Different Donors Are Inspired by Different Stories

Guest Post by Patricia L. Tolbert

I had my first “Ah ha!” moment with storytelling twenty-five years ago while sitting with the senior editor of our city’s major newspaper.  I’d brought two board members to lobby for the financial and editorial support needed for our giant panda exhibit.  The board members had done a superb job of articulating what we thought was the case for support (financial return, civic pride, and all that), but I could tell by the editor’s body language we were gaining no traction.

“This is a colossal waste of time,” I thought.  “This guy is only looking for the next big story.”  Duh!  I leaned forward and said, “David, let me tell you why this panda is going to be the biggest story of the summer.”  We got the support we needed, and I got a priceless insight into the power of story in fundraising.

Your prospective donors don’t have to be journalists to succumb to the power of story.  All donors are human beings, and our connection with storytelling is always emotional (and often unconscious) — hard-wired into our species through centuries of intergenerational interaction.  As fundraisers, we just have to determine what kind of engagement with story we need to offer.

One time-tested concept of giving capacity can help you make that decision.

In the late nineties, Federal Reserve data indicated that the wealth of America was divided largely into thirds:

  • 1/3 of our wealth was held by 90% of the population (folks like most fundraisers),
  • 1/3 by 9% (the affluent upon whose giving most major donor programs are based), and
  • the last 1/3 held by the top 1% (with most of their wealth in illiquid assets).

While the events of 2008 dragged many of the 9% down into the 90%, we’re beginning to see signs of recovery.  Most true 1%ers were far less affected, and all indications point towards an even larger share than 1/3 being held by this group today.*

Which of these groups is in your database?  Your prospect pools?  That’s where you begin.

At the 90% level, donors want to be part of a great story – a story of (as Jerry Panas first said) “lives changed – lives saved.”  This is not the story of your organization, although your organization plays a role.  This is the story of those served by your organization and the difference that can be made in their lives if your donor chooses to participate.  The plot is centuries old:  Hero struggles.   Hero overcomes.  Your big challenge is telling the story so that both your donor and those served become heroes.  In the best stories, your organization simply becomes the vehicle (albeit the most effective one) for that transformation.

At the 9% level, donors don’t just want to participate in a story with the rest of the crowd; they want to impact the plot.  They are accustomed to more control and more choices in their livesYou’ll meet some who want recognition and some who want anonymity, but most will want outcomes that are different from what would occur without their intervention.  You have two big challenges with these donors:  (1) ensuring their impact is big enough to produce those outcomes but not so big it creates mission drift and (2) sustaining their impact and telling that story over time through staff turnover and program changes.

At the top of the 1% mountain, individual donors are writing their own stories, and woe unto our organizations if we forget that.  The pitch is not “how you, Alice, can be part of what we do.”  Instead, our approach should reflect our willingness to build a different kind of relationship:  “Alice, you’re doing extraordinary work.  It’s a great story, and we may be able to support you in your next chapter.  Tell me, how do you envision that chapter?”  If Alice’s vision is long-term, we may get to participate in her legacy (the cumulative impact of her major chapters and often the origin of great bequests).  If we become a trusted partner in her storycrafting, we may even get to help her define that legacy.  Scope?  Scale?  Focus?

Once upon a time, we fundraisers could assume certain characteristics about the top 10%; after all, unless you had inherited wealth, you had to reach a certain age and stage in life to act on your philanthropic inclinations.  Not so in 2013!  Wealth is being created everywhere in every generation (and no longer just in Silicon Valley)!  Even as many young people struggle to find their first jobs, more young people than ever are moving into the 9% at an earlier age — and thinking like 1%ers!  Their way of changing the world (though social entrepreneurship, direct giving, and social networks) will not be that of the boomer who had a natural affinity for nonprofit organizations.

If you haven’t yet spotted these prospects in your database yet, get thee to SXSW in Austin and make their acquaintance.  They’re the next big story.

*Shout out to consultant Jay Steenhuysen for spreading the gospel of the 1/9/90.

Patricia “Trish” Tolbert is Legacy Programs Advisor for AARP Foundation and draws experience from previous positions with The Nature Conservancy and the Memphis Zoological Society.

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