November 30, 2016 / Esther Choy

Rob Gorman had never thought to use an oft-told story as a fundraising story: a way for donors to learn about the Safer Foundation.

Rob Gorman had a good story about an on-the-job experience. It was so good he shared it with friends, family and colleagues. But he had never thought to use this story as a fundraising story: a way for donors to learn about the Safer Foundation, where he serves as Grants Manager.

Then, all of a sudden, some homework landed in his inbox. He needed to write a response to the question: “What has been your most memorable experience with your current organization personally?”

It was time, he realized, to commit his story to writing.

Who assigned the homework? You guessed it. I did! You know I love to get people to use their incredible on-the-job stories! We had been chosen by the McCormick Foundation to facilitate a Storytelling Training Day that Rob signed up for. I sent out prep homework, and then, during the training, my facilitators and I shared tools and feedback that Rob used to shape his story and thus encourage donors to connect with Safer Foundation’s mission: helping people with criminal records secure and maintain jobs.

As Rob applied the tools, his story improved.

How to Hook Your Audience’s Attention

So what makes a good start to a fundraising story?

First, begin with a scene. Identify your protagonist clearly and show him or her acting in a clear time and place. Good introductions don’t just hook the audience, they situate the audience. You want the potential donors to feel intrigued right away, but not lost.Second, make sure you’ve introduced an underlying tension—a challenge the protagonist faces. This is what will grab your audience’s attention. So how did Rob do this? Here’s the start of his story.

The Day I Went to Jail

It was my 504th day of employment at the Safer Foundation. In my role at the time, I provided direct services to people with criminal records to help them find meaningful work, contribute to their communities and families, and stay out of trouble with the law. I thought I knew the challenges of this population well, but it wasn’t until this day – the day I went to jail – that I started to uncover the depth of the challenges facing the population.

We were excited to see that Rob:

  • Situated his audience in time. We know how long he’s been working at Safer Foundation. Not only that, he lets us know who he is and what his organization is all about.
  • Introduced that underlying conflict: Suddenly the ground shifted under his feet. What he thought he knew about his job is not what he actually knew. This is what will make the donor keep on reading or listening—knowing what’s at stake for the storyteller.
  • Used striking phrasing—“the day I went to jail”—to catch the audience’s attention.

How to Keep the Attention You’ve Earned

The second act of a story often describes the protagonist’s journey toward resolving the tension. The payoff for the audience is that we start to find out how the protagonist overcame the challenge. In Rob’s case, he took his audience on a literal journey through a jail, describing what he observed. He saw detainees “reading novels, working through complicated math problems and helping each other along the way,” he wrote.

But he began to feel discouraged as one of the harsh realities of the prison system sunk in. Those people who were studying so hard had not even been sentenced yet. They were in a jail, not a prison. Once they were sentenced, many faced at least a decade of prison time.

Safer Foundation’s PACE Institute provides educational services to people living in Cook County Jail. Although the dedication of the staff and the detainees – turned students – was inspiring, my pessimism started to settle in. The same question rotated on my mental rotisserie for over the first hour of the tour. I finally worked up the courage to ask the program manager, “You help so many people improve their lives while they’re in jail, but so many people are headed for 10+ years of prison time. Isn’t it kind of depressing?” Rob was on a journey that shattered his preconceptions. He thought he knew the population he served, but he hadn’t realized how hard some were working to improve their lives even before the gavel came down. And it hadn’t yet sunk in how long of a struggle they faced in maintaining that self-improvement.

How to Inspire Action

In the final act of a fundraising story, the teller ties the previous threads together and gives the audience a clear takeaway, leaving them with a specific request.

At the end of his story, we see Rob’s moment of realization as the Program Manager tells him he does not see the time ahead of the detainees as depressing because “we help people have a correctional experience.” The time in jail and prison is meant to bring change:

When people learn to read in confinement, they have an opportunity to better themselves. PACE provides that opportunity. Reading has the power to transform idle time to a beacon of opportunity; it gives a whole new meaning to “doing time.”

And with this realization, Rob ties the narrative threads together. But he isn’t done yet because the audience doesn’t have anything to act on. So here’s what he leaves them with:

We would be so grateful for your help as we transform the criminal justice system into a correctional environment. Our current need for major gifts starts at ten thousand dollars. Rob circles back to Safer Foundation’s mission—transforming the criminal justice system and the lives of those who leave it. And those concluding sentences directly tell the audience what Rob needs from them.

How to Take Your Story to the Next Level

During the Leadership Story Lab training, Rob volunteered to share his revised version orally with the larger group. The larger group then gave him feedback. It was that feedback, says Rob, that helped him improve and refine the story.

“Following the training, I truly believe that it is nearly impossible to write a good story without feedback…. Through feedback provided in the Story Lab seminar from fellow attendees and facilitators, I was able to improve my story. Their feedback guided all of the amendments I made to my story.” Now Rob plans to take the story from an anecdote told casually to friends, family and colleagues to “a tool for motivating my work colleagues and engaging donors.”

That tool has now been honed by giving the story the proper setup, hook, and the concrete takeaway that makes the audience ready to act on what Rob has requested.

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Esther’s book, Let the Story Do the Work (published by HarperCollins Leadership), is now available!

Esther Choy

Esther Choy founded Leadership Story Lab in 2010 to help others leverage the art of storytelling to create extraordinary opportunities.
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