In fundraising, your story is your most powerful tool. The way in which you speak and write about your organisation is a key motivator for your donors.
Yet organisations often cling to the way they tell their story, retelling it over and over in the same way and with the same voice. Some donors might still find it appealing, some a tad boring, but some might find it no longer meets their philanthropic ambitions—and they walk away.
When we at Global Philanthropic are asked to help an organisation increase its fundraising income—especially from major donors—we bring ‘fresh ears’ to an organisation’s story, its key concepts, ideas and case studies, and we test them with current and potential donors and critical friends. Recently, we did this for a prominent women’s college.
What we found was a story in need of reframing. The conditions around the College had changed, the challenges had changed and, in this case, the audience’s demographics and expectations had changed. Alumni and donors were seeking new information and a re-telling of the story that better reflected shared philanthropic ambitions and their own experiences.
Over the course of several weeks we interviewed a diverse group of extraordinary women who had overcome a myriad of challenges: they had held positions on boards when women didn’t sit on boards, started businesses in traditionally male fields, and were entrepreneurs succeeding in areas traditionally considered male domains. When we tested the College’s existing story, these interviewees had difficulty relating to it. One summed it up eloquently:
This story of a fairy tale transformation is yesterday’s news. It is dispiriting for today’s students (all women). They’re not at a Cinderella college; that’s bad messaging. The College needs to focus on the achievements of its students.
The familiar fairy tale that has morphed over the centuries—salvation in the form of rescue by a fairy godmother and a prince—was no longer resonating with the intended audience.
The transformation was how the students and the College had come to think about their abilities and potential contributions. This ‘reinvention of the self’ changes the way we think and how we interact as donors, and it changes the way we tell our stories. The ‘poor me’ story is dead.
Now consider how the ‘princess story’ has been reframed in Disney’s Frozen. The young women themselves actively become the heroines of their own destinies. They overcome adversity and save their kingdom because they find a way to use their own abilities. They are mentally strong, smart, powerful young women who overcome challenges and inspire others around them.
What did our study find?
The College’s donors were still very supportive—they loved the College but they wanted to see it in a new light. They didn’t want it to change its mission. They had all benefited from it and wanted others to as well, but they wanted to see that their College was in charge of its own destiny—not that it was under-recognised, under-resourced and under-appreciated, but that it set a powerful example and a standard for access to higher education that can change the status of women for the better. That was what excited them and was what they wanted to support.
For us at Global Philanthropic, it was a eureka moment. It removed the blinders for us and for the College about how they were telling their story in an out-dated way. It provided a new perspective on how we really tell our story—how we make our case for support—and how we can better involve the donor along the way.
Re-considering your own organisation’s story is worth the investment and time. If you continue to position your organisation as waiting for a fairy godmother to wave her magic cheque book so you can have a place at the ball, it may be costing you more than you think. With the help of some ‘fresh ears’, you and your organisation can use the lessons from our findings to interrogate your own story. You can re-build your narrative to demonstrate your organisation’s power to make a difference. You can stake out a place for yourself and clearly re-position your organisation in the philanthropic marketplace.
Does your case for support show that you are taking charge of your own destiny?
The key message you must communicate is your unique approach—your big idea.
Potential donors, especially significant and major donors, are looking for a big ambition, a way to be involved in making a difference, not a list of opportunities that are more of the same.
Your case needs to demonstrate the impact a donor can make and show how working on a shared mission can contribute to a successful outcome. This is best achieved by using stories about donor partnerships and donor leadership that have resulted in positive change. Your story must include how donors have made a difference and reflect the diversity of their backgrounds and experience so others can see themselves becoming part of the story too.
Is your case outward-looking and forward-thinking?
If it is, then it is not a one-way conversation. It does not use internal language and talk about what you don’t have. It is not written like a business plan or an institutional bid—it is a story for the wider world about ‘if only…’.
You can and should re-construct your story so that it uses language that recognises and engages potential philanthropic supporters and all stakeholders to help position your organisation as outward-looking and forward-thinking.
Are you using your own strengths to help yourself?
We know that donors give to successful organisations—investing in a struggling organisation is often considered ‘throwing good money after bad’. Your story should tell people where you are going as an organisation, what you want to achieve, and how you are using your existing strengths and resources to get there. Your story can showcase how you turn weakness into virtue, how you create your own opportunities.
Are you talking about ‘you’, or mostly about yourself?
Stories like Frozen become ubiquitous because people can relate to them. They can see themselves and their dreams in the heroes and they want to be part of the story. Likewise, you can reshape your case to show donors that they have a critical role in what your organisation is able to achieve. Including stories of how donors’ gifts have made change helps other donors see the potential impact they can have as well. Instead of presenting an overwhelming problem, your story can offer them an active role in making change happen, strategic step by strategic step.
Your story is about what is possible
Frame your story to capture your donor’s imagination. Your organisation’s role is to offer solutions that can be achieved through partnership with the donor.
Recasting the way your organisation sees itself and how you convey that to your audience can change the future of your organisation.
Paula Marshall and Pamela Davis are senior consultants with Global Philanthropic. To discuss how we can help your organization transform your story, contact us at communications@