audience can live that myth.

Joseph Campbell, a famous myth researcher, discovered that most human myths follow a set structure, which he called the Hero’s Journey. Here is a (very) rough outline:

  1. A hero living in a broken world wants to express his or her values, but can’t.
  2. They are forced to strike out into the world by a disaster or other force.
  3. They find a mentor who helps them learn how to live their values and sends them on a quest.
  4. The quest takes them away from the world they know. This is often represented by a journey to the underworld, a forest, or some wilderness.
  5. They encounter and defeat a “dragon” and claim some treasure, often a new power or capability.
  6. They bring this treasure back into the world to make it whole again.

What makes this hero’s journey so compelling is that psychologists believe it is a reflection of the stages of human growth. We see ourselves as the hero and believe that we too can overcome our obstacles and make the world a better place.

Marketing Myth

Most marketing until recently focused on the idea that the company or product was the hero and the audience was the damsel in distress: “Buy our weight loss solution and all your love troubles will disappear!” But these messages only inspired anxiety. Sure, we bought, but the message didn’t inspire loyalty or even a positive self-image.

Sachs offers one marketing campaign that suggests a different approach: Nike. Nike’s slogan, “Just Do It,” focuses on the empowerment of the individual consumer. Apple is another great example. The classic Apple 1984 ad tells a story about the consumer breaking free, fixing the world, and claiming their own power.

I don’t care what Nike’s selling with that commercial. All I know is that they believe in me and I want them on my team. In both cases, the company is the mentor (the narrator actually talks like a mentor), helping the buyer bring their treasure – athleticism and hard work for Nike, creativity, and expression for Apple – to the world.

Use In Nonprofits

To create compelling stories for your nonprofit marketing, consider ways to make the audience the hero of the story.

  • Tell the story in the second person.
  • If your fundraiser is based around participation, show past participants in the activity and connect their effort to the solution to the problem.
  • Emphasize how you need their help and how they will make the world a better place through their contributions and support.

Definitely avoid guilting the audience into helping.

  • Avoid poverty porn at all costs. Not only is it denigrating to the people you are helping, but it also elicits negative emotions in your audience.
  • Avoid the implication that your audience “should” do something, and instead emphasize that they “can” do something.

This doesn’t mean you need to put yourself or your nonprofit in the role of a helpless non-actor. St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital does a great job of this with their “because of you” campaign. This video shares all the wonderful generosity of the hospital and finishes with placing the responsibility for making it happen on the donor. Show your audience that they are the heroes and you are the mentor or the path that will allow the hero to defeat the dragon (your cause), and bring a better world into existence.

Here’s Jonah Sach’s original TEDx Talk

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