Earlier this year, my friend and colleague Amy Blake posted a fantastic musing about storytelling and her concern that it has evolved (or devolved) from a valuable tool in the fundraiser’s toolbox to a meaningless buzzword-du-jour. As I’ve made my year-end rounds, I’ve noticed that it’s not just storytelling that’s getting the magic bullet treatment.
As I’ve mentioned before, right now is a fantastic time to be a fundraiser. There’s so much information out there. But be careful when you’re implementing all that free advice because there are nuances to using story-telling, donor-centricity, compelling emotion and all the other keys to great fundraising. And those nuances could mean the difference between a blockbuster campaign and a dud.
Being donor-centric doesn’t mean putting yourself in your donor’s shoes.
Because you can’t. You know too much, you’ve taken the red pill (The blue one? I can’t remember.), you’re in too deep. You’re already sold on the issues you care about, and it’s really hard to be objective enough to take a step back and understand how those issues appear to your donor.
Instead, try to remember the last time you tried to learn something new. How did it feel to not know anything about a subject? What key pieces of information did you need to help you understand the subject and what was required of you? What kind of encouragement did you need? What spurred you on to learn more?
Even the most devoted donors are not as well versed in your issues as you are. Being donor-centric means understanding what your donor needs — emotionally and intellectually — to spur them to give.
Storytelling is not a magic bullet.
I’ll tell you a secret: storytelling will not singlehandedly save your fundraising.
Donors do not read stories and automatically open their wallets. In fact, stories without context not only don’t help you fundraise, they actively hurt your fundraising efforts. And sometimes, even stories with context don’t work in fundraising — if they’re not the stories your donor wants to hear.
One of my clients launched a big storytelling push last year. It bombed. In reviewing what went wrong, we realized we weren’t telling the donors the stories they wanted to hear. We were telling them the stories we wanted to tell. The difference cost the organization a lot of money.
Guess what? How your donor helps your cause IS a story. Two lines of copy addressing what’s at stake IS a story. And often it’s those stories-that-don’t-look-like-stories that are the most effective in fundraising.
You need the right kind of emotion.
One of the biggest mistakes I see with organizations is confusing pathos for emotion. I feel sorry for a great many people and sad about a great many situations in this world. But I don’t — I can’t — fix them all. Emotion is no good to a fundraiser if it doesn’t move a donor to act.
Anger is a prime motivator to action. Outrage makes us jump out of our chairs and get things done. Positive emotions like hope and gratitude are also super-motivators. Pathos, sympathy and sorrow might push people to act, but they’re far more likely to make donors feel overwhelmed or depressed.
One of my favorite things that Tom Ahern says about fundraisers is that it’s our job to “deliver joy.” There’s no joy in a sad story if it doesn’t make the donor feel like he or she can do something to alleviate the sadness.
Get that information — and go deep
The volume of information we have and our almost-instantaneous ability to get it can sometimes encourage a broad but shallow understanding. But our fundraising can be so much more effective if we deepen our knowledge. Track what moves your donors, continue to refine that knowledge through tests, and listen to what your donors say about your organization, your cause, and the other things that interest them.
In the end, it is your donors — not experts like me! — who will tell you how best to fundraise.