The Fear of Fundraising and the Joy of Storytelling
Not-for-profit board members, volunteers, and staff members often get very pragmatic advice on how to get over the fear of fundraising. Those approaches include: conduct role-plays, practice “the ask,” use a script, go for a “ride-along” with someone who is comfortable with asking, etc. Though there is merit in these approaches, I think an opportunity for deeper engagement and a more meaningful experience is overlooked.
By connecting in meaningful ways about a cause of mutual interest, the gift conversation wasn’t initiated by us asking them to give, it was initiated by them asking us how they can help.
I learned a lot from a wonderful guy named Dave Dunlop when I worked with him on the advancement team at Cornell. Dave is the epitome of graciousness and courtesy. From Dave I learned that the biggest gifts usually don’t require an ask. Why? It is because the donors are inspired by what they can accomplish through their financial generosity. Through their gifts they are investing in something that is intensely worthwhile to them, an expression of their deeply held beliefs and values made manifest in real, palpable ways. By connecting with these individuals in meaningful ways about a cause of mutual interest, the gift conversation wasn’t initiated by us asking them to give, it was initiated by them asking us how they can help.
Rather than focusing on how to ask, we should be helping volunteer leaders and staff members tell better stories about the causes they care about. Jennifer Aaker, General Atlantic Professor of Marketing at Stanford Graduate School of Business, shared a poignant anecdote a few years ago that makes this point. She wanted her kids to have an experience that was both meaningful and connected to a sense of responsibility. So, she chose a simple cause, I believe it was raising money for Alex’s Lemonade Stand, which supports research and education about childhood Leukemia. She wanted her children to understand that they can make a difference; and she wanted to do it in a way that was creative. So, they set up a lemonade stand. The creative part was that they tested three appeals to potential customers: “Spend a Little TIME and Enjoy C&D’s Lemonade,” “Spend a Little MONEY and Enjoy C&D’s Lemonade,” and just, “Enjoy C&D’s Lemonade.” Fourteen percent donated in response to the “Spend Time” sign, nine percent donated in response to the “Enjoy Lemonade” sign, and seven percent donated in response to the “Spend Money” sign. In this experience, spending a little time talking to people was more effective than asking for money.
Another example. Several years ago the Tarnside group in England did a study about the relationship between giving and involvement in a cause. They discovered that donors progressed through several stages that they named: awareness, interest, engagement, commitment, ownership, and personal responsibility. They discovered that individuals did not really contribute until they reached the stage of “commitment.” In 2012, the Pew Internet and American Life Project on Social Media Engagement conducted a similar study of giving behaviors related to social media and they discovered the same results. Though the names of their stages were a bit different—observing, following, endorsing, contributing, owning, and leading. Here, again, it wasn’t until the fourth level of involvement (contributing) that individuals made substantive gifts.
If you want people to raise money—focus on helping them tell good stories. The money will follow because the fear of fundraising evaporates as conversations about doing good evolve into conversations about how we can make it better.
So, what does this tell us? if you want to raise a lot of money, spend time talking to people about your cause. It’s about good storytelling—whether those stories are told by volunteers, staff members, or those who benefit from the gifts. It’s meaningful and purposeful conversations about the cause—what the organization does for others, for communities, and for our world—that is at the heart of giving.
Stories are fun to tell. They evoke our creative spirit, our muses, and are inspiring. Telling stories enlivens us, it feels good. There is joy in a great story. If you want to wake up a room, just ask people to turn to their neighbor and tell their favorite story.
When I’m working with boards, groups of volunteers, or staff teams, I start by asking: Why are you here? What attracts you to this cause? Why are you inspired? Then I suggest that they make a habit of talking about it. Tell people how cool it is. And tell them why.
So, if you want people to raise money—focus on helping them tell good stories. The money will follow because the fear of fundraising evaporates as conversations about doing good evolve into conversations about how we can make it better.
All great movements are rooted in inspiring stories. And all great gifts have a good story behind them. If we all learn to tell really good stories about the causes we love and describe to potential donors how the nonprofits we love make a difference, we’ll end up needing to ask less and thank more.