While everyone knows a good story when they see one, few know what makes a good story good, and fewer still can write one.

All the recent buzz about storytelling is good. But buzz mainly makes your hair stand on end.

Frank C. Dickerson, Ph.D. recently joined us for a webinar in which he revealed the three dimensions of story building. In case you missed it, you can watch the full replay here:

Full Transcript:

Steven: Hey there. Thanks to everyone who’s logged in early. We’re going to get started here in just about two minutes so sit tight.

Well Frank, my watch just struck one o’clock. Do you want to go ahead and get started?

Frank: Yep, let’s go.

Steven: All right, my friend. Well good afternoon, everyone if you’re on the East Coast or good morning if you’re on the West Coast or somewhere in between. Thanks for being here for today’s webinar, “How to Avoid the Five Fatal Mistakes Fund Appeals Make.” And my name is Steven Shattuck and the VP of Marketing here at Bloomerang and I’ll be moderating today’s discussion.

And before we begin I just want to let everyone know that we are recording this presentation and we’re going to make that recording available to you a little later on this afternoon. I’ll be emailing that out as well as the slides from the whole presentation. So you’ll be able to review those. You can share those with anyone in your office, or just revisit the content at your leisure. So just look for an email from me a little later than this afternoon. We’ll get all those to you.

And as you’re listening today, please feel free to chat in some questions for our guest. There’s a chat box there right on your screen. We’d love for some discussion to happen. That’s always good. And we’re going to try and save a little bit of time at the end of the presentation for a more formal Q&A session. So do not be shy at all. We’d love to answer some of your questions a little later on towards the end.

And just in case this is your first webinar with us, welcome. We do, do these webinars every Thursday at 1 p.m. Eastern. We bring on a great guest like our guest today to give a great formal presentation.

In addition to that, Bloomerang is a provider of donor database software. So if you’re in the market for that, or you’re thinking about switching, or just want to check it out, please feel free to do so. You can get a hassle-free demo on our website. You can watch some videos to learn more about our product. We’d love for you to do that if you’re in the market, or just interested.

So I want to go ahead and introduce today’s guest. He is Frank C. Dickerson, PhD. Hey, Frank. How’s it going?

Frank: Good afternoon. Good.

Steven: Thanks so much for being here. I know we chatted at AFP of Baltimore about this and we’ve been working on this for a long time. It’s nice to finally have the date here. For those of you who don’t know Frank, he is the president of High Touch Communication, where he produces lots of direct mail fundraising campaigns. He’s also an adjunct professor over at Cal University. He’s the former director of development for Campus Crusade for Christ. Where he just had a great career there, did a lot of very cool things, also a former pupil of Peter Drucker which is pretty impressive.

And Frank, I know you want to talk more about yourself as well direct mail. So I’m not going to take away any more time from you. Why don’t you go ahead and get us started, my friend.

Frank: Well, welcome everyone. I’m going to just give you a little bit of background about who I am. And then I’m going give you a little bit of instruction on where we’re heading in this hour. I normally do these day long seminars and so this will be a little bit truncated compared to what I am used to.

But I was born in 1951. It gives you little information on how old I am. My mom apparently wanted a girl because she named me Frankie Carol. I grew up in southern Illinois and my family moved to rural Ohio, the most rural county in Ohio in 1964. And my dad wasn’t a farmer. Rather it was oil that had brought him to Illinois from Texas after the Second World War. Then in 1964, it grew my family to Ohio, just like now it is drawing thousands of people up to North Dakota some 50 years later.

So I became a freshman at Ohio State University in 1969. And I’m a history buff. My major there was ancient history, Jewish civilization, and communication, so kind of a triple major. And I was always interested in history. And so just a little bit about my freshman year in college, we beat the USC Trojans 27-16 that year. Three weeks later Richard Nixon became president, 37th. Led Zeppelin released its first album. The Beatles played their last live concert in London. Neil Armstrong landed on the moon. And Jimi Hendrix landed on the stage at Woodstock and played to 200,000 people.

And then on October 29th 10:30 p.m. at 3420 Boelter Hall in UCLA the first message, of what we now call the internet was sent to Stanford Research Institute up in Menlo Park. And this looks like a short order cook’s instructions for hamburgers, fries, and a coke. But this is the actual log of that very first message.

And my freshman year in college I also was president of a student organization and after the National Guard closed down the campus on May 4th in the middle of riots and after four kids got killed up at the Kent State, I got my first taste of fundraising. Several of us we’re asked to attend a student leadership conference up in Chicago. The hitch was we had to raise the money to get there. So that was my first start in fundraising 46 years ago.

Now, here’s where we’re heading in our time today about communication and fundraising. I use on learning loop when I teach that I think serves me well and the students that I work with. In most of our seminars, we’ll give some information theory. And I’m the kind of person that doesn’t like theory. Just give me the facts on how to do it. But the problem with not understanding the “why” is that we end up when things change, not knowing what to do.

Second, a little item on this loop is illustration. So I’m going to be showing you some cases today of effective and ineffective fundraising communication. The third is demonstration. We’re not going to have a lot of time for that. But I’m going to give you some examples. Simulation, we’re not going to get time for you to write something and give you immediate feedback. In a seminar we would also then evaluate, in a group environment, how well or how you could improve. Then correction, we usually go through the loop all the way to correction and then circle around again.

So I’ve asked some who would like to send me samples, and I have those. I will be looking at them. And if anyone wants to send me a sample of their writing afterwards, I would be very glad to take a look at it. I wanted to just detail a little bit about myself because it illustrates one of the first principles I want to bring out that details are the raw materials out of which interesting stories are built. No details, no story.

But if you don’t have details, you have to go sleuth for them. My first experience and understanding also the dimensions of fundraising, or the language of it was some 40 years ago. I was a newlywed. My wife and I were walking through Lazarus department store in downtown Columbus, Ohio. It’s no longer there. And as we passed by a mannequin, Kathleen

[SP] said, “That’s nice,” as we passed by and I registered in my hard drive that I ought to go back and buy that. Brought it home and I got a lesson on the adjectives that apply to women’s clothing.

She said, “Frank, why did you buy that?” I said, “Well, you said you liked it.” “Well, look at it, the design is for an old person,” and we were in our early 20s. “Not only that, Frank, it’s August in Columbus and this thing’s made out of wool.” Structure was not appropriate. The third thing she said, “But I like the boots.” Then I realized later on, that like a garment, it has three dimensions.

It has a dimension of design, what’s it intended for? The second dimension is what’s it made out of? The third dimension is style. The text, whether it be a fundraising letter, a book, or anything has those three dimensions. But most of us don’t really pay that much attention to it. We will maybe focus on the grammar. We will focus on writing it for the professor, who is no longer there by the way. But we need to be thinking of all three.

So in addition to the details, we need to be looking at all three dimensions of fund appeal. And when you look at the process in fundraising, I believe our purpose is to create what I call a connecting narrative moment. Connecting narrative moment is like that time you’ve been in a room and the speaker has said something that prompted the audience to respond almost as if it was one person and you hear this audible “Ah.” That’s the connecting narrative moment, when something the speaker said hit the nerve of the audience. Unlike a novel, short story, 90 minute feature film or a 22 minute television show, that we only have a page. Maybe if you’re brave go as many as four pages. So a connecting narrative moment has to be brief.

And as you see in this chart it has three elements. And one of the acid tests that I will be looking at when I look at some of your samples and as we look at some of the examples I’m going to present later in our 45 minutes together. A fund appeal to be a connecting narrative moment has to have three things: people, tension, and resolution. And one of the earliest thinkers to talk about these things was, of course, Aristotle. And I’ve said that nothing we write about today is more than just a footnote on what he said.

I like the phrase “empathy.” I remember Bill Clinton in a debate said, “I feel your pain.” I remember the contrasting image of George Bush looking at his watch, is this about ready to be over? Well, Aristotle described empathy this way, a feeling of pain caused by the sight of some evil, destructive, or painful which befalls someone who does not deserve it. We pity those who are like us in age, character, disposition, social standing. In all these cases it appears more likely that the same misfortune may befall us also.

But when we think of creating a connecting narrative moment, we’re creating a moment where we can empathize with a situation someone is in. Aristotle also said that there’s tension. A good story has tension. He wrote, we suffer conflict. Fear and pity may be aroused by spectacular means. But they may also result from the inner structure of the piece, which is the better way he said and indicates a superior poet. And in his case, of course the word “poet” means writer. He continues, for the plot ought to be so constructive that even without the aid of the eye, he who hears the tale will thrill with horror and melt to pity at what takes place.

So in writing a fund appeal and speaking before a group, showing something on screen, developing whatever medium your message is for, the question is, will they as a result of reading it relate to an individual and sense some kind of problem that your fund appeal addresses? And finally, Aristotle talked about resolution. We became heroes, essentially, as fundraisers when we give. Or the donor actually becomes the hero of a story. We give them an opportunity to be cast in the role of hero. And Aristotle said kindness is great if shown to one who is in need. Or who needs what is important or hard to get. Or who needs it in an important and difficult crisis. Or if the helper is the only, the first, or the chief person to give the help. You would have thought he was a fundraiser 2,000 years ago.

This is the kind of thing that we do when we write a fund appeal. We position the unique opportunity that we give the donor to become the hero of the story. So fundraising writing is essentially an emotional business. And I remember years ago, a movie by, that was a screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky who wrote, the screenplay won an Academy Award for it, it was called “Network.” Some of you may or may not remember. If you’re younger, you may not remember but it won an Academy Award in 1976.

And there was a famous line in that movie. A man is being demoted from being head broadcaster. He’s got one more week. He goes on the air and he tells the audience, because he’s so disgusted with the way they were dumbing down the news and it was becoming entertainment as much news and he said, “I’m mad as hell. And I’m not going to take it anymore. I want you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to your windows. I want you to open your windows and I want you to stick your head. And I want you to yell, ‘I’m mad as hell. And I’m not going to take it anymore.’” And so the camera shows pictures of folks all over the country opening their windows, throwing out their televisions, screaming at the top of their lungs.

I mention that because the question we have to ask as fundraisers is, does our message make somebody scared, sad, glad, or mad. If it doesn’t do one of these things then it’s not well written. There are two kinds of writing styles that I have seen. Exposition which is very logical, analytical, objective. And then narrative which is emotional, relational, and subjective. If you ever heard of Jack Webb, he had a television show in the 60s called Dragnet. He played the role of Sergeant Joe Friday and he was famous for his interviews with people in the city of Los Angeles asking them to describe a crime. And he says, “Just the facts. Just the facts ma’am.” Then there’s another contrasting approach to writing. And that is narrative. I love this quote by Clive Staples Lewis, CS Lewis. He wrote “The Chronicles of Narnia.” He said when I write, I see pictures. The process always begins with images.

Now in seminars I ask around the table for everyone to describe something that would make me want to give to them. And several of you have sent in samples. And most of the things that are said are mission seek. We often marginalize the disenfranchised, the immobilized. We want to help folks gain self-sufficiency and upward mobility. All those are adjectives that mean absolutely nothing. And what Lewis is saying is that I see action, I see things occurring.

So how do fundraisers write? The question is how do we, as we look at their texts, categorize them? Are they exposition or are they narrative? It is simply adjectives that describe what you want someone to feel about your organization but it doesn’t describe it with an example of who your organization has helped. We help the underserved, giving you disenfranchised new hope. We focus on capacity building, empowerment and imparting vision, community development, building leaders, and sustainability. Well, fund appeals are long on concepts but short on dramatic action. Fund appeals don’t show people doing.

My son is an editor over at Fox, just finished Will Forte’s, “The Last Man on Earth” if you’ve had a chance to see that. And in talking with him after graduating from film school, I would often say, “Joe, here is a great idea for a movie.” And I spun my idea and his eyes would roll and he would say, “Dad, I can’t see anything you just said on screen.” Problem was, I was talking about ideas and thoughts and concepts. If you are producing a film or producing a movie, you have to show people doing something. And the issue is, fundraisers tell about people thinking things. We’re focused more on our concepts than on the serving of individuals, which is why we exist.

So what type of writing style do fundraisers prefer? Do they like the problem that they’re in? Fundraisers were asked and my doctoral research to write two modes of communication. The two we’ve been talking about juxtaposition and narrative on a one to five scale with one being low and five being high. And this is what the results were, 45.21% rated narrative as high. Only 5% rated exposition as high. They want to write in a narrative style but they can’t do it.

And the issue is, I’m more and more certain faced to the problem I identified earlier, I walked through Lazarus with my wife. She said, “I like it,” pointing to a mannequin. I went back and bought it. Then she gave me my lesson as I said a while ago, dress and a text consists of three levels. Design, who’s it written for. The purpose. Secondly, does the construction of that dress, or in this case we’re talking about a text. Does it fit the purpose? And third, the style. There’s a reason why there are only so many best-sellers that writing something is also a matter of style so that you are interested. So you get caught with line number one and you move through the topic.

And most fundraisers that I interviewed are aware of the fact that stories are the best way to communicate. And there’s a long history of this. Some of you may have seen this particular ad, it was written in 1951 by John Caples. And Ad Age has rated it as number 45 on their list of the top 100 ads of the 20th century. It was written for the US School of Music. And it ran for decades. And if you look at the lower right-hand corner, all this long copy was aimed to get someone to fill out that coupon and order a lesson on how to play piano, violin, flute, trombone, and number of instruments. And the interesting thing about this long copy that was used year after year after year because it worked, was the opening line. It connected and readers empathized.

This particular one came out of a magazine from 1927. And the first line is the woman whispering, “Can he really play?” Or girl whispered. “Heavens no,” Arthur explained. “He never played a note in his life.” Then the headline is “They laughed when I sat down at the piano to play.” And as the narrative goes on he sat down, played one of Liszt’s works, everyone in the audience began to ooh and ah and cheer. He had people slapping him on the back afterwards. And so when the lady said, “Can he really play?” He created instantly with “we” the audience a dilemma to his approach. Here are words in this long ad. “Instantly a tense silence fell on the guests. The laughter died on their lips as if by magic. I played through the first and second of Liszt’s Liebestraum. I heard gasps of amazement. My friends sat spellbound.”

So it’s corny. It’s something that we would probably not write. But the fact is it worked. And most people who write fund appeals know that stories are the most effective way to communicate. And in fact, over the past few years narrative storytelling has become a very hot topic. Everyone knows a good story when they see one. But seeing exactly what it is about a good story that makes it good, well that’s another story.

And let me just describe some of the things I found out about the writing of fundraisers that I found out at Claremont where I did my graduate work. Over at Claremont, Paul Zak is now doing some work in the same vein as mine although he’s actually measuring the heartbeat and the ACTH levels, and oxytocin levels of individuals as they watch narratives. And they’re finding more and more of a correlation that as we hear a story, there’s something that occurs in our brains that makes us want to respond.

In fact, they have actually tested that by offering individuals an opportunity to give after they have watched a video. And it is amazing to see the results. And the challenge is for we who write is to create empathy evoking copy. Something that will make us, the reader, either scared, sad, glad, or mad.

A couple years ago I read an article by these two scholars at Indiana University, we call it IUPUI, Indiana University, Purdue University, Indianapolis. Not exactly an elegant sounding name. In 2003, Ulla Conner and Thomas Upton studied 105 nonprofits, 108 nonprofits around Indianapolis to look at kinds of copy that they were writing. They looked at 316 letters. They measured the content of those letters. And that was the same as my research. I looked at some 67 linguistic features in copy. For example, and if you want to have your letter sound like you’re writing to a friend, there’s certain traits you use. “I’m” as opposed to “I am.” You use contractions in other words. You use something called private verbs. A private verb is, “I’m mad,” “I feel like this is bad,” the words like mad, I feel, they open a window to your personal stance toward something.

And there’s some 23 linguistic features that if you were to listen to somebody have a conversation, those 23 linguistic features are common to their interchange with a friend. And you’ll be able to download some documents after this session that lists all 23 of those. Adversely, there are six linguistic features that cause a document to sound stiff, thick, opaque, and hard to read. These include long words and, one of the big ones, they include nominalization.

Nominalization is itself a nominalization. That is to say, it’s a perfectly good verb that has been neutered. When we want to neuter a dog or cat, so it doesn’t have kitties or puppies we take something away, don’t we? Well when we neuter a verb, we simply add T-I-O-N to the end of it. Instead of, “Joe, investigate the crime,” we will say “Joe, will you make an investigation into the circumstances of the crime?” All of the sudden when we’ve added T-I-O-N to that word, we have to then throw in a preposition.

So if you did one thing today after you leave here to edit your own copy, see if you have neutered verbs by turning them into nouns, slap on propositions to make it all make sense. Well these are the kinds of things that Conner and Upton discovered and that I discovered later in our research about the actual content of fundraising letters. Conner and Upton said that the letters they reviewed were more academic than personal, more informational than involved, more expository than narrative and more closely edited than chatty. They said that they resembled content for interpersonal interaction and story, they scored along with academic prose and official documents. In fact, official documents contained more narrative than a typical fundraising letter.

And they give a case in point. This was a letter by the Girl Scouts in Indianapolis. And it begins, “Young women are growing up in an ever-changing society. As a contributor to the council in past appeals, I know that you are aware of our mission, to prepare girls with ethical values, character and a desire to succeed, and a commitment to their community. This is our letter of request for a gift to the annual campaign for support of our operating budget. This year’s annual campaign goal is $55,000. We invite you to consider a contribution. Your gift along with any others we receive will provide vital resources for today’s Girl Scouts to become tomorrow’s leaders.” Well, Conner and Upton used this as an example and said that almost all of the letters they reviewed sounded like this.

Well, what’s the problem with this, you ask. Well, they said this text was written with great care. It probably went through several drafts. It showed high lexical variety, in other words instead of using the word “said” when describing what someone said, they would often say they opined, they lamented, they cried. Well when you’re writing, simple language, repeating simple words is preferred. But this particular one had a lot of lexical variety. Informational density, they were trying to cram a lot of information in a short amount of space. And its primary focus was informational. It is not personal. Here’s the breakdown of it.

The copy was abstract, young women. Not a specific individual but young women plural. Growing up in an ever-changing society, there’s a generic subject a big adjective and an equally vague noun. The four noun’s themselves are very, very abstract. Ethical values, character, desire to succeed, commitment to the community. The problem is this language is what I call telling language as opposed to showing language. Telling language would suggest that we want to change the world, we want to create sustainability, we want to help the marginalized and the underprivileged. Or the more appropriate word nowadays is, underserved. Whereas concrete language will show for example, a young girl in action helping Betty White cross the street.

So this reveals the universal problem that most fund appeals have. They use big mission statements that tell, but show nothing. The writer needs to show me values, character, desire and commitment in the example of one individual. Write one girl’s story to show me values, character, desire, commitment and action. Now most of us will think that this photograph, one person framed in the middle, but we should have a collage of maybe a boy, a girl, an African American, an Anglo American, and Asian American so forth. Deborah Small over at Carnegie Mellon did a study for an international relief agency and the study showed an A and a B test when they had two people on the cover of their letter that the response decreased. Focus on one individual. Don’t try to have a menagerie of subjects or an ensemble cast of every kind of human being you can imagine on your fund appeals. Focus on the story of one individual.

My study, when I read Conner and Upton’s work, was prompted initially by, that’s crazy. I grew up in Ohio. I know the cornfields of Indiana. And the reason studies indicate poor writing is because these are the mom and pop organizations that don’t know what they’re doing. I had a very snotty and aloof attitude toward their study. My purpose was to disprove them. So I gathered 735 nonprofits that raised $20 million or more, 145 smaller ones for a corpus, which is a body of text that represents the elite nonprofits of America. And my thought was you go to Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, Orlando, Los Angeles and Seattle, you’re going to find the top nonprofits in America and they will write better.

And what I analyzed is 2,412 documents, more than a million and a half words of text, half were printed and half were online, and all nonprofit, all nine nonprofit sectors were represented. I looked at 67 specific linguistic features in these texts to see how they wrote. I had two questions. One, was the Indiana University sample skewed? It was just because these were small-town individuals. Do elite nonprofits write much better? Well, I got a licking. They got a big fat F.

And let me give you an example of the way these fundraisers write compared to other kinds of writing. We call them registers in linguistics, or genres. And if you look at this slide you’ll see at the top, when it comes to narratives, which is basically language that tells us that this is a story. You’ll find at the top romantic fiction, general fiction, adventure fiction. And in the middle, biographies, spontaneous speeches, personal letters. Then look at the bottom, academic prose, official documents and broadcasts.

Now there are two columns, a blue column and a green column. The blue column is the study done by Thomas Upton and Ulla Conner at Indiana. I call it the Conner and Upton 108. They had 108 organizations. They scored a negative 3.1 which is a measure of standard deviation, which you can read more about in some of the material you can download. Well, my corpus got a negative 3.0. It was virtually the same. These folks in Los Angeles, Seattle, Chicago, New York, Washington, Orlando, Dallas that supposedly know a lot more actually knew less. Well, it’s not that they knew less but what I found as I traced the roots of this problem is that we are brainwashed in a sense. Don’t overtake what I’m saying here, but we are taught in our academic upbringing to write in an abstract, disconnected, dispassionate, objective, scientific style.

The problem is, as we leave the academic halls and we’re in our jobs as nonprofit executives, we continue to write for a professor who’s no longer there. We’re locked in the past, living in the past, writing for a professor who is no longer there. Now, this is on the score of does your letter tell a story. The other score was on connection. Personal connection is this, does what you write sound like a conversation on paper. I tell folks at my seminars, the best thing you can do rather than looking at a list of some 23 linguistic features I did in my study, is to simply sit down with an individual, turn the tape recorder on or in this case your iPhone. And tell Jack, Fred, Sally, what happened this week that made you scared, sad, glad, or mad. Then go back, play that, write it down word for word. Avoid the urge to pretty it up and make that your fund appeal. If you listen to someone that’s excited about something, you record it, it will naturally have the linguistic features of a personal conversation.

But here’s what I want to cover now. Where do fund appeals fall. If you look at the list at the very top is the personal conversation that I just described, then personal letters, romantic fiction’s in the middle at five. Prepared speeches, and keep on going lower and lower and lower, and you’ll find academic prose, official documents. The Conner and Upton score was 11.9. Minus 11.9. My score was minus 12.8, was worse. And after I saw the data, I had to change my thesis. I was not going to prove that they were wrong but I was simply going to let the facts speak for themselves and they spoke very clearly.

And as I characterized this research to individuals, because my sons are both, they work in Hollywood. One at Fox and the other at another studio. I’m always interested in talking film and story with them. When my son read my dissertation he said, “So dad, what you’re saying is the way we write is all wrong.” And that became the first article that I published on the subject, you can download that. But it also made me think of Apollo 13. You remember that line, the oxygen tank explodes and they say, “Houston we have a problem.” Well fundraisers, we have a problem. And I’m going to give you an example of some of the work that some of the students that have been in my seminar had actually produced afterwards that correct some of these problems.

The first one I’m going to show you is by a Jewish organization in Los Angeles, in Santa Monica called MAZON. And they developed, I helped them develop a notecard fund appeal. A notecard fund appeal. In this case it has a front cover, a back cover and when you open it up on the inside there’s a large 6.33 by 9.75 sheet of paper. Well, it’s actually a card. But we wanted to catch the attention of the reader immediately on the very front cover. You remember a while ago, I said don’t have four or five people. Use one person that someone can relate to. In this case, there’s a young boy, sitting on a chair with a basketball under his arm and the words on the cover say, “My mom doesn’t know it but I’ve quit the team so she wouldn’t have to spend money on my uniform. Dylan Rose, age 14.”

So the inside of this piece, as I said has copy on the top and bottom panels on the notecard. And it’s hard to read so I’m going to give you the top panel. The first lines are, “Dear John and Pat,” it’s a personalized letter on the inside. “Dylan Rose pictured on this card told us his mom got laid off four years ago from her job at the school district. She’d been there 20 years. Now the only work she can get is substitute teaching. It’s part time and not enough to pay for the basics, yet alone any extras.” Now this is written by the president of the organization.

The narrator’s voice now comes through and she says, “So you can see why Dylan dropped out of sports. He didn’t want to add more to the already heavy burden his mom was carrying. But it wasn’t just the cost of the uniform that cut sports out. He wasn’t getting the 2800 to 5000 calories a day the US Department of Agriculture says a teen athlete burns. Hunger had robbed him of the energy to compete.” Then it continues to the bottom of the inside.

This is in the voice now of Dylan Rose, the young man pictured on the front. Dylan, you see those little quote marks at the beginning of that paragraph and at the end. Any time you can get someone quoting them on paper is far better than you’re describing as the narrator. But the narration has to come in from point to point to relate what they experienced to your cause. In this case Dylan says, “Our food stamps had dropped from $300 to $200 a month for my mom and me,” Dylan said. “We can’t afford the healthy food some people can. It’s usually chips, bologna sandwiches and all that. We’ve had to open up canned food from the panty that’s probably older than me.”

Then the narrator comes back, “This is a national embarrassment for one of the world’s most affluent countries. That’s what MAZON is fighting to restore custody of the USDA SNAP Food Stamp Program, our nation’s essential hunger safety net. SNAP cutbacks have ripped a hole in that safety net with cruel results.” I’ll just make a comment here, if you look at that sentence she used a strong verb, “ripped” a hole in that safety net. And then continuing with the voice of Dylan Rose, “We run out of food stamps some months and I’ve gone days without sleep because of hunger,” Dylan told us. “The next day I’d go through class pinching myself to stay awake.” Then the narrator comes back, “Dylan also gave us a glimpse of his dreams for the future.”

“I’ve wanted to become a surgeon since the fourth grade. I keep reminding myself if I work hard, I can get to where I’m fine. Then I can buy my mom a new house.” “As Dylan dreams of a better future in which he can help his mother you can imagine how his mother, a school teacher who knows the value of education, is equally driven to help her son.” Then on the bottom, narrator comes back and says, “and I’m driven to help families like the Rose’s. Their plight makes me angry. And it emboldens me to ask for your help. Families like the Roses should be able to live in dignity, safe from hunger’s threat.” Now the words there, “dignity” and “safe from hunger’s threat” is an abstract way of saying it. But it’s appropriate because it’s following a very tangible, concrete story. Trouble is most of our letters will sound like that last phrase. And then she signs it, “Amy Leadman [SP].”

And in this personal note which is done in handwriting, which we produced for them, we were able to give the opportunity to put the name of the donor at the bottom in a PF. “Don and Pat, thanks for any help that you can give.” Now on the back panel is their address and their cut line, “Generously offer food to the hungry and meet the needs of the person in trouble, that your light will rise in the darkness and your gloom like noon,” from Isaiah. And then of course there was a reply envelope, a reply device that gave them a specific opportunity. On the back of the reply device, a message from the organization’s president, “Your giving helps us fight to end hunger. Jews share a sacred duty to help the vulnerable people among us. To fulfill that duty, MAZON is guided by two Jewish ideals.” I cannot pronounce the Hebrew word, I apologize. “Security rooted in and driven by justice. And, tikkun olam, our responsibility to repair the world.”

So you see that as the thing that really made this an effective appeal is we address it in what I call computer-simulated handwriting. The upper left corner has the address, the addressee both in handwriting. A nonprofit stamp that we actually have the authorization to cancel, so it looks first-class. And then the barcode on the bottom right, not above the address but right in the lower right hand corner. In my doctoral research I did a study of what the American Heart Association did in this case, in using this kind of envelope. They increased response 346% in a campaign that was rolled out to a 1,077,066 individuals. We tested this against real handwriting by human beings and this particular simulated handwriting worked better. We tested against a free box of greeting cards, it worked better. And we tested it against a double-window envelope. And the double-window envelope was the one that was beat by 346%.

And I’m going to show you one case now, and then we’re getting close to the knock off point here in our time. This is a client that also came to a seminar, called Xela AID, X-E-L-A is place name in Guatemala they call Xela. And this is the way they were describing themselves as we began to work with them. We, Xela AID are working to do something that has not been done in Guatemala highlands and beyond: sustainable community development. Here’s how, and then a bunch of gobbledy goop. “Ours is a fully integrated approach to community development. We aim to remove the health, environmental, and socioeconomic obstacles to education so we can transform poverty into abundance. This has to be done systematically with continuous effort and with continuous adaptation to current conditions. This is a tall order but we are up to the task. We firmly believe that partnering respectfully and recognizing the riches of the Guatemalan people is as important the apparent physical outcomes we achieve. For Xela AID, our end product is a sum of our doing and being there, together with our partners, in recognizing the benefits to all involved.”

It sounds like a sociological paper that I saw written in 1969. Very difficult, very hard to read and digest. And probably does not make someone scared, sad, glad, or mad. Now, take a look at this which we did for them not long after. This was personalized on the front of the card. It goes, “Jack, how long would this Guatemalan woman have to work to afford a Café Mocha at Starbucks, five minutes, five hours, five days?” Then on the inside, this is a notecard again, the inside the first panel reads, “Luciana pictured on the front of this card told us, ‘My mother taught me how to weave as a child but there was no market for my art. So at 15 I got a job cleaning houses. I earned $15 a month.” Now I had interviewed the president and she said this line in our conversation, “I thought something got lost in translation. So I asked, ‘You mean $15 a day?’ ‘No’ she confirmed, ‘$15 a month.” Then my friend Leslie on the phone said to me, “Frank, that translates to just $3.75 a week. That’s just 75 cents a day. That’s just seven and a half cents an hour. We have a word for that, we call that slavery.”

Now that sentence I just read was a conversation I had on the telephone with Leslie Bair [SP]. I said, “Leslie, repeat that.” And I wrote it down and that became one of the lead sentences in this letter. She was talking with me on the phone in conversational style. She was upset and the letter continues. “So Luciana would have to work 50 hours to earn the $3.75 a Starbuck’s Café Mocha costs. But she has more serious concerns. She explained, ‘I wasn’t earning enough to feed and care for my family so to help them survive, I plan to go the United States where I can send home more dollars.’” Now whenever I have a Café Mocha I think about how blessed I am. I think about Luciana’s more serious concerns. I picture her working 50 hours to pay for what I can drink in just five minutes.

Now, I’m going to skip ahead because times has caught up with us and I want to show you one particular part of this letter. You see here a group of women. This woman who was going to take a chance to cross the border, pay a huge sum of money to a coyote and potentially get new work in the United States, joined a weaving co-op. And this is Xela AID said, “We made a promise to find a market for their weavings. We would build them a retail space so they could sell to visitors. They promised to weave to work together to improve their skills and the quality of their work. There were smiles. There were tears. There was excitement. There was hope.” In reference to style, those are very short sentences. Look at that one, “There were tears. There were smiles,” just very short sentences.

Then this last paragraph, the top of this page, “Before forming the cooperative, each members family income was only about $600 a year. On average, each woman now earns $550 a year weaving. So their work has doubled their family’s annual income. Imagine the pride they feel.” And then the shortest sentence in this entire letter, “Wow.” So you see in this particular example, and then on the back cover there was a PF as before, and the other that we have, in this case, helped them to weave together what I said earlier, the people, the tension, and the resolution. And the objective here was to do two things, to connect and to tell a story, to let the individuals see the organization’s mission in action.

So with that, I’m going to close our time with one last illustration because the temptation is to say, “Well, I’m not going to be able to change overnight.” I like what Margaret Atwood, a famous Canadian writer said, she said, this is a parable she tells. She’s at a banquet in Toronto, she’s sitting at a table and a man sitting next to her introduces himself. And he says, “What do you do Ms. Atwood?” She says, “Well I’m a writer.” And to reciprocate, Margaret responds to this gentleman, “And what do you do, Sir?” Well, the man says first of all, “How exciting, when I retire, I thought I would take up writing myself. I’m going to become a writer.” And then, Margaret reciprocates and asks, “And what do you do, Sir?” And he says, “I’m a surgeon.” With a twinkle in her eye Margaret shoots back and says, “How interesting. I always thought that when I retired I would take up brain surgery.” The issue is that brain surgery and writing alike are hard acquired skills that are refined only by time and practice.

And in closing what I wanted to offer is, as I said earlier to Steven, if anyone wants to send me a sample of their writing, I will be kind but I will also specific to show you what is it you can improve what you’re doing. And if you’ll send it to my email that will be available, I’m assuming it will be available, Steven? I will get back to you. And also I want to make sure that you have access to all of the research on my website which is, thewrittenvoice.org. So with that, any questions? Steven, take over.

Steven: Yeah, that was great, Frank. We do have some questions. I just want to say thanks for sharing all that awesome information with us. I really enjoyed just listening in and it was fun to have all those Indiana connections, so thanks for that.

Frank: IUPUI.

Steven: IUPUI, yeah. Right in our backyard just down the street from me actually. We’ve got about, probably ten minutes for questions. And Frank a couple people have sent some in already. And I’ll field this to you but I just want to invite folks for listening along, we do have some times so don’t be shy at all. Frank, I’m just going to kind of take them in chronological order here. Let’s see.

So Jessica here was wondering how can we integrate narrative fundraising in grant writing. The RFPs use a lot of jargon and require more expositional writing. Can all of this, the advice you gave be applied to grant writing?

Frank: Well, the first fundraising I ever did was from a foundation. But it was the Whiston [SP] Foundation. Roy Whiston was a pharmacist and I used to hang out at his drug store after school buying nothing but maybe a PayDay candy bar. His foundation was an extension of his personal checkbook. With that kind of foundation, absolutely positively. However, if you’ve got a large foundation who’s essentially hired people to send off others and foundations that have created checkboxes and so forth, they give you very little freedom. So it’s a continuum. You’ve got the extensions of someone’s checkbook and then you’ve got the big foundations. So what you need to do is check their format and if there’s a place to give a narrative, this would be the place to have a connecting narrative moment that maybe is a paragraph. A snapshot, a photograph and a story.

I’ll give you one example here. Years ago we did a project. It had a picture of an African man with a big bicycle truck. It had a big basket on the back. He has very dark skin, beautiful white smile, two daughters on the bar of the bicycle, his wife standing in the back. And this cutline was under the photograph, “[foreign language 00:51:56] measured his earning power by virtue of what he could carry on the top of his head from point A to point B. The micro-loan you’ve given has helped him buy this bicycle truck. He has now increased his earning potential tenfold.” Then the cutline continued, “So if he made $5,000 last year, now he would make 10 times that, 50. Or if he made $5,000, half a million. So the idea is to use that cutline under a photograph and tell a brief story.

Steven: Makes sense. We got one here from Katie. Katie’s saying, “As a fundraiser, I often have to battle with the program staff who have academic backgrounds. How do you break the culture when program staff insists on writing to the professor?”

Frank: I want you to take a look at this article, I have listed the number. There are two of them, 18 and 19 on my academic site. One of them is by, is an obituary in fact. The obituary is about the 2008 passing of Joe Williams. If you ever search online say, what’s a good source of material on [free] writing. It will always refer you to Joe Williams at the University of Chicago who had a program called The Little Red Schoolhouse. A very plain name for a very elite institution. And it says there that he got involved in starting the writing program at Chicago because the American Medical Association asked him to critique and offer a training program for doctors, whose writing was very hard to understand. And he called it medicalese. And what he discovered was the challenge was to teach expert writers how to be clear and simple in their writing style.

So what I suggest is get Joe Williams’ book and also download the article also by William Zinsser. And William Zinsser and Joe Williams are among a group of five sources that I have listed on the back of that article by William Zinsser. If you download my William Zinsser article which has allowed me permission to share, that gives a lot of great resources. Those five books are listed on the back of that article by William Zinsser.

Steven: Cool. And then Katie shoot us an email.

Frank: Have these individuals read that. That’s the idea.

Steven: Absolutely. I want to hear from Judy. Judy’s saying, “Could you address the issue of messaging for planned giving? How do you speak for the many different tactics and benefits concisely?” What advice do you have for Judy applying all this to planned giving?

Frank: Well, if it’s on a face-to-face basis, you know a little bit about what they’re interested in you tell stories. When I was with Campus Crusade with Christ back in the 1970s, they had 26 different divisions. And we would meet regularly with the foundation planned giving folks. And they were plying us for stories. They wanted to have connecting narrative moments so that when they went into an individual, they know what they gave to before. And they could tell some stories, they could show them photographs of good things that have happened. And so I’m amused by the word “messaging.” It’s one of those buzz words we use. You mean, how do we tell some stories? Tell some stories, that’s the idea. Get some raw material and tell those stories on appointments if that’s the right environment. She may have been asking some question that’s beyond that, so I’m lost beyond that.

Steven: Let’s see here. I’m just going to go down the list here, Frank. This is an interesting one from Leah. Should we use stories that we have not previously told? Is it okay if they are familiar with the story or images already? What about canned stories, or things that have already been told. Maybe repurposing content. Does it have to be a new story every single time?

Frank: Well, if it’s someone you already told that story to, probably. What you want to do is get on the phone, glue your butt to the chair, your fingers to the phone, make some phone calls and ask people to tell you what is happening. I swear that the reason I have in the past written my share of bad copy is because I didn’t want to take the effort to get on the phone and talk to people or get out on the field or talk to people. So the issue here is just get out there and see what’s happening. You need to be engaged and look and ask lots and lots of questions of individuals. What’s happening out there?

Steven: Very good. We’ve probably got time for one more question. I’m going to pull a random one out here and I know we didn’t get to nearly all of them. Frank, is it safe to say you could answer some questions offline as well via email?

Frank: Oh yes, and Steven do you have my contact information so they can go to my website for that?

Steven: I do. I’ll be sharing all that. I’ll send out the slides and the recording of the whole presentation and I’ll definitely include Frank’s contact info so you can get a hold of them because I know there’s lots of questions here we just won’t be able to get to before the two o’clock hour.

Frank: I put on the screen here, if you see this on the screen. This whole presentation is contained in what you see on the screen now which is a former presentation that’s a little bit more in depth. So that’s one of the things you can download.

Steven: Cool. Very cool. Here’s one from Madeline and I always like when this question gets asked. You know we hear this a lot. She’s saying that, “Our nonprofit works with a sensitive population who can’t always talk about a specific individual because maybe safety concerns, or privacy concerns. How do create this compelling narrative while maybe protecting the identity of that person or not necessarily or not necessarily divulging all the details?” What would you say to Madeline there?

Frank: What you want to be able to do is know if you have permission to share their story. But if they want anonymous, then you save it. Everything that I’m sharing with you has occurred. However, out of respect for the privacy of the individual we’re not sharing it. When I was studying under Peter Drucker he would say, “I’m going to tell about a case today of a textile mill in South Carolina.” There were two things at which you could be absolutely certain. Number one, it was not a textile mill. And number two it was not in South Carolina. So in similar fashion, you can say, “I’m going to tell you something that has occurred but I’m not using the real names of the individuals and I’m not even going to use the place names of where it occurred but be assured that your help had a direct impact on the life of, I will call her,” and then you list what you’re calling her.

Steven: Yep. Makes sense, makes sense. Well, we’re just about out of time. I don’t want to keep people too much longer especially that if they haven’t eaten lunch. I think we’ll cut if off there. But like I said, I’ll definitely be sending the recording, the slides, and all of Frank’s contact information. I would love for you to get in touch with him, learn more about his company. Obviously he does great work and he’s super smart. Frank, this was really awesome. Thanks for being here for about an hour or so and sharing all your knowledge, it was a lot of fun.

Frank: You’re very welcome. Thank you.

Steven: And just so everyone knows there’s lots more educational information available on the Bloomerang website. We’ve got, of course, this weekly webinar series. We’ve also got a daily blog post. Lots of downloadables. We have our video podcast which is also weekly. And my email newsletter, The Nonprofit Wrap-Up which actually will go out tomorrow so if you sign up for that, you will get the first one tomorrow. That would be a lot of fun. Lots of great webinars coming up.

I just want to highlight the next two, happening one week from today and two weeks from today. We’re going to be talking about grants one week from today and two weeks from today Lori Jacobwith, one of my favorites, is going to be joining us to talk about changing your board story. So we’re going to take the storytelling advice and maybe apply it to the board of directors a little bit. So if you’re interested in that, we’d love to see you again. Please do register. There’s a couple more webinars on that page as well, a little farther out into the future.

We’d love for you to register and hopefully see you again. So with that, we’ll say goodbye and if we don’t talk to you next week, hopefully we will in the future. Have a great weekend and you will hear from me very soon. Bye now.

Kristen Hay

Kristen Hay

Marketing Manager at Bloomerang
Kristen Hay is the Marketing Manager at Bloomerang. From 2018 - 2020, she served as the Director of Communications for the Public Relations Society of America's local Hoosier chapter. Prior to that she served on several different committees and in committee chair roles.