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Why fundraisers shouldn’t be storytellers

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Jenny Ramage speaks to Stroke Association, Age UK, Cystic Fibrosis Trust and others, and learns why fundraisers shouldn’t try to be the voice of beneficiaries


In the fundraising world, great emphasis is placed on storytelling. It’s true that telling a powerful, emotionally resonant story is the best way to connect supporters with a cause. It’s also true that in finding those stories, charities should look to their beneficiaries. As Jim Swindells, director of fundraising at Stroke Association says, “it’s the real-life experiences of your beneficiaries that are going to really connect with supporters and make them realise that their money is being well spent in supporting the charity.”

It’s not unreasonable, then, that a fundraiser would view themselves primarily as a ‘storyteller’ - someone whose job it is to be the ‘voice’ of the charity’s beneficiaries. But a second-hand account is intrinsically a watered-down one; a story from the horse’s mouth will almost always be more powerful. “There's nothing like actually hearing the beneficiaries talking about their real experience”, says Jim. “For us, it's an incredibly powerful endorsement of what the Stroke Association is all about”.

Lucy Gower, innovation director at Revolutionise, says one danger in trying to convey a story on someone else’s behalf is that it can end up sounding contrived. “If the charity gets too involved and the story is too scripted, it loses that authenticity. A story that comes from the mouths of people who have been helped, in their own words, is so much more powerful.”

Furthermore, if we look at the world of consumerism today, where peer review is becoming more powerful than company-generated advertising, then surely it’s the case that charities should follow the same principles.

Be an enabler

With this in mind, perhaps the role of the fundraiser isn’t to tell the beneficiary’s story, but to facilitate the telling of it. When Jonny Benjamin set out to find ‘Mike’, the man who stopped him ending his life when he tried to jump from London’s Waterloo Bridge, the mental health charity Rethink Mental Illness recognised the great awareness-raising potential in Jonny’s mission, and stepped up to help him accomplish it. They provided Jonny with press and PR support to enable him to get his story out there, but otherwise took a back seat.


Brian Dow, director of external affairs at the charity, explains how in helping Jonny achieve his goals, the charity helped itself to achieve its own:

“Jonny was already an ambassador for Rethink Mental Illness and he was extremely warm, likable, articulate and always so eloquent when speaking about mental health in his vlogs. Just by talking he dispelled stereotypes about schizophrenia - and we wanted to let him tell his own story.

"We worked very hard on the PR, digital and fundraising campaign, and we were mentioned in all the coverage, but we let Jonny’s own compelling story take centre stage. Having this approach really worked as people related to Jonny’s story on a personal level, and we were able to reach new audiences and gain new supporters and donors who didn’t previously know about us.”

Taking opportunities

Naturally, a fundraiser’s job will involve generating campaigns internally; but fundamentally it also requires them to recognise and react - as Rethink did - to external opportunities to highlight their cause. And there is no greater source of such opportunities than your beneficiaries. After all, it’s likely that they will be the greatest supporters and endorsers of your work. As Jim says: “Very often people want to support charities they have been supported by, as they have a great affinity with them. We recognise that with their involvement, they can help us be more successful, and help more stroke survivors.”

When considering the Ice Bucket Challenge and No Makeup Selfie, we recognise that these campaigns were absolutely in the hands of beneficiaries - albeit endorsed by the charities highlighted in the campaign. “It demonstrates that shift between the almost old-fashioned style of campaigning, where a charity broadcasts its message to the masses, and charities now starting to work more in partnership with the masses”, says Lucy.

Staying on Message

Can it ever be advantageous for a charity to relinquish control entirely of a fundraising campaign, while still endorsing - even funding - it? Laurie Boult, head of fundraising at Age UK, has a word of caution on this front: “I think if you're moving towards something that is completely led by the beneficiary, especially if you are putting money or resources behind it, then you have to be clear from the outset what your targets are, how you're going to achieve them, and what the messaging is. The beneficiary must be brought into the key messages and principles of the organisation, because if it becomes too much about the person and not about the wider strategy for the charity, then somewhere along the way you might have a difference in opinion about the message of your fundraising. And then you could run into difficulty.”

To this end, then, it is indeed about working with your beneficiaries, rather than relinquishing control. This is the case for Cystic Fibrosis Trust, according to its director of engagement & income generation, Iain McAndrew. He says that the trust places beneficiaries at the heart of everything it does - and in doing so, enables beneficiaries to instigate campaigns and drive them forward themselves. The recent campaign to get King’s College Hospital to adapt their service provision, for example, was almost entirely shaped and driven forward by beneficiaries.

He says that underpinning its success is a mutual understanding of the core messaging. “We work in partnership with the beneficiaries to ensure there is a clear, focused and consistent message. It’s about dialogue, engaging and understanding.”

As for the trust’s input: “We facilitate and support the campaign, and provide the tools and the platform to enable people to campaign effectively.” In all other regards, the charity steps out the way, allowing its target audience to connect directly with the beneficiaries, to hear their stories in their own words and from their own mouths.

“Charities need to recognise that their beneficiary community has an enormous role to play”, Iain says in conclusion. “It’s their insight and experiences that will help you focus on the issues that need to be addressed - and their voice that will help you make the change. If you don’t do that together, then you don’t see the impact.”


Jenny Ramage is editor of The Fundraiser

2 Comments on Why fundraisers shouldn’t be storytellers

Joe said at 16:59 on 17 July 2015

I think the jest of the article is correct, that the best stories are told from a client/participant's perspective. But what about the individuals who are unable to tell their story, the abused child for example. We, as fundraisers must be the story teller then. In addition, when a participant has a powerful, long story and only a couple of minutes to tell it. It is our story telling skills that are needed to help guide the individual so the story is most powerful for impact.

In addition, we are story tellers for our own staff. Too often, program staff try to explain what they do and who the serve and get lost in "program speak" or too many details. We need to then be the story tellers for our own staff. This is especially important on grant applications and reports when there is no other voice heard but the fundraiser.

Are fundraisers story tellers? Yes. We need to be story tellers all the tims

Jonnymo said at 06:25 on 05 June 2015

I really wanted to argue with this article, primarily because of the headline. But it is, in fact, the absolute truth if you want to be truly successful as a fundraiser. The best stories are not told by the folks asking for money, they are told best by the people benefiting from it.

Organizations that work in silos alienate those who can tell stories the best and that's a real problem for fundraising.

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