Why Better Storytelling Won’t Lead to Larger Gifts

Leaders of institutions often share with me the following general frustration about communicating with donors and prospects:

“We don’t tell our story well!”

When probed, one (or more) of three underlying concerns almost always surfaces:

  • A need to articulate more clearly, concisely, and authentically the positive “facts” of how the institution impacts students, patients, the community, etc.;
  • A sense that the integration of “our message” is not embraced by all parts of the institution, and;
  • A perception that the “stories” told to donors are not the most compelling that could be told.

In general, the idea is that if the institution could share with donors a more integrated, compelling, and concise story, those donors would be moved to make larger and more gifts.

Here’s the problem:  Each of these concerns is internally focused on what and how the institution should message donors and prospects.  Each comes from a misguided belief that our job as development professionals is to “tell and sell” to our donors and prospects.  Each pays little attention to the reality that communication is a two-way process and that our donors and prospects are not empty vessels waiting to be filled up with our messages!

So, when leaders say, “we don’t tell our story well,” they are missing a much bigger, more important reality.  Telling  our institution’s story isn’t nearly as important as allowing our donors to tell us theirs.

And becoming more expert at storytelling isn’t as important as becoming more expert at what I call “story-listening.”  Asking thoughtful questions that evoke stories from our donors and then listening actively to what and how they communicate with us.  We learn a great deal when we “story-listen,” — about their values, their history, their successes, their dreams for their philanthropy, even their vision for our institution.

Everyone agrees that donor engagement is a key to receiving a commitment.  But donor engagement doesn’t occur because we tell them what we want them to know.  Instead, donor engagement occurs when they tell us what we want them to know. My counsel is that a donor is ready to make a meaningful gift when she says to me, “Jason, we need that new science building!”

Better storytelling doesn’t get us to that point.  Better story-listening does.



  1. Great post, Jason, thank you. You talk about “story listening” and “story questioning.” I use “storysharing” – sharing a story so as to elicit a story in your listener/reader/viewer. It is difficult to shift the practice. Truly listening means we may hear things we don’t want to hear; things on which we must take action; and we must suffer the cognitive load of having to suppress our thoughts. A couple of years ago, I too got annoyed at the focus on pedantic “storytelling” and wrote Storytelling is Only Half the Story, which you can find on the Tools page of my web site.

    Thanks again, and nice to learn about you and your work!

  2. Hi Steve: Thanks for the comment. Story-listening is a powerful approach to engagement. But it isn’t easy. It’s not easy for two reasons: First, it calls on us to think a bit differently about our work (i.e., not telling and selling). Second, it can be time-consuming, thus requiring patience and financial investment in order to reap rewards.

    I’ll give three examples of how to put this into action: First (and the most understandable application) is in face-to-face cultivation and solicitation of donors. We must re-think our understanding of our work in these settings and work to better understand what really drives our mostly-major donor prospects to give.

    Second, in print pieces or direct mail, we should print stories about “why” our institution does what it does. Instead we mostly highlight “what” our institution does. This distinction is huge because it speaks to the values of our institution, what we believe. People are moved to give primarily when they believe what we believe. In order to write these stories, we have to first understand what our donors believe.

    Finally, for a web presence, integrating clips of interviews with donors who are talking about their beliefs and values (that are the same as your institutions). This gets a 3rd party endorser to validate what you would really need others to know about your institution. Again, “why” trumps “what.”

    We spend far too much time telling people “our story.” And this is typically “what” we do. Instead work to get deeper than that and communicate “why” we do what we do – what we believe. In order to make that kind of communication happen effectively, we must better understand what our donors believe.

    Good luck!

  3. This is very thought-provoking. I’d love to see examples of how you put this in action.

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