Marc Pitman explains how storytelling can help fundraisers bring life to their vision and establish a vital connection with existing and future supporters
Charities are often so focused on the present (achieving their immediate strategic objectives) and the future (defining where they’re going and how they to get there) that they forget the past. They miss out on important information about the people and events that have shaped their organisations so far.
As fundraisers, remembering the details is our job. We are in a position to remind our staff and volunteers of our unique history and encourage them to celebrate it.
We also get to let our donors and other external stakeholders know that we value their input. We help express our charity’s gratitude for the work they have done, which has helped get us to where we are today.
Whether it’s in your formal job description or not, it’s your job to be a storyteller. Take a look at the newly registered charities in the data section of this magazine. Whether we like it or not, competition for donor money is increasing. And donors are getting pickier about which charities they’ll give to. How do you break through and get the attention of the best prospects? By discovering and communicating engaging stories.
British anthropologist Dame Jane Goodall once said that humans were ‘storytelling primates’. It seems to be in our DNA; as if we’re hard-wired to relate to stories. The next time you’re at a lecture, see what happens when the speaker narrates an anecdote or experience, as opposed to clicking through PowerPoint slides. Not only does their cadence and tone of voice change. So too does the atmosphere among the audience.
This is great for us. Organisations don’t have a personality, so people don’t easily connect with them. If you’ve ever blogged (or used other social media tools) on behalf of your organisation, you’ll know how much harder this can be compared to actually having a conversation. As people connect to charities through the individuals that work for them, we need to maintain communication about our activities and influences. People don’t relate to our mission statement – they relate to the people fleshing it out.
Once upon a time
When I worked as the head fundraiser for a community hospital, one of its matriarchs shared her journals and scrapbooks with me. Most of our 60-year history was included in these clippings. For example, I stumbled across the story of our inception. Such founding stories are very important. They highlight the public requirement which led to the creation of the organisation and the character traits of those working on its behalf.
The hospital’s story was gold on many levels. It showed that from the earliest days, we had responded creatively to the healthcare needs of our community. It featured examples of enterprising behaviour and showcased the philanthropic nature of our physicians. This proved to be a real differentiator for us.
When I shared this with staff, they swelled with pride. Externally, donors were able to link key moments in our history to notable dates in their own lives, which immediately created a talking point. This one story also served to shape narratives for the work that we were doing in our community, enabling us to create a connection with prospective supporters.
These stories remind us and the people we collaborate with that our work is part of something far larger than ourselves. Success stories cheer us with their celebration. Tales of hardship provide valuable lessons learnt during difficult times, which can be applied to similar situations in the future.
So, embrace your role as a ‘keeper of the lore’. Harvest useful nuggets of information about your charity’s past, present and future (whether positive or negative) and then communicate them to your internal and external stakeholders. Listening to and retelling stories adds an element of stability to our organisations. It may not completely recession-proof your fundraising strategy, but it’s far easier to raise money within a lively and positive atmosphere – particularly as we face up to the challenging fundraising landscape over the next few months.
Marc Pitman is a blogger and fundraising trainer based in the US.
This article first appeared in The Fundraiser, Issue 2, February 2011