2014 New York Nonprofit Conference: Chelsea Clinton on Fundraising and Storytelling
As a fundraiser, you can have all of the most wonderful ideas and the cleanest data in the world, but you won't raise a lick of money if you aren't an effective storyteller.
That's because "fundraising is storytelling," as Brian Cowart, chief development officer at Disabled American Veterans, said yesterday during his sit-down Q&A with Chelsea Clinton at the DMA Nonprofit Federation's 2014 New York Nonprofit Conference.
Storytelling was a big theme during the kickoff luncheon, in which, Clinton, the keynote speaker and vice chair of the Clinton Foundation, provided opening remarks and then sat down with Cowart, the 2011 Target Marketing Direct Marketer of the Year, to discuss philanthropy and fundraising.
Clinton said that much of what the Clinton Foundation does is because of direct-marketing fundraisers, specifically citing the No Ceilings initiative to further the progress of women and girls and the Too Small to Fail program to improve the health and well-being of children ages 0 to 5. She championed the work of fundraisers in making amazing things happen, because without fundraising, organizations like the Clinton Foundation would not be able to create change in the world.
Focus on the positive
During the Q&A, Cowart mentioned how the media often portrays nonprofits and fundraising in a negative light. Given that Clinton works as a part-time media correspondent, the question as to how nonprofits can overcome this perception and work better with the media to educate the public was right in her wheelhouse. Clinton had a fairly simple answer — focus on the positive.
"It's important to realize how generous Americans are. Americans have a sense of responsibility to help each other," she said. "We give financially and our time more than any other country in the world.
"People do want to believe in the best of each organization, to work for a better future. That's an American ideal," she added. "Focus on that. There are ways to tell stories to inspire and empower people for their tomorrows."
Clinton said the "media is more cynical than the American people are," and that the democratization of the media, as she called it, with blogs and social media and the like giving everyday people a voice is encouraging in that regard.
While no crystal ball exists to predict the future of fundraising, Clinton said the best way to get an idea of what fundraising may look like in 20 to 30 years is to look at the millennial generation and the way in which this generation engages today. Millennials will be parents and perhaps even grandparents in that time, prime giving age. So the way they engage today — online, via social media — and give — again, online, through crowdfunding, etc. — provides the framework of where philanthropy is headed.
In addition, volunteering will become more tailor-made, as individuals utilize research tools to find organizations that fit with their beliefs, lifestyles and preferences. The millennial generation also is more connected to the family and more likely to engage in small groups, she said. Looking at how millennials interact and behave can provide invaluable insights for the future of fundraising.
Context is king
Of course, it all comes back to storytelling in the end when it comes to fundraising, and Clinton made sure to note that fundraisers must provide relevance no matter the audience, especially when trying to tap a new audience — for instance, international supporters.
"How can you make it relevant to what people care about? Provide credibility?" she asked. "… Context really matters. Many challenges in the U.S. are common challenges — but that does not mean they are the same."
"It's important to tell your story … and tell that story in the right way," Cowart added.
Clinton also noted that it's OK if not everything is universal and global. Sometimes the mission really does call for something locally focused. Don't try to force a new audience if it's not relevant.
Again, it all comes back to storytelling and context, the backbone of any form of fundraising.