Tell me a story

| by Priscilla Bratcher

As a child, I loved bedtime stories. Mom was a great reader, a natural actress who performed stories using voices and accents. Dad made up his own tales centered around wolf-hero named Roscoe Riggs.  No matter who was telling the story, I hung onto every word, holding my breath to find out how it would turn out in the end.

Decades later, I still love stories.  Plays, movies, novels and biographies take me on surprising journeys and teach me life lessons. I’m sure that’s true for you, too.  And as I observe our increasingly complex world filled with often strident voices expressing confusingly competing points of view, I’ve become convinced that creating narrative is the most potent way to make sense of it all.  Stories provide a clear path through the clutter, guiding us as we struggle with the many decisions we must make each day.

Whether we call it a case for support or a case statement, whether it’s a direct mail appeal, a phon-a-thon script, an elevator speech or a face-to-face meeting, whenever we ask donors to support our nonprofits, we are telling a story.  The right story―told clearly and succinctly, with passion and logic―is an essential element of our development program.  As fundraisers, we need to make our stories easy to understand and easy to tell so that staff, board and volunteers are all telling the same story with the same ending.

Throughout my career, I’ve had the privilege of working for terrific nonprofits both as a staff member and a consultant.  One of the most interesting challenges has been the development of the right story.  This is particularly true of capital campaigns for new or improved facilities.

In my experience, building campaigns can generate a lot of excitement among the inner circle including the staff who have longed for a better, more expansive, more appropriate place to work; the Board who have deliberated sometimes for years before taking the plunge and committing to raise unimaginable amounts of money; and the users and beneficiaries who are excited about the new and improved services the building will make possible.

But it takes more than just the inner circle to raise the dramatically increased funding required for a new or renovated a building.  That’s where the story comes in.

In the course of planning for capital improvements, we can get carried away with the architect’s renderings, the designer’s color choices, the proposed new landscaping.  We often forget that for our prospective donors, it’s not about the building, but what will happen in that building and how our community will be improved as a result of new services.

So here’s a suggestion:  as you begin to create your capital campaign story, begin at the end and build backwards.  Start with one, two or three years after the scaffolding has been removed.  How will the world be different because we all came together and made this building possible? The buzzword we often use is impact and just because it’s overused in our profession, don’t dismiss it.  It’s the crux of the story.

Human beings have been telling stories since before recorded history. The good ones survive. And just like our ancestors, we need to keep in mind that a strong and enduring narrative includes passion, logic, clarity, urgency and timeliness. Unlike ancient tales, however, our story should be able to expand or collapse, depending on the listener and the communication tool.  It needs to be compelling, leading the prospect toward an inevitable conclusion that participating in this important campaign is the only option.

A strong case is not sufficient for successful fundraising, but it is a critical component of success.  You have a fascinating story to tell.  I can’t wait to hear it.

Does your organization have a great story?  Join the conversation.


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