The Story of Us

As Campaign Director at The Scouts, something that has been preoccupying my mind a great deal of late has been storytelling.   

For fundraisers the story can often be the elephant in the room.  We mine data, we craft persuasive emails in the hope of getting meetings, we do all manner of essential displacement activity in order to avoid pinning down what should be the motherboard for our communications.  Unless we can articulate a compelling story of why our cause matters – one that obliterates the ‘so what?’ factor – who is going to donate?   

Everyone loves stories.  As humans, stories are seared into our DNA as the vehicle upon which we process and retain information.  Reams of statistics can’t even come close to the impact a well-crafted story and its success comes from its unique ability to illuminate parts of our brain in series of chemical reactions, allowing us to engage (cortisol), stay interested (dopamine) and connect with what we are hearing (oxytocin). 

Out of this cocktail of chemicals, it is oxytocin that is the wonder drug of storytelling.  According to the story scientists, it is the magic elixir that allows us to identify with the protagonist and promotes pro-social, empathetic behaviour.  Critically, its release in the brain increases the likelihood of building trust with the storyteller and makes the receiver more prone to take the action requested.  

So stories create sustained engagement, build empathy and trust and encourage action.  Sound familiar?  Yet if they mirror and facilitate exactly what we do as fundraisers, why do we sometimes swerve the task of identifying them?  

Well, for a start, it’s difficult.  Finding the right language, the right heroine, the right zeitgeist takes patience and collaboration.  Sometimes the story isn’t what you think it is.  Is a capital campaign about a building and the contents it houses or is it about how that building allows you to perpetuate certain values?  Can it contribute to healing division or encouraging aspiration?  Is it in itself the keeper of stories that may otherwise be untold?

Finding the road to the right story is worth investing in and you can’t do it alone.  You may need to hire in expertise to help with building the narrative, finding commonality and making sure it chimes with your organisation’s strategic aims.  If you’re looking to run an appeal, it’s essential this isn’t just a side dish, but something that fits into the overall direction of your charity.

Your starting point should be a consultation of 12 – 15 individuals: key donors, your CEO, chair of trustees,  programme staff at the sharp end of your service delivery (if that’s what you do) and relevant external opinion formers can all help you look at your organisation in a different light. They might be a critical friend or just solidify what you’ve been thinking, but consulting them allows you to mine a rich seam of experience and language and builds consensus for you as a fundraiser. 

  • The most important people you can speak to are your donors.  They are your audience and ultimately the people to whom the story is directed.  Ask them what motivated them to give to your cause and take note of the emotions that moved them to action. 
  • If the leading light of your story is the organisation and not the donor, the tale you’re telling isn’t fundraising, it’s marketing.  Your goal should be to emotionally incentivise the donor to give, rather than to promote the effectiveness of your charity with facts and statistics.
  • Ask them how they perceive your cause?  What do they think makes you relevant and distinctive?  How will the project you are proposing improve society and further your brand?  Are there similar organisations they admire and why?  
  • Dissenting voices can be useful.  Ask if they have any concerns about the project and what they see the pitfalls might be.  How do they think these could be overcome?
  • Don’t forget to benchmark.  Look at organisations with similar outputs and values and consider how they’re telling their story and what kind of success they’re enjoying (or how they may be falling flat).
  • When you’ve decided on your story, how do you tell it?  By the end of 2019, it’s estimated 83% of internet content will be video.  People no longer have the bandwidth to read swathes of copy.  They want to watch it, take it all in and share it easily with others.  A professionally made film that can also be edited into 30 second clips for social media and re-packaged for other areas of your organisation is one of the best things you can do with your fundraising budget.

Elevator pitches aren’t just for sales.  If you can’t encapsulate the story compellingly in a few short sentences, you haven’t found your golden thread yet. 

Keep seeking and collaborating and you will.

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