Who Do You Represent?
[Editor's Note: This article is based on the keynote presentation, "Telling a Bigger Story: A New Engagement Paradigm For Better Appeals," held on July 27 at the 2010 Bridge Conference in National Harbor, Md.]
It's 2010, and it's getting easier to tell the story about the people you serve. All you need is a cheap Flip Video camera, a social-media platform and a few solid questions to ask. The story is just waiting to be told.
Unfortunately, it's much harder to tell a story your donors will identify with.
Let's be honest: Storytelling often gets muddled when it comes to the fundraising process. While you're judged by your impact on beneficiaries, it's ultimately your donors that must buy in to your story.
There's the secret to really great fundraising: If you can put yourself in the shoes of your donor, your financial appeal stands a much greater chance of success. Remember that many donors are becoming increasingly cynical, suspicious and exhausted. That's why you need to speak in a more thoughtful manner.
Here is series of questions to help you reinforce the emotional connection and the perceived value of your work.
1) Do I belong here?
That's the first question in the mind of every donor.
One way or another, donors must locate themselves in your story. They must experience a genuine emotional pull that what you do matters to them, personally. It might be the cause itself, a pet project that means something, their relationships to staff members — the possible intersections are endless. It's your job to help connect the dots and determine why people generally get involved.
- Can you describe who most easily identifies with your work?
- What are you doing to remind them of how they belong with you?
- How might you give them something to remember you for?
There are many reasons people are motivated to donate — but the constant is meaning. That is your true currency and the building block of all great stories. How can you create a pride of belonging?
2) What do you stand for?
More than just numbers, donors invest in organizations that reflect their own personal values and worldviews.
In giving to a specific group, they are expressing themselves through the work that you do. Their image of self is bundled with how they direct their giving. When they give to your organization, that's a reflection of who they are — or who they aspire to be. Now, just how are you reinforcing their stories of identity?
As a teenager, I remember that Amnesty International left a really big impression on me. The universal desire for freedom is a story that meant something. Perhaps the MTV-style celebrity concerts helped bring the issue to my awareness. Fast-forward to a couple years back — I decided to join as a member. Yet in the course of the following 12 months, Amnesty did a masterful job of completely driving me away from its organization. Its historic message of freedom seemed to have morphed into a dystopian vision of the future. While I still believed in the larger cause, Amnesty's angry view of the world was a far cry from my own. Needless to say, I've yet to renew my contribution. And my letter of feedback to the organization's president went unanswered. What's the lesson for you?
- How do you communicate the philosophy of your organization?
- Does your ethos speak to a narrower or mainstream audience?
- What might you do to evolve your story for greater relevance?
As the saying goes, "The most important things are choosing what's most important." That's why you need to clearly articulate your values — in a manner that attracts more people into the mix.
3) Are you for real?
There are plenty of "worthy" causes. Yet increasingly donors question what organizations are "worthy" of contribution. We all know that duplication and inefficiency are rampant throughout the sector. People more and more question where their money is going and whether they're making the right choices. Being "for real" requires that you demonstrate your authenticity and legitimacy. More than just numbers, it means that you are judged for your knowledge, trust and social capital.
- Why was the organization started (in response to what)?
- What unique approach or knowledge do you have on your issue?
- Who do you truly represent, and how do you prove their support?
Communicating your nonprofit's unique difference is a matter of survival. So while you must paint a picture regarding the scale of impact, it's not just about over-rationalized arguments.
You need to tell a bigger story that inspires the imagination. At the end of the day, are you giving your donors a story they can proudly believe in?
Michael Margolis is president of Get Storied, which advises nonprofits on how to get others to believe in their stories. His work has been featured in Fast Company, Brandweek and Storytelling Magazine, among other sources. Michael is the author of many publications including "Believe Me: A Storytelling Manifesto for Change-Makers and Innovators." Follow him on Twitter at @getstoried.