The stories we tell

There I was, standing with my two dogs on leash, minding my own business.  Of course, I should have been paying attention, but I was lost in my own world.  Into that world quite suddenly, came a skateboarder.  My dogs got spooked and I ended up bruised, cut—and with a fractured radius.  Right wrist, of course.   The number of things I cannot do with my one, non-dominant hand is eye opening.  But so are the things I find I can do.  Best of all—am I being too naive to that there can be anything “best” about this?—is my forced slowing down.

Slowing down is allowing me to truly consider what my clients really need, and how i can best ensure they get it.  To think about what I want—and how I can get there.  And, of course to smell the roses.

Of most interest, are the reactions of people I encounter.  

Some look away.  Some (continue to) look through me.  Bike riders call out “heal quickly.”   I think they think it was a bike misadventure.  Most people ask “what happened?”

And while they are being solicitous, what they really want is to tell me their broken bone story.

Just like fundraising.

We spend so much time and effort trying to figure out our stories, we miss the point: prospects and donors are way more interested in telling us theirs.

Instead of telling them all about you, ask them what they know about the organization, what their personal experiences have been, what they would like to see happen as a result of the work we do.

We tend to value and hire fundraising staff who have good verbal communication skills when we should be favoring those who are excellent listeners.

Once people have told their story, they frequently do want to hear mine.  They offer advice, sympathy.  

For me, most of these are one-off conversations.  When I was still raising funds, these conversations helped me to craft better cultivation and stewardship plans and to help them make better gifts.

You don’t need to fracture your wrist—in fact, I wouldn’t recommend it.  What I do suggest is you open your ears, pay close attention and learn what your donors need in order to make the kind of contribution that will make both of you smile.


Janet Levine works with nonprofits, taking them from mired to inspired and helping them to inspire their prospects and donors.  Sign up for the newsletter and learn more at