Why Tell a ‘Story’ When You Can Tell The Truth?

Published by Charlie Hulme on

(Or ‘How to bring integrity to your storytelling, while keeping donors and fundraisers loyal all at the same time’)

About half our donors are leaving. According to Third Sector’s latest survey half the fundraisers are close behind them. It seems the only ones staying are the beneficiaries and God knows they’d leave if they could!

Anyone else seeing a correlation here?

But could it be that the answer to both these problems lies in the same thing; a lack of genuine connection to the cause? With all the hype around storytelling it seems we’ve missed the most fundamental point of all…

These aren’t just ‘stories’.

So how has this disconnect affected us and our donors? Let’s start with the much maligned donor, ‘Attriting Annie’ (irony intentional!), blissfully unaware of where she is on her ‘journey’. Why’s she leaving; was it something we said? Let’s face it; she doesn’t cancel regular payments for the things she wants. So the question has to be are we doing enough to make her want to be a part of what we do?

Not according to Adrian Sargeant who said “…the communications that are being received are weak, triggering an excessive level of lapsing behaviour.” George Smith put it ever so much less subtlety “We sent them a number of boring formulaic mailing packs and they threw them away. Attrition, my arse!”

What’s going wrong? We all took notes at the conference storytelling sessions, we read all the blogs – what are we missing?

Is it possible that we’ve taken the truth and reduced it to a ‘story’? Has the emotional impact been lost in brand translation? Have we sterilized the raw authentic voice of our beneficiary because we worry it won’t be signed off?

‘Attriting Annie’ wants to give to people; she wants to help ‘the cancer, the kids, and the hungry’. But that’s hard for her to do when the causes she holds dear are obscured by opaque, abstract mission statements.

How did we get here?

If ‘Annie’ doesn’t think we sound authentic maybe it’s because we don’t feel it? There’s a lot of talk in the sector about supporter engagement, but what about fundraiser engagement (after all if I’m not inspired how can I inspire you)?

In the often chaotic rush of our working lives have we lost connection with the cause that should drive us to do what we do? If our primary ‘front line’ contact is via a safely packaged anonymised ‘story’ we soon lose connection with the real people and raw emotion that gave birth to the cause we serve.

But imagine how we’d sound after we’d sat beside a beneficiaries hospital bed, had helped out in the feeding tent or (insert your beneficiaries need here)? Would we really accept the bland rewrite of last year’s appeal? Would we settle for anaemic language?

If brand comes before cause we’ve already lost – for whatever we put in front of our cause we lose.

Everyone’s raving about charity: water; their great use of video, transparency and the way they say ‘thank you’ as though these were clever marketing gimmicks. But nothing could be further from the truth.

Scott Harrison founded the charity on a simple faith based principle that runs throughout the organization. These guys don’t sound authentic, they’re just authentic. Their success has less to do with the medium by which their message is carried as to the sincerity with which it’s carried. They share success and failure and say thank you because that’s what you do when someone gives you money.

So before you sit down to think of ways to new ways to inspire ‘Annie’, spend some time asking how you can re inspire yourself. Why did I choose to fight for this cause? Am I a donor? How often can I visit or get updates on the projects I raise funds for? What makes me get out of bed every morning?

What souvenirs or reminders do you have on your desk (my favourites are my name in Braille from the RLSB, a handprint from a child at bibic, and an arm band UNICEF uses to measure whether a child’s malnourished)?

What’s my real goal – a bonus if I hit this quarter’s target, or a world without poverty, an end to exploitation, a cure? Am I passionately committed to making this happen or am I making a living out of people dying?

We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give’ – Winston Churchill


(With grateful thanks to AJ Leon and Derek Humphries for encouragement and inspiration)

Charlie Hulme

Charlie Hulme

Charlie is MD of Donor Voice. He helps charities uncover what, of all the things they do, cause relationship strength and what is harmful. Partners see a massive improvement in performance, value and retention. Voted top speaker at the Institute of Fundraising's National Convention in 2013, he writes frequently for SOFII, 101 Fundraising, the Institute of Fundraising and many others.


Stephen Pidgeon · August 2, 2012 at 20:04

Dead right Charlie, well done. Thank you for articulating so clearly the issue that is holding back so many of our fundraisers. I’ve long thought that fundraisers should work with their ‘clients’, perhaps half day, once or twice a month. Talk to fundraisers in charities that are on fire and you find that’s exactly what they do. And it would stop fundraisers trying to raise money for things they are not inspired about.
Terrific, thank you.

Ann Rosenfield · August 3, 2012 at 04:29

thought provoking opinion piece and I completely agree about the importance of spending lots of time with beneficiaries.

Your explanation for bland copy is one hypothesis but, in my experience as both a fundraiser and former consultant, I do not find fundraisers to be uncommitted. I find fundraisers to be intensely passionate.

I would offer a different explanation for bland copy and that is – trying too hard and fear of being unprofessional.

The average fundraiser has a university degree* which means we’ve spent at least 18 years in school getting our grammar corrected and being told that poor grammar is unprofessional. We’ve also spent a lot time being encouraged to “polish” our writing.

It is really hard after 18 years of that to then not want to rewrite a service user quote or strip a story of all of its passion. Why? An alternative explanation to yours is that fundraisers don’t want our charity to look “unprofessional” or our client to look ignorant.

I am not disputing that there are some mediocre, uncommitted, or burned out fundraisers out there. I just think that the examples you cite can also be covered as easily by my explanation as yours.

Ann Rosenfield

*the university level education is according to AFP for North America, can’t vouch for rest of the world.

Maartje · August 3, 2012 at 14:33

‘Keeping it real’ could also be an appropriate title to this story. Lovely article, thank you.

M.A. · August 3, 2012 at 15:21

I too have a university degree and I too cringe at poor grammar etc. However, the “stories” should be in the “client’s” own words — I simply edit the intro, explanation etc. I have frequently sent personal stories from teens we support which contain errors — however, if you are offering academic support, for example, a first-person story with errors which is used to get the donation is more impactful if you send a follow-up story, usually error-free, reporting on the use of the funds.
I think donors, especially those giving large amounts, dislike formal reports etc which are laden with errors — stories are entirely different. They should be casual, written in every day language, and easy to read. Donors, myself included, often leave when there is no meaningful forward movement as a result of their donation.

Karen Dietz · August 3, 2012 at 18:09

Thank you Charlie for writing such a great article. I wish there was more discussion about when stories fail. You put your finger on the heart of the matter. Stories also fail when they are too ‘generic’ — identifying a group instead of one person that someone can relate to. Lack of sensory material or metaphors also creates failure. And not having a strong key message that moves people to action is another failure point. Many many nonprofit videos that I’ve seen lack a strong key message.

I like your article so much that I have included it my curated content on business storytelling & pushed it out to my networks (I include nonprofits in the mix because the principles for effective storytelling crosses both categories). You can see it here: http://www.scoop.it/t/just-story-it

Thank you again and keep writing such great material!

Jim Schaffer · August 5, 2012 at 13:45

I used to think turnover in our field was due to burnout. But the research indicates something much more practical — leaving for better pay far outweighs all the other reasons. Still, your point here is fuel for the journey. Whether the fundraiser stays or leaves, the stories that animate the mission can only work positive outcomes for all involved. Interesting to compare professional turnover to “donor attrition.” Astute observations here. Thanks for this post.

Jen Shang · August 6, 2012 at 10:27

Great insights Charlie! Love it! :-)

I totally agree that the age has come for fundraisers to go beyond grammar correctness, following marketing best practice (including branding, segmentation, etc. etc. etc) and professionalization for appearance’s sake (not necessarily for their own growth as a person).

The age has come for fundraisers to THINK about WHY they care for their causes, their beneficiaries and their benefactors so that they can take care of them while taking care of themselves. Eighteen years of education, I am afraid, is simply not enough. Fundraisers deserve their own academy to offer them the kind of professional education that teach them how to be energized by what they do (not simply how to put their energy into it).

    Jim Schaffer · August 6, 2012 at 13:18

    Jen, thanks for your reply. I am quite interested in the whole subject of how to keep the fundraiser enthused about and alive to the cause. I started this blog a few days ago as my attempt to probe deeper into this subject: http://charityburnout.wordpress.com/. I am not promoting anything here or there. But I would appreciate any comment you feel moved to give, if any. I am just exploring at present for a specific point of view. I’ve been in the field for 30 years and see issues. Why such turnover for both donor and professional? Trying to count and name the reasons. Thanks.


Alex Unger · June 20, 2013 at 17:49

The blind leading the ignorant.

Samantha Hillier · September 19, 2013 at 23:37

This Charlie (ugh) fella has clearly read one book on psychology but not actually understood it. So many words, so little said.

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