Five top fundraisers share their favourite fundraising stories of all time. Learn why these stories hit home, and how it can help you tell better stories to your supporters.
Derek Humphries: Timing is everything
When I was little, my dad would tell me off for ‘telling stories’ (a euphemism for lying). It seems odd that I’ve made a career out of telling stories (although the stories I tell as a grown-up are all true).
A big inspiration for me to spend my life as a fundraiser, communicator, social marketer, or whatever we call it, came from a story told by a man called Guy Stringer. At this point, younger readers, please consult Google. I’m serious, because if you don’t know about Guy, you are missing out on one very important story – the story of our sector.
Back in 1987, I attended my first International Fundraising Congress. At the welcome reception, Guy stood on a chair to address the 100 delegates (yes, the event was once that small) and told us a story. It was a story about the children of human rights activists flying paper kites in El Salvador.
I’ll never forget the way he made me feel. As he finished speaking, Guy gave a clenched fist salute and proclaimed: “It’s a great time to be a fundraiser. Viva! Viva! Viva!”
I felt electrified. I shed a tear. And typing these words, I’ve just felt that same shivery thrill run through me. As I stood there, 25 years ago, I thought: “Wow, this is what I’m going to do with my life.” And I felt that way because of great stories.
So, what did Guy do right?
It seems trite to turn it into some kind of storytelling checklist, but it was about emotion, raw truth, plain English, relevance, surprise, passion, knowing your audience, trust, and a single powerful image.
But there’s one more crucial thing that is rarely mentioned in relation to storytelling: timing. Because a good story is like good advice; it only truly touches you if you hear it at the right time. And that is the great unknown.
Fundraisers and consultants kid themselves that they control their supporters’ journeys. Ha! It’s nonsense. You’ve little idea if your best story will reach the right supporter at the right time. And that’s why you need to be relentlessly inspiring. Make nothing ordinary. Make nothing merely good enough. Only then will you have a chance of matching your great story to the time someone is ready to listen, hear, and be inspired.
Derek Humphries is creative director of DTV
Ken Burnett: Fundraising equals fudge
Recently I was asked for my earliest fundraising story. Easy, I thought, I’ve shed-loads from when I started as a professional fundraiser in the 1970s. Then I realised I’ve some from even further back and they’re if anything more relevant now than ever. My earliest is from the 1950s, before television, when to my memory the world was in black and white. I was growing up in the Scottish Highlands, six or seven years old, all cardigan, balaclava and short trousers, socks round my ankles, football in the street, jumpers for goalposts, that kind of thing.
Back then, my mother volunteered as area secretary for the national childcare charity, Dr Barnardo’s Homes. It was her job to dish out their distinctive ‘cottage’ collecting boxes to as many households as would take them, then after a suitable interval collect in the money.
She did it for the orphans and the unhappy children. She was big-hearted, my mum. Twice each year she’d run an ad in the local paper and all the kids from miles around would come to our house clutching their colourful Barnardo’s boxes to have their contents totted up. It was my job to count the coppers and odd thruppeny bits into shilling piles. Lots of money! I loved it.
But even back then, there were many other worthwhile causes all competing for home collectors. So my mother hit upon a genius idea. She offered each kid bringing in a box a piece of her homemade fudge, as reward.
Now my mum made the world’s best fudge. Word spread, and soon kids were queuing round the corner clutching their boxes ready for emptying. I was worked twice as hard at the totting up, so I thought, “a piece of fudge for you for bringing in the box, a piece of fudge for me, for counting it”.
It was only fair.
My mother grew to be one of the top fundraisers in Scotland for Dr Barnardo’s Homes. I grew to be a rather large child, from too much fudge.
But it was here that I learned the value of reciprocity. The more you give, the more you get too. And it’s surprising just how many opportunities there are for us to give as well as get.
This story is abridged from Ken’s new book Storytelling can Change the World, which will be published in the spring of 2014 by The White Lion Press.
Ken Burnett is an author, lecturer and consultant on fundraising, marketing and communications for nonprofit organisations worldwide
Matthew Sherrington: Step right up
A great story has great characters, ones you might identify with, perhaps a hero you can root for. There’s adversity to overcome, or a puzzle to solve. We like an underdog. There’s always a journey, with ups and downs, unexpected weaves and turns. There’s a sense of hope and hint of resolution, tantalisingly out of grasp. It’s a rollercoaster of emotions that leaves us gripped, exhausted, wanting more.
What makes a good fundraising story is all of that, but much more. It can’t just be a story you choose to tell about you (sorry to break it to you, but you are not the hero). No; it has to lay out the problem, present the possibility of resolution, and make it clear how they, the reader, can decide the ending. It’s always an unfinished story. You’re inviting the reader to be part of it, not just to want to know the ending, but to make it happen: to become the hero.
This also applies to your charity’s overarching brand story. Too many charity stories are too factual, too rational, too worthy… too boring. Emotion gets battered out of them by internal censors. Simple language is tortured by jargon. And the call to action seems like an afterthought. You can talk all you like, but you have to engage people, build the emotion and signpost what you want people to do.
Stuart Nixon is a remarkable man. He has lived with MS for 30 years, 15 of them in a wheelchair. Only his left leg works, and he can walk only with sticks and a helping hand. To mark the 60th Anniversary of the MS Society, Stu decided to walk 60 miles, and raise £60,000. “Don’t be stupid”, said Marie, his wife. They compromised on 60 km. With a special wheeled walking frame, which allowed him to push himself along with his left leg, he did it. It took him nine days. It hurt. Hundreds of people cheered him, supported him, walked with him and followed him every step of the way. “If you always stay with comfortable, you’ll never achieve something spectacular”, said Stu.
Stu managed the walk, but is still £600 short of his fundraising goal. You want him to make the £60,000, too, don’t you? Google ‘Stu Steps Up’. And give. It’s a great cause. More importantly, Stu is an inspiration.
Matthew Sherrington is a fundraising and communications consultant. Follow him on Twitter @m_sherrington
Richard Turner: Admit failure – but don’t be defeated
What makes a great story are the moments it all went wrong. It’s the bit that can so easily be omitted; when charities tell stories of their success, sometimes they forget to recall the struggle, and the inevitable ups and downs that led to that success. In a film, it’s the part when the hero realises they have stumbled and failed. And, from that moment, you’re gripped. All good stories (think Spielberg movies) have it.
The story that sticks in my mind was how SolarAid came up with a genius idea for a solar light.
It was a light that could fit in an old hurricane lamp – you know, just like the one Indiana Jones would carry . This meant families in Africa who used kerosene for lighting could adapt an existing lamp. What a great idea!
SolarAid produced a prototype and took it out to show communities.
Families in Africa hated it. The hurricane lamp is the symbol of poverty – people wanted a classic light bulb, not a lamp that reminded them of what they had before.
From that moment, SolarAid realised that it should focus not on developing and making solar products, but on getting to know the ‘customer’ – the people who use kerosene or candles for light.
With that learning, SolarAid set up SunnyMoney, a social venture selling lights to communities. It’s an approach that is more sustainable than aid and that spreads quicker. SunnyMoney is now the biggest distributor of solar lights in Africa.
This story stands out for me because it’s memorable and easy to recount. I’ve retold it many times since. Why is it so memorable? Because it admits to failure, learns and then tries again. Just like in the movies, when the hero is foiled only to make a comeback.
When I tell potential supporters this story, it helps them understand why we are now experts in understanding the needs of rural families in Africa (the customer). That leads nicely into what we have learned. We know how much they spend on kerosene for light (a staggering 20 per cent of their income). We know that children study at least one extra each night with a solar light.
It also tells people that we’re not afraid to admit to failure. I think potential donors appreciate that. They know we are tackling some of the most challenging issues in the world. Failure makes us authentic.
Richard Turner is chief executive of SolarAid
Lucy Gower: Once more with feeling
A great story captures the heart of the reader or listener. It makes them care about what happens. It makes them feel something. For charities, a great story should make it easy for the reader or listener to tell others, give them the opportunity to be involved in the solution, be absolutely clear about what they need to do to help and the urgency with which they must take action.
Child’s i Foundation reunites abandoned children with their families in Uganda. The first time I learned about the incredible work they do was when I saw the video story of baby Joey.
Baby Joey was the first baby that the Childs i Foundation rescued. He was abandoned in a taxi park when he was just four weeks old. Lucy Buck, the founder and CEO of the foundation tells Joey’s story to camera and shows us the moment when baby Joey meets his new parents George and Desire for the first time. The film is a bit shaky, it’s not polished, it simply shows the delight and love that George and Desire have for little Joey, and how emotionally overwhelming and joyous the whole experience was for everyone involved.
Two weeks later, we learn that baby Joey is in hospital with a critical heart condition. There is no one in Uganda that can fix him. Lucy tells us: “If we don’t get him to London, he is not going to make it.” Lucy breaks down in tears as she speaks, and the empathy that we feel for Lucy, desperate to save this little boy, is overwhelming.
Child’s i launched a campaign to raise money so that baby Joey could have the operation that would save his life. Thirty-six hours later, over 250 supporters raised the £10,000 needed. Lucy calls George and Desire to tell them the news. Again it’s an incredible emotional exchange. And it’s real.
Great stories make people feel something. The story of baby Joey is so moving
because the people telling the story - Lucy, George and Desire – care so very much about baby Joey, they make you care too.
You don’t need big budgets to film or tell your stories; you just need to find the stories that make you care, and tell them in your words.
If you want to get some storytelling inspiration, I suggest you spend a bit of time on the Child’s i Foundation website (www.childsifoundation.org).
Lucy Gower is innovation director at Clayton Burnett. She is also a fundraising consultant.
This article first appeared in The Fundraiser magazine, Issue 36, December 2013