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How Star Wars Can Help You Raise More Money -- The Art of Using Sound in Nonprofit Fundraising!

Updated: Apr 25

Picture of star fighter fly to Tom Iselin's best strategic planning facilitation

The Art of Using Sound in Nonprofit Fundraising!

Movies and Sound

Imagine watching movies like Star Wars, Jaws, or Top Gun with no sound. They would be dry, listless, and yes, dull. In many movies, the sound makes the movie. It elicits emotional responses that can lift us up, make us cry, and give us goosebumps. Some music scores are so meaningful to us, they stir up emotions and memories decades after watching the movies. Think of movies like “The Sound of Music,” “Titanic,” and “The Good, Bad, and the Ugly.”

As a fundraiser, I recently came to heightened realization just how important sound is in our efforts to raise money. When reading a brochure or an appeal letter, there is no sound; it’s like watching a silent movie. The emotional power of the stories and information is weak. Yes, writing powerful and compelling stories can emotionally inspire donors, but not as well as telling those stories out loud.

Give Me Goosebumps

Telling stories and sharing information out loud—in person—brings stories alive. Imagine reading a scene from Jurassic Park, Saving Private Ryan, or the shower scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho versus watching those scenes with sound. Reading the scenes may elicit an emotional response, but watching these movie scenes and hearing the sound effects, music scores, and people’s voices can transport our thoughts and emotions to unimaginable places.

The sounds in movies ignite all areas of our brains. The tone of a Darth Vader’s voice or the whizzing of Starfighter causes our brains to start pumping out dopamine, adrenaline, and a host of other chemical reactions that move us, compel us, and emotionally connect us. The same happens when we watch powerful videos with sound.

This is why it’s important to tell your stories colorfully when talking with donors and giving talks about your organization and the work you do. To do this, use descriptive words that paint vivid pictures, tell touching stories, and vary your tone, pitch, and cadence of your speech.

Bring donors and your audiences into the world you want them to experience. Stir their imaginations. Show them in an emotionally, compelling way how you’re helping matriculate foster children into college, saving the marriages of veterans, or helping rebuild the lives of victims of domestic violence. Inspire your listeners. Make their hearts swell. Give them goosebumps.

Show and Tell

The ideal place to meet and talk with a donor is at a place where your programming is taking place so all the sights, sounds, and feelings of the impact you’re having come alive in real time. This is the most effective way to raise money if you have the type of programming that allows donors to see it and experience it. Otherwise, you need to create powerful videos and bring the experience to the donor.

The difference between telling stories and sharing information in person versus showing a video is that an in-person meeting with a donor offers additional advantages:

1. The donors can see and feel your passion which fuels their passion

2. It provides an opportunity to deepen the relationship and build trust

3. It’s an efficient use of resources; it only takes an hour or so

4. It creates a dynamic environment; a place to swap questions and answers

Face-to-Face Facts

Always remember, more than 80 percent of money donated to charities comes from people and 80 percent of this money comes from face-to-face giving. That means 64 percent of all money given to charities comes from sitting down with people (in person) and asking them for money.

How much time do you spend raising money in face-to-face settings? The average nonprofit spends five to 15 percent. What does that tell you? It tells you that you should do more of it—a lot more. Get out your list of your tier 1 and 2 donors and start setting up coffees, lunches, or just meet a donor at their home or office. You may even want to ask them to go on a walk or hike.

Use Positive and Negative Story Elements

In the book, Stealing Fire, the authors site a study funded by the Defense Department. They hooked up an audience with EEG sensors and heart rate monitors, and then had a professional storyteller tell a heart-wrenching story of childhood bullying.

The result? With 70% accuracy, the researchers could tell who was most deeply moved by the story and would likely give money to a cause that worked to prevent bullying. They also learned that the most effective pitches—and the ones that raised the most money—were “highly engaging and displayed significant contrast between positive and negative story elements.”

Meaning, the use of sound . . . building tension, drama, and empathy in your stories can greatly affect the emotions of donors and inspire them to give money.

Create a Box Office Hit

Writing newsletters, emails, and sending appeal letters should be part of your fundraising mix. But if you want to raise MORE money, and do it more effectively and efficiently, then start making better use of sound in your public speaking engagements, videos, and in conversations with donors. In the end, what you say is important, but how you say it might be the difference between your pitch being a flop or a box office hit.

The Art of Using Sound in Nonprofit Fundraising!

BONUS: Free Accountability Policy Template! What good is it if you have a Roles and Responsibilities for your boad, but no policy in place to hold them accountable if they don't fulfill them! I’ll happily send you an Accountability Policy template. Simply send an email to and include your contact info. Put "Accountability Policy" in the subject line.

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Tom Iselin

“Rated one of America’s 10 Best Retreat Facilitators”

Tom Iselin has built four sector-leading nonprofits and four foundations. He’s written six books, sits on six boards, and hosts a video blog and podcast. Each year, Tom speaks to more than 5,000 nonprofit leaders at conferences across the country. He is considered a leading authority on high-performance nonprofits, and his impact on the industry has been featured on CNN, Nightline, and in Newsweek.

Tom is the president of First Things First, a business specializing in board retreats, strategic planning, fundraising, and executive coaching. To relax, he loves mountain biking, hiking, skiing, tennis, and baking.

If you’re in the hunt for one of the best board retreat/board development facilitators, or one of the best strategic planning facilitators, it would be a privilege to learn more about your organization and the aspirations you hope to achieve as you work to propel your noble mission. Jot me an email to set up a meet-and-greet call.

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Tom Iselin

“America’s Best Board Retreat and Strategic Planning Facilitator”

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