How your school can tell powerful stories for fundraising

September 21, 2015 Marc A. Pitman

We’ve all heard that science proves stories are more effective than statistics. Kendall Haven’s book Story Proof: The Science Behind the Startling Power of Story goes into great detail about hundreds and hundreds of studies. We’ve seen storytelling seminars for nonprofits and read the blog posts extolling the virtues of stories for fundraising. But how do we actually tell powerful stories in our school’s fundraising?

Three simple steps to telling a powerful fundraising story

Since human beings are wired for story, you’d think it would be easy for us to tell our schools’ stories, don’t you? And that is a huge part of the problem: powerful fundraising stories are not about the school, they’re about the donor!. So we need to relearn some story telling basics, in order to make our communications about the donor.

Here’s how:

  1. Make the donor the hero

    As Donald Miller said an a recent podcast, everyone wants to be the hero of the story. If we cast our school as the hero, we are immediately putting ourselves in conflict with our parents and alumni. They think they should be cast as the hero. They’d like the school to be the “mentor or guide – like it was when they were students. They’ll never tell you this in a focus group or an alumni survey, but make this switch and watch their giving increase. (Watch Tom Ahern’s quick video to see how powerful this switch can be. It helped one hospital go from raising $5,000 per newsletter to raising $50,000 per newsletter!)

  2. Make the story about an individuals, not statistics

    As fundraisers, we want to convince parents and alumni that giving to our school is a worthwhile investment. So we tend to load our communications with statistics, pie charts, and big numbers. In a New York Times article, Temple University’s John Allen Paulos describes the problem inherent in this approach:

    “In listening to stories we tend to suspend disbelief in order to be entertained, whereas in evaluating statistics we generally have an opposite inclination to suspend belief in order not to be beguiled.”

    If our goal is to move people to take action, the action of donating, then we do not want to be unnecessarily getting their guard up!

    Also, humans are wired to identify with individuals, not statistics. So rather than say what percentage of donations “goes to scholarships” or how many “underserved kids are helped,” talk about one person, one student, who benefits from the donor’s generosity.

    This forces you to figure out what your typical parent or alumni wants. A good place to find out is by talking to existing alumni and listening to why they give to your school and its mission.

  3. Edit ruthlessly

    No matter how committed to powerful fundraising stories we are, “corporate speak” will sneak up on us in our school communications. One of the most ruthless editing tools I teach my coaching clients is the “we/you” test. (I’m sure I learned this from someone. Probably Tom Ahern or Jeff Brooks.)

    To do this test:

    • Print out your work.
    • Get a black Sharpie and a red Sharpie.
    • Circle all the words “we,” “our,” and “ours” in red. If you want to be even stricter, circle the name of your nonprofit in red too.
    • Circle all the “you,” “your,” and “yours” words in black.

    If your page is full of red, your school fundraising will be in the red. If your page is full of black, your school fundraising will be in the black.

    I’ve had clients with as many as 34 “we” references in a one-page fundraising letter and only 7 “you” references. Worse, 5 of those 7 “you’s” were in the ask! It was like sitting at dinner to an ego-maniac who only talks about himself, then turns to you and says, “Well, that’s enough about me. What do you think about me?”

    In your school’s fundraising, don’t be that guy.

Powerful fundraising stories are less self-serving

Last month, a coaching client told me,

“Marc, I like fundraising so much more since working with you. I got into my work to serve others. Fundraising always felt at odds with serving others. It felt selfish and needy. But now I get to write all my fundraising communications in ways that serve my donors. It’s in character with who I want to be. And better still, it’s working! We’re raising more money this way!”

He’s not alone. Last fall, we held our first Nonprofit Storytelling Conference in Seattle. We took two days teaching nonprofit fundraisers and marketers specifics about telling powerful stories and creating a plan for their year. Since then, some attendees have seen their fundraising double. Other have seen fundraising triple! We’re now hearing attendees ask questions like, “How do I set my board’s expectations? They think this is the new ‘normal.’ But I’m not sure doubling or tripling our fundraising every year is sustainable.”

Wouldn’t that be a great question to have to ask about your school fundraising?

Free Nonprofit Storytelling Webinar Series

Do you want even more lessons on how to tell a powerful fundraising story? Every Tuesday this month, speakers from the upcoming Nonprofit Storytelling Conference are sharing their tips and tricks in a series of free webinars. You can sign up for these free webinars at:

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