Question: what do all recent fundraising success stories have in common?

Published by Charlie Hulme on

Answer: None of them started with fundraisers!

Fundraisers here at IFC and all over the sector are raving about the spontaneous phenomena of the ‘No make-up selfie’ and the ‘Ice Bucket Challenge’. But in our wildest dreams do we believe these phenomenon would have happened on the scale they did if it had been up to us to deliver them?

Who would’ve been the first person to raise the health and safety issues about asking people to dunk a bucket of ice water over their heads? What would brand and comms have said about the moral, social and gender implications of asking women not to wear make-up?

Why, in the name of sanity, do we do it to ourselves? The causes we represent are so desperate for money and people are so willing to give it if we ask properly. The last I checked the Ice Bucket Challenge had raised over $100 million for the ALS Society. Quite a bump from the $2 million they raised the previous year! That extra $98 million didn’t come out of nowhere. It was always there, it just wasn’t always available to us. Why? Because we don’t make ourselves available.

There’s an enormous wall between us and the public. And we built it. Barriers

We’re restricted by a rigid set of ‘best’ practices that stop us doing any better. For all the talk of storytelling we hear we haven’t got any better at telling them. Certainly not if we’re judged on the almost non-existent growth our sectors seen compared to the commercial world in the last 40 years (40 years!)

Yet every now and then a fundraising ‘story’ explodes financially in a way that should shame us fundraisers. Look at Stephen Sutton; the teenager diagnosed with cancer whose JustGiving page raised £5 million of the £10 million that the Teenage Cancer Trust raised in a year.

Or look at the Manchester Dogs home fire. Public reaction to that ‘story’ raised more money in 22 hours than had been raised in the previous year!

Whenever one of these fundraising phenomena occur the talk is always about how can we best prepare for the next one, how should we respond and so on. All well and good. But what kind of financial strategy relies on waiting for a spontaneous phenomenon? It’s the same as a football manager whose strategy is to stand all 11 players in their own goal and rely on rebounds!

We should be asking ourselves what is it these ‘stories’ do that ours don’t?

Nothing radical happened in the case of Stephen Sutton and the Manchester Dogs home. Rather something radical didn’t happen; the truth was not suppressed. It wasn’t watered down, it wasn’t cleaned up, it wasn’t photo-shopped. It just stood there with dignity and asked to be heard. imagesFI5IAFWM (2)

Surely the Teenage Cancer Trust and the Manchester Dogs home had access to countless equally heart-breaking stories of tragedy and triumph, of love and loss before these things happened? Why weren’t they telling them in the same way? Can you imagine how many rounds of copy sign off Stephen would have had to go through to get approval for his JustGiving page? Was he ‘on brand’? If comms had to approve the way journalists reported on the Manchester Dogs Home fire, would they have been allowed to describe those poor animals as ‘suffering’ rather than ‘experiencing’ the fire?

I was creative director for a big international agency for years. Despite a combination of insisting and begging (with a handful of shining exceptions) almost never did I get a brief that told me something I couldn’t have got from Google. Almost never was I given access to the front line to report back. Almost never was I told anything about the audience beyond utterly useless transactional information about when they gave, how much they gave and by what channel. How can we inspire, connect and transform with that?!

If the person you hire cares more than you about connecting with your donors by telling the story truthfully something’s badly wrong. Big money is spent to deliver predictably unspectacular results when all the while there is precedent that the simple truth, told well, will deliver results beyond our wildest imagination.

The only thing that stops us from inspiring, connecting and transforming is us.

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.


Derek · October 30, 2014 at 14:55

Nice, Charlie.
I wonder if the notion of storytelling is almost anachronistic.
I don’t know any longer if we should ‘tell’ stories, but rather enable people to become part of those stories, to complete stories that are incomplete without their support, or to create stories that do not yet exist.
Stuff like that; not so much stories as rich conversations.
Anyway, I’m making this up as I go along.
Thanks for the stimulation.
My turn for lunch!

    Charlie Hulme · October 30, 2014 at 15:14

    Agree ‘story’ is a pretty naff word. I wrote a 101 few years ago called ‘Why Tell a Story when you can tell the truth’. Enjoy yr lunch mate : )

    Tony Frank · October 30, 2014 at 16:00

    Wow! This is spot on. It challenges me to grow not only as a story teller, but as one who invites others to be a part of the unfolding story.

Simon · October 30, 2014 at 15:57

Great blog again Charlie. Why tell a story, when you can tell the truth. Quite right Charlie. Aneurin Bevan had it right when he said “this is my truth, tell me yours”. In my experience that always leads to ‘rich conversations’

Tony Frank · October 30, 2014 at 15:58

This is great stuff, thanks for your words…convicting! It makes me think about the power of a story being shared by those closest/most impacted.

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