There’s an old saying: “Those who tell the stories rule the world.” One thing for sure: If you are a fundraiser and you can tell a good story you will likely thrive.
I once described two types of philanthropists. The first wants to hear heart-rending stories and how their uplifting contribution improved the plight of those less fortunate. The second is not interested in stories that melt the heart. Give them metrics. Give them financial statements, numbers and budgets. That’s it.
Let’s focus on the storyteller who provides meaningful joy to a donor seeking his compassion quotient.
Working at a nonprofit Jewish home for the elderly had many benefits for me. The environment was warm, the care compassionate, and the quality of life for the residents outstanding. A plethora of stimulating programs to enhance the dignity and self-esteem of the older residents was always of utmost importance. All of these made for wonderful stories we could share with contributors.
In one facility, we launched a sheltered workshop where residents were paid for their work. Projects ranged from turning children’s game pieces into boxes to sorting employee time cards to placing bath sets into pretty satchels, attached to a colorful cellophane-covered basket.
On my way to the office one morning, I sidestepped a 94-year-old resident hurrying to the workshop. He was in a rush and I stopped him for a moment and asked: “Harry, where are you going?” Without missing a step, Harry turned to me as he made his way down the hall and said: “Can’t talk now. On my way to work and I’m late!” Can you imagine a nonagenarian who had such passion for work and productivity? What a great story to share with donors who were deeply touched by our ability to provide consequential job opportunities to the aged residents. It enhanced the fundraising campaign that year.
Another Jewish nonprofit where I worked provided residential services to developmentally disabled adults who otherwise could not care for themselves. When I started working there, I went through an intensive orientation to learn about its essential services to the community. One day I visited a small group residence, and was in for a remarkable surprise.
First, let’s take a trip in my time machine. In 1969 an ambitious young journalist named Geraldo Rivera conducted an investigative exposé into a mental institution called Willowbrook, where patients lived in the most deplorable and neglected conditions. It was shocking and appalling that such an institution existed in the United States. Rivera revealed many abuses and uncovered the horrific conditions in which these patients lived. His muckraking was a catalyst to improving the lives of the mentally disabled.
Return now to my visit to the adult group residence. I walked into the home and met clients who were previously institutionalized in Willowbrook. What an amazing moment. The residents were dressed in neat, clean and comfortable clothing and lived in a warm and homelike atmosphere. The pleasing scent of a homemade meal was in the air; it smelled so good I wanted to stay for dinner. The residence was pristine clean, and everyone—clients, staff and volunteers—greeted me with a smile. What a great story to tell donors. Our supporters were awestruck and spellbound.
The most important task of a professional fundraiser is to inspire folks who contribute to our causes. We must empower donors to aid us in a quest to improve the human condition. When we share heartwarming stories about those in our charge and how we sincerely provide them with a sense of purpose and a better life, it elevates our mission in the eyes of our benefactors. And if they connect with our mission and trust us, we accomplish our goal and raise crucial funds for the organization.
As a child, I loved stories my mother read to me. My children loved the stories I read them. And now my grandchildren love the stories I read them. Many donors love to hear success stories if they are true and poignant.
Have you heard about the “two-minute elevator speech”? It’s the limited time occasionally required to empower a patron with the empathy essential to making a generous gift. That’s the epitome of good storytelling.
Are you up to the challenge? In that case, have I got a story for you!
Norman B. Gildin has fundraised for nonprofits for more than three decades and has raised upwards of $93 million in the process. Formerly a Teaneck resident for 34 years, he is the president of Strategic Fundraising Group, whose singular mission is to assist nonprofits to raise critical funds. He can be reached at [email protected]