April 8, 2024
Search
Close this search box.
Search
Close this search box.
April 8, 2024
Search
Close this search box.

Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

The Storyteller vs. the Number Cruncher

What was your favorite story growing up? My children’s favorite book was “The Spooky Old Tree” featuring the Berenstain Bears. My kids would gather around me, or sit on my knee, and what fun we had sifting through the pages over and over again. We would never tire of reading the book.

What was so great about “The Spooky Old Tree”? Well, it contained adventure, mystery, suspense, courage, humor and poignancy, and it was an easy read. It had all the captivating ingredients, just like cliffhangers from the Indiana Jones series. What’s important here is that it held our attention until the bears were “Home again. Safe at last.”

It’s the same way in fundraising. If you can articulate an interesting and poignant story about someone for whom you care or serve, and you can reach into the emotional wellsprings of the heart of the donor, and if it is authentic, then you stand a good chance of attaining a generous gift. This is generally the case, but times have changed as we explain below.

In my experience, there are essentially two approaches to fundraising—the first approach is what I call “The Storyteller” approach; the second is the “Number Cruncher” approach. Both are valid strategies. It’s just a question of when you utilize one versus the other.

There is a famous saying: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” This lends itself to “The Storyteller” approach to fundraising. Let me illustrate.

A nonprofit organization I worked for provided a carpentry workshop for troubled teenagers who were rejected by their families or were homeless. Some were recovering addicts or rehabilitating from trouble they got into while wandering the streets.

I visited this workshop and met a young man—let’s call him Teddy—who was engaged in crafting bed frames that would eventually be sold in stores. Teddy, a 17-year-old Israeli, spoke little English and when I found him in the workshop he was fully occupied constructing bed frames. We talked for a while and I asked him why he was there. He told me in broken English, “I cause trouble. I cause trouble.” It turns out that his family threw him out of the house, and he wandered the streets for a few years engaged in petty theft, dabbling in dangerous drugs and getting arrested. His life was a mess and he was close to suicide when the nonprofit found him.

They “brought him in from the cold,” gave him shelter, food and some “good ol’ love” and nurturing. Before long he was fabricating dining room chairs, swing sets, picnic tables and beds. Suddenly, he found a purpose in life, he felt wanted and he was turning out beautiful furnishings that earned him praise and a modest living. He eventually reconciled with his family, felt accomplished, enjoyed a hopeful future and today works in the furniture industry.

Donors felt good when I recounted this story—a genuine tale of turning a young man’s life around from crime to one of meaningful accomplishment and success. This real story paved the way to generous gifts.

Then there is the “Number Cruncher” approach to fundraising. I once visited some hedge-fund managers in California. They didn’t care about Teddy and his overcoming hurdles to achieve triumph. What one said was: “Show me the numbers!” They were only interested in the nonprofit’s budget, its operating deficit and organizational metrics. There was no pulling at their heartstrings. They had no time for touching stories.

What lesson is to be learned from this experience? Simple. You need to understand where your donor is coming from and address his or her needs. The emotional approach was of no consequence to my hedge-fund friends. Instead, it became purely an exercise in intellectual thinking. Keep this in mind when talking to your philanthropic supporters. Perhaps one approach, or some combination, would be in order.

So, what will it be? “The Spooky Old Tree” or the Book of Numbers?


Norman B. Gildin lived in Teaneck for 34 years, fundraised for nonprofits for more than three decades and raised upwards of $93 million in the process. He is the president of Strategic Fundraising Group, whose singular mission is to assist nonprofits raise critical funds for their organization. He can be reached at [email protected].

Leave a Comment

Most Popular Articles