Stories are the lifeblood of fundraising. Whether in letters, emails, the web or in-person, donors are motivated by the stories that prove your mission. But what kinds of stories work best? And how do you find them?
Advocace Vice President Jerry Grimes recently joined us for a webinar in which he answered these questions and more.
In case you missed it, you can watch the full replay here:
Steven: Are you ready to get started?
Jerry: I think we should. My computer decided right before this minute to reboot but it’s coming up right now.
Jerry: We’ll go ahead. You go ahead. I know you are going to go first.
Steven: Yeah, but I got a few minutes. We will see when you get back in, okay?
Jerry: I think I am back in. You go right ahead.
Steven: Okay, cool. Good afternoon, everyone, if you are on the East Coast and Good morning, if you are on the West Coast or somewhere in between. Thanks for being here for today’s webinar, “Building a Storytelling Culture.” My name is Steven Shattuck and I am the VP of Marketing here at Bloomerang. I will be moderating today’s discussion. Thanks for being here.
Before I begin, I want to do a couple of housekeeping items. First thing I wanted to let you know that we recording this presentation. I will be sending out the recording a little later on this afternoon as well as our slides from today. If you have to leave early or if you’re thinking you want to share the presentation with a friend or a co-worker, you will be able to do that. You’ll be able to relive all the content as much as you want. Just look for an email from me a little later on this afternoon.
As you’re listening live today please feel free to send in your questions or comments our way through the chat box there. I will see those, Jerry will see those, and we are going to save some time at the end for a formal Q&A session. Don’t be shy at all. We always like for people to chat in, even for people to talk to each other. That’s how it is fun to see. Please do that if that’s something that you are into.
If this is your first webinar with us, welcome. Thanks for being here. We do, do these educational webinars every Thursday. We have got a great line up coming up for the month of April. We are actually going to take next Thursday off for the big conference in Baltimore with AFP. We’ll be back with four presentations in April.
In addition to the webinars that we do, we also offer some donor management software. That’s what Bloomerang is. That’s what our company does. If you are on the market for software, we’d love for you to check that out. You can take a peek at a video demo. You can download some other resources. If you’re interested in that, please do visit our website. That will make us very happy. That’s the short sales pitch.
I’ll move right one to introducing our guest. He is Jerry Grimes. Jerry, thanks for being here.
Jerry: I am excited about it. Thank you for having me.
Steven: Yeah. I’m excited to have you. I feel like we’ve had this on the calendar a while. It’s good that we’re finally here.
Steven: For those of you who don’t know Jerry. Jerry, he is Vice President of Advocace which is one of Americas fastest growing fundraising consultancies. He travels a crazy amount, over 100 days a year speaking, coaching, training and helping nonprofits develop sustainable income from donors. He writes a great blog called The Development Evangelist. We will definitely link to that. You should check that out.
Jerry, you’ve quite a really cool career. You were a local NBC Executive for 20 years, you have been a Pastor, you have been an Executive Director, you’ve done fundraising for Universities for other nonprofits. You have got a Master’s degree in Leadership, Evangelism and Discipleship from Columbia Biblical Seminary.
Man, this is a so awesome to have you.
Jerry: Thank you.
Steven: I know you’re going to share a lot of great information with us.
Jerry: Appreciate it.
Steven: You’ve got a CFRE obviously. I am going to stop talking because people want to hear from you not me. Jerry, I am going to hand it over to you my friend.
Jerry: Thank you. I appreciate it, Steven. For those of you that are with us that are not with the faith based nonprofit, I hope that my background and the way that we practice, our work in our firm, isn’t in any way limiting you. Because I think what we are going to share today is applicable to anyone that’s raising funds, even if you’re not in a faith-based nonprofits. I will confine my talks to my comments to the general market, if you will.
But we are going to talk today about storytelling. It’s something we all do. It’s something we all think we know how to do. What I have discovered is that there are some things that you can do with more intentionality and more focus to do it better. When we’ve done these things with our clients, our clients have seen sizable increases in gifts from the major gifts donors and also from their annual fund donors as well. I really want to focus on that today with you and certainly answer any questions that you have. Tell you a little bit about what we’ve learned and what we’ve applied in our work with our clients that seems to be working.
Storytelling it’s one of the things like I said you know how to do it. You probably are already doing it. The thing is it’s something we could all do a little bit better. When it works it really works, right? If you’re sitting in front of a donor and you tell the right person the right story that connects with their heart and helps him better understand your mission, your vision and what it is your organization does, there’s just nothing better. It’s better than them a year’s worth of newsletters or having them take a tour or giving them some gifts. It’s the way to connect with our donors.
We’re always writing these newsletters and speaking in newsletters and website articles and emails and we need great content for those things. We need stories about people whose lives have been impacted by the work that we do and they are hard to come by, aren’t they? Don’t you get tired when it’s time to write another newsletter article or write a solicitation going through all of your emails and your Facebook trying to find somebody who had something nice to say about you? Then putting that into a paragraph and writing it.
Sometimes you have missing details. Right? You don’t always know why that person or how is connected with you or why they like you so much and how it came to be that they were transformed in some cases by the work that you do. And there just hang nails with a lot of those things.
What I want to teach today is the idea of building a storytelling culture. That is an organization that defines stories as being so important that we treat them like money. We are all involved. Everybody from the volunteers to the front desk person, certainly the fundraising staff and the programming people all the way up to the executive director the president of the organization, we are all involved in collecting and archiving these stories and they’re a shared resource for all of us.
We use stories inside a storytelling culture to advance our mission internally. Even on the programming side, the people that are doing the work that we’re called to do, whatever that is, those folks are using storytelling to build each other up and to share and advance their work. So it’s part of who we are. It’s part of the fabric of who we are. When you produce a storytelling culture what happens is you begin to value stories and they begin to be easier to come by and you start to archive them in a way they make sense. The most important thing is you know what a good story is so all of the elements of it are captured in your system.
What does that sound like? Sounds like a pretty good idea? We’ll get started today and just kind of go through that. One thing that you should know about storytelling though is it’s really popular. There have been all kinds of articles in magazines like Fast Company, Businessweek, and other organizations that are publishing for the general market about how powerful storytelling is. It’s something that Fortune 500 companies are investing in training. Teaching their teams how to tell good stories.
It’s driving the Internet. The Web 2.0 right now where it’s not just make out a static webpage. We want to interact with each other. We have a Twitter feed right there on our webpage. We want to hear as consumers when we’re buying everything from service to a card or refrigerator, we want to interact with your stories so that other people have used those same products. We want to hear about that. Storytelling is driving marketing now. It’s so helpful in social media space. That’s why it’s so important especially for us in the nonprofit world.
You can go to seminars. I know, a good friend of Bloomerang and somebody that I follow and read all of his books and really like Tommy Hearn does a great storytelling seminar that goes on for a day and a half or so. He has great information. I have not had the privilege of going but you could pay Tom and go to that. I understand it’s really great. There are other seminars out there too. There are events that you can go to at all of the major . . . You mentioned AFP, Steven. I don’t know if there’s a specific storytelling aspect to that this year, but there usually is.
You can also even get a degree believe it or not in storytelling. If you are in fundraising, chances are your degree is not in anything to do with fundraising. That’s just one of the things that’s true about us as fundraising people. But if you want another degree, you can go get one in storytelling.
This guy is one of the leading experts in storytelling. I love how he defines what a story is. This definition really stuck with me and maybe it will you too. He said, “Stories are the creative conversion of life itself into a more powerful, clearer, more meaningful experience. They are the currency of human contact.” The currency of human contact. Stories when you think about it are how we relate to each other.
What happened this morning when you came in to the office? You probably have co-workers and probably interacted with them and they said something like, “Well, how was a meeting this evening?” or “How did that meeting go?” Then stories start to take place. Monday morning, “How was your weekend?” What people are looking for to interact with each other, to extend some of that currency with one another is a story. They want to know what happened that weekend that will be entertaining and interesting to them. Because the human mind, the human heart it is shaped to want to hear stories. That’s just how it is.
The other thing about this McKee quote that really interests me is he says that it’s not life itself but it’s the conversion of life itself into a more powerful, clearer and more meaningful experience. It made me think of something, maybe this is a weird analogy, but it made me think of the difference between some strawberries and strawberry jam. The strawberry jam, they are not really strawberries. It’s the distilled sweetened condensed version of strawberries in essence in strawberry jam.
I know it is kind of the lunch hour and maybe I am making some people hungry. I apologize for that. But that’s what I think stories are. I think they are a little sweeter, a little nicer. They still represent the truth. They still represent the real life itself. But they are condensed in pushed down a little bit and put in to a package that we can all receive when we want it open actually. I believe that stories should explain your mission and drive your mission in the context of your nonprofit. Stories can help people connect with what you do better than just about anything else. We talked about that already.
But stories also offer proof. Sometimes when you go see a donor, they want to know not only who you are and what you do, but they really want to know if they should believe what you say. One of the greatest ways to illustrate that is with a good story that makes the point. “Yeah, this is what we do and it’s getting results and here’s proof. Here’s somebody’s life that’s been changed or somebody who has been impacted by what we do,” or “Here’s the story.” They want to connect with that.
Also stories build trust. If stories are the currency of human contact and you come into my office a week and maybe have a new co-worker or somebody you don’t know that well. You start swapping stories with them and it builds trust. Same thing is true with our donors. Even when we are not talking about the mission of your organization if you see a family photo of their desk and you ask about it and they get to tell you about their son or their daughter or their grandchild, man, it means so much to them and it builds a relationship with them like probably nothing else. That’s one of the reasons why stories are so important is it builds trust.
Just taking a look here at some other things. We also want to talk about what a good story is. This is probably where the rubber meets the road and if you’re going to take some notes today, maybe this is what you should write down. A good story is different than a bad story. A good story is different than a non-story quote or just a fragment of an idea. A really good story has these elements. First of all, it’s real. I don’t want to call anybody out but have you ever made up a story to put in a newsletter or solicitation? If you have, you’re probably among the rest of us. Probably 90.99% of this as abhorrent as it seems has shaded or shaped the truth or even boldly made up a story in the act of fundraising. I know that’s terrible but I think we have all done it at one point or another, or we might do it if we don’t have a really good system for getting the stories that we need to do fundraising.
What is a good story? It’s real and here’s why that makes a good story. The sort of artifacts, little imprints, little fingerprints on the truth and when you hear a story that’s made up, it doesn’t have the same impact as a story that is truthful because of those things. We are wired to sniff out the truth, most of us are. And if we’re paying any kind of attention at all, even if a made up story sounds good, it really doesn’t have the same punch and we’ll sniff it out in a matter of time.
And then good stories are personal. All of us as human beings even those of us who are introverted are a little bit fascinated, no, actually a lot fascinated with the human animal. We are just enamored with ourselves. We can’t get over human beings. We are fascinated by them. Part of it is because we’re fascinated by ourselves. We want to know what you’re doing, what another person is doing. What their life is like because we’re constantly comparing ourselves to them, aren’t we? And we want to hear about our lives and their lives and how they are different or the same. That’s why the best stories are about people.
If you work with animals or things like that, that’s great. You can talk about your animals but eventually when it comes to raising money, you’re going to have to talk about people too. That’s very important. Good stories are personal even if you’re talking about animal. You may talk about one of them and what they did or how they behaved or that kind of thing because you’re going to make it very personal.
You also need a story to be relatable. One of the problems we have in fundraising is sometimes the work that we do as organizations. And certainly the aspect of our organizations that we do, that work involved in fundraising, is totally unlike and un-relatable to some people that we meet. Doctors and lawyers and business owners don’t really get fundraising. They don’t get what nonprofits do and there is sort of a little bit of mystery involved in that. In order to tell a story that’s effective, we have to make it relatable and we have to make it about something that they would understand and start with that connection and go from that point on in to our story.
They also have to be relevant. There has to be a reason we’re telling them the story. And when connect it with the donor with a great story, then if you think back, it started with a personal connection. You may have, as I said earlier, relate it to a photograph on a desk. I have got . . . of course I am going to do this. I have a picture of my grandson right here. That’s Jack Taylor. He and I are goofing around in this picture. But if you were to come into my office and ask me about that, I might start telling you a story about Jack. And then if you work with children, you might say, “Well, how old is Jack?” I would say, “Six.” You would say, “Well, let me tell you about a six-year-old boy that is in our organization. His name is Carson.” Then you would start telling me Carson’s story.
Because we built the story off of a personal connection and I have a six-year-old grandson and you’re telling me a story about a six-year-old child or a boy. There was a connection there so it’s relatable. That’s why a really good story is relatable. Can’t always make a personal connection but we can all relate to different walks of life that people are in. I am in my 50s so when you tell me a story about a child or a teenager or somebody in their 20s, 30s or 40s, I can instantly relate to it because I know what it’s like to be there. If you’re telling me a story about someone older, I’ve got relatives and friends like that. And you’re the same way. You can picture somebody in your mind that goes with that story. That’s a really great way to make it relevant.
Good stories are also illustrative. The very best stories even if they aren’t unaccompanied by a picture have pictures that are created in the mind. They conjure up images. They are descriptive without being overly descriptive in a way that helps you remember them and helps you should make that connection. If you went to school for literature or something like that, you might have seen, what I just put up here, a storytelling arc. What this is, is all literature, all movies, all stories kind of break down and follow this same pattern. It’s something when you study great works of literature you can figure out, “Oh my gosh, even though a told story is completely different than any way. It is completely different than another author, Jules Verne.” They all kind of have the same thing.
Even the stories in the Bible have this same kind of pattern to them. There was a situation that was flat and the same and had existed for a while. Then there was something that changed that, a trigger. Then a great hero went on a great quest usually, or there is some transitional thing that happened. There is always a surprise. Somebody makes a critical choice. There is reversal of the stasis. Then there is resolution.
I thought that, that was good and I have known about this pattern for a long time because I studied literature in college too. But this really nailed it for me. I sat down with some friends who are really good at storytelling. We worked on this together and this is the same thing, the storytelling arc, but for the purposes of fundraising. If you want a copy of this presentation, we’ll be happy to get it to you. This is something you might want to also write down. This is what you need to remember about stories when you are going to collect them and archive them for your organization.
You need a great character. And you need to spend some time when you’re interviewing people and hearing their story asking questions about them personally so that, that story can be personal and relatable and you can build the character of the person you’re telling a story about. If you’ve ever taken a quote and you just try to put it into a fundraising context like in the solicitation. The quote wasn’t all that great if you knew something about the person, if you could describe them, then it wouldn’t make the quote better.
That’s why character is so important. We in the other arc we had the word “stasis”. I think if you talk about the way things were before and then if you move right in to a point of discovery. How the person found your agency or you’re nonprofit and received help in some way, at that point of discovery, that always an important point. It’s usually oftentimes left out.
Now we describe the “after” and the “now”. We are contrasting between the “before” and the “now”. Then because it’s fundraising, we make the connection between the story we’re telling and the mission of our organization and then we make an invitation