What’s Your Problem?

You’ve got your popcorn and your dog cuddled up on the sofa next to you. You push play and start the movie. The opening scene shows a young mother pushing a stroller down the sidewalk. The sun is shining. Neighbors wave and smile. The baby laughs. Dogs wag their tails.


If the movie continues like this much longer, it won’t keep your attention, will it?

But wait. What’s this? Now there’s a UFO hovering above the sidewalk. It beams up the baby. The woman screams. Well, now you might keep watching.

Why? Because now we’ve got a problem. And every good story starts with a problem.

Let’s look at four problems from stories through the centuries. (See if you can identify what stories they come from.)

1. Tony Stark is drifting in space with no food or water and a dwindling oxygen supply. (2019)A British intelligence officer is killed in Jamaica and agent #007 is sent to investigate. (1962)

2. A British intelligence officer is killed in Jamaica and agent #007 is sent to investigate. (1962)

3. Jim Hawkins finds a treasure map in an old sea chest moments before a band of pirates shows up on the scene. (1883)

4. Noah hears that God is going to destroy the world with a flood and starts building a boat big enough to save his family and two of every kind of creature on the earth. (19th century BCE)

From the dawn of time, storytellers have known that a good story starts with a problem.

So, what’s your problem?

As a fundraiser, you are telling stories all the time—on your website, in your emails and newsletters, over coffee, at events, in your year-end appeals, in your thank you letters. Do your stories start with a problem? If not, you can instantly improve your own storytelling skills by following the time-tested formula. Ask yourself, What problems does my nonprofit solve? Start your stories with that.      

We get requests for help every day, and we cannot keep up. We simply do not have the resources.

Your elderly neighbors are profoundly lonely. In fact, men over 75 years old have the highest successful rate of suicide.

Children right here in our town are going to bed with growling tummies.

If the urban developers have their way, our beloved nature spots are going to disappear inch by inch.

Start with the problem. Then invite your donors to be part of the solution.

PS: Did you guess all four of the story problems correctly?

1. Avengers: Endgame (2019)

2. Dr. No, the first James Bond movie (1962)

3. Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson (1883)

4. Noah’s Ark, The Bible (19th century BCE-ish)