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Storytelling for Fundraisers

Resource Center - Foundation

Tom AhernLet us tell you a story.  It’s a story about how you as a fundraiser are making the world a better place.  It’s about how your organization is feeding, clothing preserving, advocating for, healing, teaching, protecting and serving—however it is you do—your chosen charges. 

Used skillfully, the power of storytelling can have transformative results.  AFP had a chance to chat recently with master storyteller Tom Ahern about using storytelling in fundraising, the topic of his upcoming webinar on February 23

Q:  What are the elements of a good story?

A:  Let's keep this short. A good fundraising story will have a decent person struggling with some obstacle (oh, no!) ... and then succeeding, thanks to some donor-supported intervention (YAY!). I would also strongly recommend that people read (and you'll fall in love with) Storytelling Can Change the World, by Ken Burnett. It is the best single volume coverage of storytelling for fundraising that I have on my shelves; I have 450 other how-to books, so that's saying a lot.

Q:  As technology advances we’ve grown to expect  the newest version/special effect/improvement to keep our interest. But the art of simple face-to-face storytelling seems to be making a comeback.  Why do you think that is?

A:  The question presumes storytelling went out of fashion thanks to the digital revolution. But I don’t think that ever happened. New media use storytelling as much as old media. And there's a biological reason why that's so. Evolution hardwired the human brain to like narrative. Until the invention of written language and then widespread literacy (which came much later), storytelling was how our species spread knowledge. Storytelling is an essential human tool, maybe our best tool.

Q:  Is success really as simple as downplaying the organization’s impact and up-playing (new word) the donor’s impact?

A:  Well, initially, yes. A charity that switches the way it talks, moving from "let us tell how great our organization is" to "let us tell you how great you are, wonderful donor" should see a surge of giving that is sustainable.

Q:  Storytelling and donor-centrism seem to be relatively new, or at least only recently recognized concepts in fundraising but have obviously been around forever.  How do you see these concepts evolving going forward?

A:  Storytelling is as old as human speech. Donor-centrism is the old wine of customer-centrism poured into the new bottle of fundraising. The nonprofit industry is at least a couple of decades behind in "best marketing practices," in general. So the next evolution I see is widespread acceptance of donor-centrism. And I'm not holding my breath.

Q:  Who’s your favorite storyteller?

A:  I absolutely love any novel from Tana French. She's an Irish mystery writer with a wild mind and the language of a great poet.

To find out more about incorporating storytelling and donor-centrism into your organization’s fundraising, join us for Tom’s webinar on February 23, 2016 at 1:00 PM Eastern, “Storytelling for Fundraisers.” 

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