Everyone knows storytelling = good. Humans wired for stories. We want to enter into them … become part of them… see ourselves, in some way, expressively reflected in the characters, plot and struggle. Everyone responds, all ears, to “Shall I tell you a story?”
Yet there’s been a brouhaha of late around so-called “donor-as-hero” stories. I’ve long been a proponent of encouraging donors to jump right into the narrative to give it a happy ending. Yet, today, people worry these stories reinforce “white saviorism,” especially in cases where donors are perceived to be in positions of privilege and power. In such situations the impression is donors unfairly get to feel good about helping those less fortunate. And it’s unfair because donors are part of, and contribute to, an unfair system — even if unconsciously. And this unfair system keeps people in need in their disadvantaged state.
Related to this are the ethics of making poster children of clients. Program staff may fear the commodification of stories as “sales products” for fundraising. There’s tension between departments, fueled by misunderstanding and mistrust.
I’d like to address (1) the overarching storytelling challenge, with specific attention to both the (2) white saviorism and (3) ethics conundrums. Let’s begin with.
(1) How to Meet the Challenge of Doing Good, without Doing Harm?
Stories are the essence of every nonprofit’s mission, vision and values. You exist because of stories—stories of problems you’re working to solve.
The best stories are experiential journeys of understanding and empathy.
One nonprofit here in San Francisco really understands this [Full disclosure: I used to sit on their board.] Here is the narrative they have plastered on the lintel in their theater lobby, and also on the “about” page on their website:
“Our theater is an empathy gym where we come to practice our powers of compassion. Here, safe in the dark, we can risk sharing in the lives of the characters. We feel what they feel, fear what they fear, and love what they love. And as we walk through our doors, we take with us greater powers of understanding to make our community a better place, one play at a time.”
While not all nonprofits literally tell stories on a stage, you are known by the stories you tell.
The Best Stories Connect with Their Audience
Tell a story about your organization, and you’re dead in the water. No one cares about an empty structure, a category of service. Yet most nonprofit leaders, when asked what they do, lead first with “we’re a hospital… foundation… school…maritime museum…human services agency…,” and so forth.
All of the ways in which you work — numbers served, geographic reach, staff qualifications, volunteer programs, years in existence, range of services, awards won — are simply not interesting to potential donors. They care about results – yearned for and made possible. They don’t need a recitation of facts and data.
Donors need something that connects with them emotionally.
(2) The Best Stories Lead from Values, Not Hero Worship
While many people may want to look at themselves in the mirror and see a hero they can admire, this comes from a sense of ego gratification more than moral identity. It works extremely well in raising money, which is why donor-as-hero stories are so prevalent. But what if you could tap into deeper, internally-held values rather than serving up a story that provides the donor extrinsic validation?
Don’t get me wrong. “You are our hero” works well. I’ve used it over and over. But… do these messages prop up a patriarchal, white, colonialist system?
Could there be something, even better, that didn’t verge into “doing harm” territory?
Let’s Explore Alternatives
A recent article on the Moceanic blog exploring this very topic caught my attention. It included a before and after letter about child sex trafficking. The first portrayed the child as victim. The second as someone fighting to survive.
VICTIM – “Before”:
When the client is “done unto,” the donor adopts the role of “rescuer.”
INDEPENDENT AGENT – “After”:
When the client is a “strong survivor,” with independent agency, the donor adopts the role of “empowerer” to fight the oppressors or oppressive situation.
What does it take, from the donor’s perspective, to be a grantor of power and autonomy? The appeal referenced in this article used words to pump up the donor’s moral identity: “kind,” “compassionate,” “caring people like you” – words donors in surveys used to describe themselves. All these qualities contribute to a donor’s well-being (much as being a hero does).
Your compassion helps her fight vs. Your gift will save a life.
You’ll want to A/B test this for yourself, especially if you’ve been quite successful using donor-as-hero stories. But consider that it just may forge an even stronger, more direct connection between the donor and the person/animal/place/cause they seek to help. The connection is not one of being a “savior,” but of sharing common values.
Hope Springs Eternal
Let’s explore the value of hope in both storytelling and connection. Hope is powerful. In wanting something to happen or be true, hope has moved people out of untenable situations into better lives, and has helped humans stay alive long enough to figure out how to thrive.
Hope applied to fundraising is about the possibility of change a donor can bring. The donor must be able to visualize that change in simple black and white results. I don’t mean telling them “you’ll restore hope.” This is not something the donor can visualize. Spell it out: (1) If they give, something clearly good happens. (2) If they don’t, something clearly bad happens.
One way to encapsulate this is simply to MAKE HOPE A HABIT in your storytelling – and overall approach. Look at donors as optimistic partners. They don’t have to be “heroes;” they can join you in values.
(3) Ethical Stories are True Collaborations
When it comes to storytelling ethics, what matters most is the overlap between (1) what compels donors to give, and (2) how clients & contributors want stories told.
As a fundraiser, hopefully you have some answers to donor motivations. If not, you can ask them. You can also do A/B tests to see what messaging raises the most money and fuels the greatest donor loyalty.
When it comes to clients and staff gatekeepers, it is impossible to answer for them. If you’ve never experienced hunger, abuse, displacement, poverty, you must commit to a process of securing feedback to ensure the stories you tell are true, and honor the protagonists of those stories. Treat your beneficiaries and program staff as collaborators and co-authors in the storytelling process.
There’s a useful article on ethical storytelling on the Fundraising Coach blog, suggesting the following:
Asking “How do I know what I wrote is true?” holds you to a higher standard and alerts you to the need to seek out more information to strengthen the story.
Asking, “What is influencing my perspective?” enhances self-awareness and allows you to de-center yourself from the story.
You are the filter through which the stories get told.
Don’t Pitch Yourself or Your Organization; Pitch Your Donor Their Own Identity
If you talk about the person the donor wants to become, they’ll keep reading. This means putting yourself in your donor’s shoes, thinking about who they desire to become.
- With who will they identify?
- With what emotions do they most identify?
- Which words will evokethe intended emotions?
- How do you want them to feel?
- How can they express that with which they identify?
- If they read or hear your story, what can they do to serve your cause and their deepest yearnings?
EXAMPLE: When I worked at a human services’ agency, I often asked supporters to feed back one or two words that described what motivated their giving. Common answers included: caring… compassion… ethics…kindness… religious obligation… justice. Using these words in stories helped donors empathize, triggering their emotions, rather than rationalize, triggering mental thought processes.
The more you understand your audience, the more you’ll be able to create a compelling picture that helps them imagine a future in which they feel emotionally connected and meaningfully moved.
Keep them Hooked with Powerful Simplicity
Stories packed with every single detail are a drag.
- Tell a short story.
- Show specifically what donors can do to create mutually hoped-for change.
Let’s look at an example from a 1980’s advertising campaign for Nike (yes, something as small as a print ad can tell a powerful, resonant story).
They could have written something technical about all the details that go into designing quality shoes for women. They could have bragged about their technology, and caused people’s eyes to glaze over. Instead, they went with something women could visualize and connect with on an emotional, values-laden level.
“All because it’s designed specifically for a woman. More specifically, for a woman who has no fear of flying.”
Ready to tell your concise, powerful, true, values-packed, emotional, donor-centered and client-empowering story?
Join Me for a Free Panel Discussion this Week!
I”ll be joined by Kristin Steele, Patrick Rafferty, and Dave Norris for The Whole Picture: The Power of Storytelling for Nonprofits, sponsored by NXUnite and Nexus Marketing. Kristen specializes in storytelling at events, Patrick has expertise producing ads, videos and films, and Dave brings a unique blend of creativity and technical expertise to the table. It should be an interesting blend of perspectives. And there will be time for Q & A.
Bring your questions!
Image: Three San Francisco Hearts: Beyond the Horizon; Eons of Love; Secrets of the Heart. Benefit for S.F. General Hospital Foundation.