Books and articles on storytelling and narrative in fundraising are proliferating nearly as quickly as bad storytelling and narrative in fundraising (could there be a connection?). In an effort to bring some rule-of-thumb type clarity to an increasingly foggy subject, permit me to share the five word response you need to be seeking from your hearers each time you speak:
I see myself in you.
In other words, you know you’ve succeeded in your storytelling efforts if at the conclusion of your story your listener feels two things:
- “This person has articulated something I believe passionately that I’ve never been able to put into words.”
- “This person is like a more mature version of myself. Our stories have a lot in common, only this person is three chapters beyond where I’m at.”
This is in contrast with the five word response that most fundraisers inadvertently (or–gulp–intentionally!) elicit in response to the stories they tell:
I could never do that.
Sadly, fundraisers feel they’re on the way to fundraising success when, after a presentation, audience members shake their hands and say, “Man, you are great! I could never do what you do.” For the records, that roughly translates into: And I don’t plan to do what you do, or to support you in your doing it, either.
This simple sentence, we are all the same, is the Golden theme that all stories express.
And it is my first belief that the closer a story comes to illuminating this truth, the more powerful and universal it becomes, and the more people are touched by it.
Master organizational storyteller Thaler Pekar puts it, well, masterfully, in her recent post on Stanford Social Innovation Review, The Benefits of Building a Narrative Organization:
In every organization, there is the big story—the organizational narrative—and the smaller stories that support, reiterate, and personalize the larger narrative. Your organization’s narrative is at the core of its values, mission, and actions. Your brand is strengthened when the smaller stories are consistently refreshed and shared. LIVESTRONG, formerly the Lance Armstrong Foundation, offers a terrific example of a strong organizational narrative, consistently supported with stories from cancer survivors and caregivers.
Sum it up and say:
Your story: The big story
Your donors’ stories: The smaller stories
To the degree that donors and potential donors see their smaller stories as aligned and connected to your big story, with your big story just a more mature and developed version than their own, you’re on the way to fundraising success.
To the degree that they don’t, the handshake and hearty words of praise you receive when you step down from the platform are all you’re going to get.