Tell me a story

I’ve seen countless blogs and articles about the importance of storytelling. The thing is, we know it’s important. People give to people. Giving is an emotional response to living in a world you want to change. A good story brings your cause to life.

But I see lots of fundraising asks that miss the story altogether. Who am I kidding, I’ve worked on a number of fundraising campaigns that have lacked good stories completely.

Why?
Well, for one, we’re professional fundraisers. We deal with budgets, targets, staff meetings and mail packs. Our charities often strive to be seen as professional, expert, sometimes even scientific in our approach to solving the world’s problems. We are no longer the sector that blindly delivers charity in the old (potentially demeaning) sense. We understand poverty/healthcare/animal welfare/international development/arts/higher education. We portray our beneficiaries with respect. We are experts in our field.

I’m all for professionalism in both fundraising and service delivery. I think it’s key to using our donors’ funds efficiently and making sure we’re delivering our charitable aims in sustainable, long-term ways. We won’t ‘fix’ starvation by donating tins of food.

So where do stories fit in?
Professionalism is a great thing, but one size does not fit all. A professional in a board meeting who kicks off her strategic review with a story about how she drank too much in the pub the night before?

Yeah…not so much. It’s just not appropriate for the setting.

But when we talk to donors, we’re not professionals in the same sense. It’s far more personal.

The local hospice’s appeal speaks to the donor by her father’s bed as he struggles with the last days of cancer. The international development charity’s TV ad reminds her of the summer she volunteered in Malawi. The animal charity whispers from the armchair where her beloved companion sits in comfort denied to other, completely vulnerable animals. The child in the charity newspaper ad asking for protection could be her own.

It’s personal. Whether we like it or not.

That might seem like a minefield, but that’s precisely where stories make it easier for us fundraisers. We don’t have to point out obtusely that our donors might have personal reasons for relating to our work. The stories do that for us.

When we tell the story, our donors fill in the gaps. Each voluntarily brings to the fore her own experience and relates it to the story we tell. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a good story is like borrowing the donor’s personal lexicon.

And that got me thinking: who is really good at telling stories and making it work for fundraising?

Churches.

As an American by birth, relocated to the UK by choice, I grew up in the southern US Bible Belt. Churches in particular have huge influence and a massive following. They also succeed in generating a lot of income from their followers. I’d say that’s largely down to the stories they tell.

Because when you think about it, that’s what they do every Sunday. They tell stories that resonate with the core values of their listeners. Through parables and personal anecdotes, they impart lessons to the congregation. They encourage people to refer to these stories to change behaviour in their own lives.

Of course, they pass around the collection plate, but they don’t spend the entire sermon talking about why people should give money. That follows naturally once the story has been told, the relationship has been deepened, and the value to the congregation’s lives has been offered. They engender a sense of community and belonging, both between the individual member and the church, but also between members themselves.

Now I’m not a religious person, but that’s beside the point. I think this pattern of stories and values, and how together they impact on behaviour, is not wholly dissimilar to charities and the people who support us. Yes, we have targets and we need to raise money to make the valuable work our organisations carry out possible. But the way to reach that outcome isn’t by talking entirely about how much we need to raise; it’s by telling the story of why we need to raise it. We still need to ask, but it’s our stories that make it more likely our donors will give.

Rachel recently posted about the seven deadly sins of fundraising appeals, and telling a great story shouldn’t contradict anything she’s said. For one, be direct. Don’t hide the fundraising ask in the bottom of the letter. (Following the church analogy, how much more direct can you get than passing around a plate to put money in where all your friends and family can see you?)

And don’t put style over substance. A good story should make the donor want to donate, put him or her back in control over a problem that is important to them. It doesn’t need special effects or a lot of bells and whistles, just sincerity and tangibility.
So when it comes to stories, I ask myself:

  • Do we use really use stories in our fundraising? Or do we have ‘fundraising stories’ and ‘project stories’ in our newsletters? Aren’t they one in the same?
  • Do our stories give the donor a chance to engage with them? Relate the story to their own lives or motivations for giving?
  • Do our stories add value to the relationship? Do donors walk away from a newsletter, appeal or talk feeling they have something they didn’t have before?
  • Do our stories encourage a sense of community and belonging, both between our cause and the donor and between the donors themselves? Or are we telling stories that create a cold, ‘professional’ distance between everyone involved?
  • Do our stories reaffirm our donor’s faith in what we’re doing? What they’re doing by supporting us?
  • Do our stories support the fundraising proposition? Is there a real issue that donors can engage with and get involved with by donating today? Is the donor a crucial part to the solution, or do the story and the call to action sit separately from one another?

Now, if I look at anything we do and the answer to any of those questions is not a resounding, “Yes!” then I know I need to put in some more work.

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