How Much is a Story Worth?

We all enjoy a good story. Sometimes, a story will make us sad or happy. It might even make us laugh or inspire us. But, how much is a story worth to a fundraising professional?

A few days ago, I read a news article out of Lincoln, Nebraska. No, the piece was not about the bone-chilling temperatures resulting from the Polar Vortex. Instead, it was a heart-warming tale about an 18-year-old server.

When two men recently visited the Cracker Barrel restaurant, they asked the hostess to seat them at a table staffed by the grumpiest server. They explained they wanted to cheer-up the person.

The hostess explained that Cracker Barrel did not have any unhappy servers; so, instead, she would seat them at a table staffed by the happiest server.

After placing their order, the men asked Abigail Sailors why she was so happy. Over the course of the meal, she answered their questions.

Abigail Sailors

Abigail Sailors (photo by Morgan Spiehs/Lincoln Journal Star)

Years ago, Abigail’s parents were involved in a tragic car crash. Her mother had suffered a severe brain injury. Her father could not care for the children by himself.

Following the crash, Abigail and her four siblings were placed into foster care, in separate homes. Abigail was abused and bounced from home to home.

When Abigail, a sister and brother were returned home to their father, the story did not reach its happily-ever-after moment. Instead, the father was ultimately arrested for abuse.

Then, nine years ago, John and Susi Sailors rescued the five children and cared for them alongside their own five offspring. Abigail and her siblings were finally together in a secure, loving home.

After talking about her past, Abigail spoke about her present and future. She had attended one semester at Trinity Bible College in North Dakota. She paid her own way. Unfortunately, she did not have enough money to return. So, she is working at Cracker Barrel and saving her earnings so she can go back to Trinity or study on-line.

Given where she has come from, where she is, and where she is going is why she is so happy, Abigail told her customers.

As the two gentlemen finished their meals, wrapped up the conversation, and prepared to leave, they did something remarkable. Actually, four things that are remarkable:

1. One of the men told Abigail that he just happened to be an alumnus of Trinity.

2. The men gave her a $100 tip, which she split with a fellow server.

3. The Trinity alumnus then pulled out his checkbook and wrote a $5,000 check made out to Trinity Bible College. He gave it to Abigail to use for her tuition.

4. The Trinity alumnus then wrote out a check for $1,000 made out to Abigail to cover some of her expenses.

Abigail Sailors’ powerful story, joyful spirit, and willingness to engage resulted in gifts totaling $6,100!

I hope the development professionals at Trinity Bible College are paying attention. Unfortunately, the early evidence is that they are not.

After reading an article about Abigail, I visited the Trinity website and clicked on the “Giving” tab. I was taken to a page (screen shot below) that simply gave visitors the opportunity to donate via PayPal. There was no case for support. There were no student stories. There were just some tabs to other, largely irrelevant, pages such as “Meet the President.”

Giving - Trinity Bible College-1 

I’m sure that Trinity’s President is a great guy. Since he is still relatively new, it’s good that the website includes his biography. However, wouldn’t it also be nice if Trinity posted some heart-warming stories about some of its inspiring students?

In Abigail’s case, she was visited by two customers who, from the start, were motivated to do something good that day. However, that “something good” went undefined until the Trinity alumnus was inspired by Abigail’s story.

Other Trinity alumni no doubt have the same motivation to do something good. However, is the school doing everything it can to inspire them to do so?

Abigail Sailors has already proven that a good story can raise a lot of money for the College. Now, will the development professionals at Trinity step up their game?

Good stories are only powerful fundraising tools if you take the time to uncover them and share them.

If you’re interested in a more detailed account of Abigail’s story, I encourage you to read Peter Salter’s touching article in the Lincoln Journal Star, which I relied upon for this post.

For another of my posts about storytelling, checkout: “Impressive Statistics v. One Good Story.”

That’s what Michael Rosen says… What do you say?


UPDATE (Jan. 14, 2014): The Trinity Bible College website now includes a link to a news story about Abigail Sailors. The link is on the College’s Home Page. Trinity has also somewhat upgraded its Giving Page. Donors can now easily designate their gift to a variety of areas including “Scholarship Assistance.” I applaud the College’s website enhancements.

15 Responses to “How Much is a Story Worth?”

  1. Michael, that is a wonderful story with an impressive result for Abigail. More stories like this need to be shared. Now I don’t mind having statistics mixed into an appeal to show an organization’s effectiveness to reassure the donor is getting good results, a good story will most likely get my gift.

    • Richard, thank you for sharing your thoughts. Like you, I’m fan of compelling statistics. For example, when I served on the board of the Philadelphia Children’s Alliance, I frequently told folks during my “elevator speech” about how one in four girls and one in six boys are sexually abused. The shocking numbers never failed to stun and engage people. That said, I’m also a fan of storytelling. Stories don’t even have to be long to be compelling. On the other hand, I despise composite or made up stories for a variety of reasons; but, that’s an issue for another post.

  2. I couldn’t agree more. Story is what connects us, heart to heart. If a case for support doesn’t include a good story or two or three, it is missing the mark.

    • Febe, thank you for your comment. “Philanthropy” means love of humankind. It’s tough to inspire love without connection. One way to connect is definitely storytelling. Humans have been telling stories for thousands of years to connect, inspire, and teach. While it’s easy to lose sight of this ancient wisdom in modern times, we shouldn’t. I’m glad this post resonated with you.

  3. Michael – I agree. We are often caught up in telling about our statistics and maybe a new staff person, etc. Just even the simplest of stories such as ” One of our consumers, Joe Smith decided to stop smoking in the apartment he shared with John Jones because John was recently diagnosed with heart problems”.. That is compelling to a donor because it shows an effort on our part to educate about the dangers of second hand smoke, and it also shows compassion towards a fellow roommate. Just four or five of these “result” oriented snippets can make for a great e-blast, or blog post, or be included in the annual report. I am on board with story telling.

  4. Great Story!! Too bad that Trinity is not using it for other alumni to respond to with the same generosity that this gentleman displayed.

    • Who says they are not? Just because it’s not on the website, doesn’t mean they aren’t motivating people to give in other ways. The web may be (overall) the most cost-efficient method of fundraising but most alumni of this institution are more engaged in other methods; and trust me, we are in tune with what’s going on and excited for this young lady. I know her personally and spoke with her when she made her decision to leave. Our discussion centered around how she didn’t want to leave. I encouraged her to register for classes and trust God to provide. She listened and God provided.

      • Rev. Ben, thank you for sharing your insights from Trinity. People and institutions are seldom all one thing or the other. By pointing out that Trinity does not include inspiring student stories on its website, I was not suggesting that Trinity never leverages such stories nor was I suggesting that Trinity does not engage its alumni. There are certainly a variety of ways in which the College can and should engage prospective donors. However, taking a holistic approach and sharing stories across communication channels (yes, including the website) will have the greatest positive impact.

        I also want to underscore one of the points I made in my post. Prospective donors already have their own motivation. Nonprofit organizations cannot really “motivate” anyone, at least not ethically. However, we can “inspire” people. Abigail’s customers were already motivated to do something good when they walked into the restaurant. She inspired them to act by engaging with them and sharing her compelling story. To most effectively inspire prospective donors, fundraising professionals need to understand what motivates and de-motivates them.

        Abigail has gone through many challenging times in her life. I’m glad that she was able to talk to you about the challenge of paying for school. I suspect that your confidence and faith were a source of strength for her.

        Finally, if anyone at Trinity wants to share an example or two with me about how the College has creatively and successfully engaged prospective donors, perhaps involving storytelling, I’d be happy to hear about it and, perhaps, share it with my readers. We can all learn from one another.

    • Lyn, thank you for your comment. In fairness to Trinity, I’m not sure how the staff is or is not leveraging inspiring student stories in the College’s fundraising efforts. What I do know is that the College is not doing so on its website. This tells me that they are not taking a holistic approach to sharing stories. I hope Trinity is sharing inspiring stories using other media; however, I have no knowledge about this one way or the other.

  5. Wow, what a great post to start the year and motivate us. Thanks again Michael for inspiring us!

  6. From a student perspective (I’ve worked in Enrollment in the past), Trinity doesn’t put a whole lot onto their website. The site is just designed for generic information, mostly directed at prospective students and their parents. The College just redesigned its website and has gone through a lot of changes, so I don’t expect anything more from the website than what it has now.

    In regards to people donating to students, there have been many times where generous people mail checks with the student’s name on the memo line (this has happened to me on several occasions). Right now, this really is the only way (that I know of) that individuals can donate to a single student. TBC students can also apply to receive scholarships from Trinity, the funds for that come from the public donations, through the use of mail, phone, or online. Financial aid does a great job at working out financial award letters for students who are struggling to pay for college and they try their hardest to help by offering a variety of scholarships to each area of program of study.

    I cannot forget to mention the great staff that are here at Trinity. The small amount of students allows friendly relationships between students and faculty that wouldn’t normally happen on a larger campus. Lastly, we are all happy that Abagail is back! She has such a sweet and humble heart.

    • Current TBC Student, thank you for sharing your insights from campus. I have no reason to doubt that Trinity is a fine school with a caring, dedicated staff. I’m simply concerned that Trinity might be missing an opportunity that Abigail’s experience has demonstrated can help the College raise more money. If Trinity enhances its fundraising efforts, the College will have more money to provide more scholarships. A somewhat more robust website can help.


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