What is the Secret Sauce of Fundraising Success?

Once upon a time, there was a fundraising professional who found the recipe for the secret sauce of fundraising success. Through decades of dedicated work and careful research, she honed her skills. Now, she shares the secret with you in a book recently ranked by the BookAuthority as one of the “100 Best Fundraising Books of All Time.”

I’m talking about Lynn Malzone Ierardi, JD, Director of Gift Planning at The University of Pennsylvania. She offers her insights and wisdom in the 112-page book, Storytelling: The Secret Sauce of Fundraising Success. Don’t let the short length fool you. This is a volume stuffed full of valuable goodies.

As the official book description says:

Nonprofit organizations have amazing stories to share — stories of perseverance, fortitude, and generosity.

Stories give nonprofits a way to stand out in a world that gets noisier every day, where people are looking for ways to find meaning and connection.

Great stories engage donors and raise more money. Scientific evidence confirms good storytelling is one of the most powerful ways to engage stakeholders and influence behavior. Stories raise awareness, change behavior, and trigger generosity. Facts and logic are not nearly as persuasive as a good story. Stories penetrate our natural defense systems and become more compelling and memorable. As a result, great stories can be very powerful.

Like a good meal, storytelling can be delicious if it is executed with a bit of strategy. It requires planning the meal, choosing and collecting the right ingredients, and then sharing the meal with the right people, in the right setting, and at the right time.”

Throughout her book, Lynn uses a creative cookbook metaphor. This fun approach to a serious subject keeps the material from being dull and makes the tips easier to remember. Lynn does more than tell us why stories are important. She shows us what information is valuable (ingredients), how to gather the necessary information (shopping), how to effectively share stories (serving the entrée), how to craft the right story for the right situation (adding spices), how stories can be presented in different ways (side dishes), how to use stories to navigate change (the kitchen mishap), and the magic of success stories (a good dessert).

For years, we’ve heard that good storytelling is an important part of good fundraising. In Lynn’s practical book, you’ll find numerous, easy to follow tips for putting that notion into practice. Furthermore, you’ll learn how you can use storytelling to put board members and volunteers at ease when seeking to engage them in the fundraising process. I thank Lynn for her willingness to share some bonus thoughts with us along that line:

 

Snakes. Heights. Public speaking. Asking for money. Even worse: asking friends for money.

These things can make people really uncomfortable. In fact, for some people the mere suggestion of these things increases their heart rate or makes their palms begin to sweat. “Don’t even ask me to do that!”

So, it comes as no surprise that nonprofit CEOs, board members and volunteers (and even the unseasoned fundraiser) can sometimes be reluctant to ask for money.

It’s one thing to get people to roll up their sleeves to help, or to get those same people to donate to a cause they believe in. It’s another thing to find board members and volunteers who are willing and able to be effective fundraisers for your organization.

Too often, very well-intentioned board members and volunteers will say “I’m happy to give you my time and my money – but please don’t expect me to ask for money. I can’t approach my friends for money – and I certainly won’t ask them for an estate gift!”

In most cases, board members have no formal training as fundraisers. They may have the business and interpersonal skills necessary to ask for a significant gift – but have no practical experience in that realm.

Fundraising staff can struggle with making an ask, too – particularly for a planned gift. A new planned giving fundraiser visited with me over coffee earlier this year. She described meeting with the same donors and prospects several times, getting to know them and discovering their interests and passions, thanking them for their past support – but struggling to make the pivot in the conversation to ask for a planned gift. She asked me “How do you ask someone to consider their own demise – and ask whether they’ve included our organization in their estate plans?” It can be uncomfortable when you look at it that way.

But there are other ways to approach the conversation. Storytelling provides a different perspective. People are more attentive, more responsive, and more generous when they are engaged in a good story. In the noisy world in which we live – with constant news, updates, mail, video, social media, and more – the most effective way to communicate and influence is with stories.

Nonprofit organizations have amazing stories to share — stories of perseverance, fortitude, and generosity. Stories give nonprofits a way to stand out in a world that gets noisier every day, where people are looking for ways to find meaning and connection. Storytelling can play an important role is helping reluctant board members and volunteers (and newer nonprofit staff) to raise funds for your organization.

The key is to train staff and volunteers about what makes a good story and to encourage them to share those good stories. There is no single recipe or “right way” to share a story. But data and statistics won’t do it – and it’s easy to fall into the trap of reporting and providing information instead of storytelling.

Good stories will capture attention and trigger emotion. Really great stories engage donors and raise more money. It may be counterintuitive, but the best stories are not about the great achievements of your organization. The best stories are about your donors and about impact. Those stories are authentic, clear, and engaging. It takes practice to get it right.

Who better than your board and your volunteers to share the story of where the organization is now, where it will be, and just how you are going to get there? Board members and volunteers are (or should be) aware of the obstacles the organization has faced and the challenges that lie ahead. These obstacles and challenges present opportunities for donors. By sharing stories, you can match the right donors with the right opportunities – and effectively make that pivot to asking for the gift. The right story will provide a donor with an opportunity to be the hero – to get more involved, make a bigger gift, and share in the success of your organization.

If someone asked about your organization’s obstacles and challenges at an event, in a meeting, or in a conversation with a donor, would your board members and volunteers be ready with a good story?

Is your board prepared and equipped with the right tools to share great stories? You might find out with a storytelling exercise. Pose the following two questions to your board members:

  • What prompted you to initially get involved with our organization?
  • What is it that has kept you involved?

If your board members and volunteers aren’t prepared to answer those questions with an engaging story, you might want to consider storytelling training for your next board meeting, training or retreat!

 

That’s what Lynn Malzone Ierardi and Michael Rosen say… What do you say?

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