Story Telling That Works

Story telling as a fundraising device is one of the things with which I have a love/hate relationship. I love the idea of humanizing what an organization does and making it personal; I hate the reality that too many people memorize stories and turn what should be conversations into monologs just so they can tell their stories. But there is one story we should all practice and use: the story of how a prospect may become a donor. It’s a story with many iterations, in large part because you don’t actually know how any single move or touch will turn out. But by visualizing a complete cultivation cycle and the solicitation meeting(s), you are able to prepare yourself for a proactive fundraising process and one that will have far greater opportunities for success.

This story-telling happens in two ways -- first visualizing and talking about the entire arc of what you hope will happen. This isn’t a one-time story telling, but many faceted and one that may be edited over time.

The second is the story of the immediate move you are making—figuring out what you need to get from this activity so it meshes with the whole.

We start the process with our prospect (and remember, the best prospect is typically an existing donor), writing down what we know. Next consider where we hope to end up. For example, we know the Smiths have been long-time donors giving at a mid-range. We plan on talking with them about a high 6-figure major gift. In both of these areas, fill in as many blanks as you can. And then consider a move or step that you think might work. For example, having the Board member who is also member of the prospect’s service club invite the member to a special tour of your facility or a meeting with the program manager of the project you hope the prospect will support. Then, assuming that goes well, what is the second move, and the third.

And then, if move number one (or number three!) doesn’t go as you hope, what’s your back-up plan?

Once you’ve built out three or five scenarios, decide on the most optimal first step. But wait, before you pick up the phone to make the call, think small—what do you hope to accomplish from this interaction. If you are calling for a meeting, don’t think beyond getting the meeting set, but DO visualize everything that will go into getting that meeting and what things you have to have to hand.

For example, if you are the staff member making the call (and I confess that during my staff years, I was almost always the person calling for the meetings), whose name needs to be front and center? Ah….”Mary asked me to call to set up a meeting for the three of us” requires that I actually know when Mary is available over the next two to three weeks. It’s a little thing, but the little things often make or break an interaction.

So “winging it” is another concept with which I have a love/hate relationship. I love the thought that I am a free spirit, who can improvise with the best of them. I hate what usually happens (or doesn’t!) when I don’t plan carefully. I will end up somewhere, but it may not be the place I wanted to get.


Janet Levine works with nonprofits, helping them to increase their fundraising capacity and to build stronger, more committed boards. Learn more at   And while you are thinking about it, ask Janet for a free 30-minute consultation.