Storytelling and Telling Stories

I was at a workshop the other day on storytelling for fundraising.  The information was solid, the presentation good, and yet I was really bothered by the whole exercise. At first I thought it was because the dots were not being connected: how do you get from the story to showing the need and making an ask.  But then I realized that my concern was actually more fundamental.

At its most basic level, fundraising is about relationships.  And relationships are built on conversation—dialog, not monolog.  It’s the reason my hackles rise when fundraisers talk about “pitching.”  That’s not what I think we should be doing.

I’ve raised a lot of money in my time.  None of it by making a pitch or telling a canned story.  All it by connecting people with people at my organization and with the things we were doing (the cause).

And yes, I use stories to illustrate what we do and how we do it.  Mostly I use those stories to show what happens because of what we do.  But they are part of a conversation.  And I only use them if they fit.

This workshop, however, focused on the power of the story—how to structure it for maximum impact.  And I can just envision well-meaning board members (and some professionals) so intent on telling their stories they forget to engage with the prospect and to find out what she or he really cares about.

When I was very much younger, I had a boyfriend who memorized a few clever conversational gambits and some very witty quotes.  The first few times, it was dazzling.  But then it became apparent that he always steered the conversation into one or two directions so he could toss these out.  The dazzle tarnished pretty quickly.

That, of course, wasn’t the problem.  That I stopped listening was.

Stories told for the sake of telling stories—even when the purpose is noble and the idea solid—run the risk of losing the connection that real conversation can bring.  Besides, the best stories come from your passion.  When, in the course of conversation, the prospect says, “what about X?” and you can say, “let me tell you about X” with something that really matters to you, then telling stories becomes gold.

Yes, of course, this may be a story you heard from someone else;  it may even be something concocted from a few like stories.  After all, stories can paint a picture in ways that nothing else can.  But it needs to be part of a cultivation.  One way to engage someone’s interest.  A path to a destination.  What it shouldn’t be is the destination itself nor should telling the story be the purpose of your meeting.

By all means, put a face to your organization; use an experience to illustrate a larger practice when those things add value to your conversation and help to pull your prospect closer in.

When you are asking someone to join with you in being involved with your organization, the most compelling story will be yours—the reason why you care so much, and what you get from being involved.  Make the other person see the value you get because of your support, and I guarantee that will resonate more thoroughly than any other story you could possibly tell.

Janet Levine works with nonprofit organizations, helping them to build their resource development capacity.  To learn more about her, her online grantwriting class and Get Ready, Get Set, Get Grants the only grantwriting book you really need, check out  You can buy the book directly at