How to Tell a Story and Connect With Your Donors

Written by Beth Markley, CFRE.

Recently, I presented to a group of entry-level fundraisers. This shouldn.t have been daunting, but the material wasn.t mine, and I had sworn a bunch of oaths to present it as precisely as possible.

Turns out, the material for my presentation and others in the workshop: slides, worksheets, and talking points; was dry as toast. This was sad because the topic is one I am passionate about, and with which I have extensive experience. I was really looking forward to the presentation until I realized the volumes of information I was going to have to be sure to cover.

I was sitting in the hallway, waiting for my time to present, going through my notes, when a conference attendee emerged from the room, doubtlessly stretching her legs in an attempt to stay conscious.

.Excuse me,. she said, .I wish the presenters at this conference would stick less to the script and instead tell us more about personal experiences, I mean, that.s why we.re all here, to learn from what you.ve done..

Well, mental palm slap to the forehead, right? By sticking so rigidly to my script, I was poised to fall into the same trap I.ve admonished any number of nonprofit professionals to avoid . too much attention on statistics and the like makes people.s eyes glaze over.

It might be cliche at this point, but the fact remains that people give to people, not to organizations. The process of cultivating passion starts with developing a relationship, and very few of us start a relationship by analyzing data.

You don.t feel compelled to take action because the numbers show you should, you do so because you.re drawn to do so by your gut, by walking in someone else.s shoes or by epiphany. Numbers and statistics and words can reinforce this belief, but the initial outreach: the WHY of what we do is about the gut reaction to the problem at hand, and that gut reaction starts with an experience, or a story.

I frequently tell exasperated nonprofit executives that if their fundraising volunteers aren.t able to articulate why they do what they do in a passionate manner they should shoulder the burden to help that volunteer develop the ability to articulate their own story. Not everyone is going to be able to memorize the stats that describe why you do what you do, but they can remember a story that conveys a sticky idea, and they can certainly describe how they came to be involved.

I worked with one board member, who, when asked why he volunteers with the Girl Scouts, pulls out photos of his two daughters and talks about the impact of the program on their lives. The executive director of a conservation group explains the visceral reaction he got when seeing a for sale sign posted on a piece of property that provided access to a nature trail that had been enjoyed by the community for decades.

Stories stick with us, the tellers and the listeners, because they deliver an experience rather than statistics. They help us understand the WHY of what we do, while numbers and statistics explain the HOW and the WHAT.

The next time you.re helping a volunteer prepare to call on a prospective donor, ask them to talk to you about WHY they.re involved with the organization. What did they hear or experience that drew them in initially? Help them flesh out the story with the numbers or demographics that support it. Share with them the results of the program your organization has addressed to solve the need illustrated in that story. Go from there.

But start with the story.

Stories stick.

To read more posts by Beth Markely please visit Fluency in Fundraising.

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