Updated: May 9, 2021
Guest Blog: From time to time, industry leaders, experts and generally inspiring people will share their thoughts on this blog. Noted arts leader Dr. Ursula Kuhar unpacks the power of storytelling in effective philanthropy. Serving as Lecturer of Arts Administration in the O’Neill School of Public & Environmental Affairs at Indiana University, Dr. Kuhar previously served as Executive Director of the Washington Concert Opera plus other higher education posts.
I have always had a deep love for stories: telling them, hearing them, and reading them. I was that child who would stay awake for bedtime stories because I loved how narrative was shaped. Now, I am that adult who has a hard time putting a book down before bed. Compelling stories are powerful in all their shapes and forms and can leave an indelible print on our lives.
In the nonprofit sector, we are led by the words that make up our mission, vision, and values. Without these guiding forces, our programming and our relationships with all constituents do not carry the gravitas they truly possess. Sometimes our focus sways away from the narrative when we consider our reality: hitting goals, maintaining budgets, not enough hours in the day or resources at our disposal, and currently, our sustainability in a COVID-19 ridden world.
Stories are something humans crave. We inherently love characters and their motivations, a hearty plot, and of course, the “happily ever after” ending. Storytelling not only feels good, but evidence shows that storytelling promotes cultural understanding, boosts listening skills, and promotes better memory recall. And just like fundraising, storytelling is rooted in empathy: identifying with one another’s feelings.
Here’s some food for thought on how we can efficiently and effectively infuse fundraising efforts with the art of storytelling:
Start with why. I was recently reminded of a powerful TED talk by management guru Simon Sinek on how we should answer our “why” instead of our “what.” By taking this approach, the emphasis is on the inherent value and impact of what and who we are.
Tale over transaction. Our handiwork is not transactional, it’s transformational. Fundraising is not just about money. It makes smart sense to tell stories to our constituents that will build and fuel giving. Fundraising is a two-way street: we want to cultivate and solicit gifts from donors, and those donors want to feel included and know that they and their gifts matter. Telling stories welcomes them to our institution and makes an impact.
Stories are everywhere. Spend some time where the action happens at your organization, and you’ll find a plethora of stories: the work of your volunteers (the heart and soul of many nonprofit organizations), the growth of your students, your programs’ community reach, letting donors share why they give, and more. Start building a culture of storytelling and you’ll build tomes of anecdotes (and don’t forget to thank and acknowledge those who share them with you).
In thinking about your organization’s current fundraising goals and objectives as we approach end of the calendar year, use some these techniques in communications to constituents. In time, you’ll be telling compelling stories not about your stakeholders but with them.
Dr. Ursula M. Kuhar
Indiana University O'Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs
Cape Fletcher Associates