What do we REALLY get when we give to a good cause?

Recently, Seth Godin blogged on the subject of giving.  His entry entitled, “What do we get when we give to a good cause?” was a bit off base from my perch.  His answer to this important question was simply, “A story.”  He said,

“In fact, every time someone donates to a good cause, they’re buying a story, a story that’s worth more than the amount they donated.”

Well, kinda.

Unfortunately, Seth’s “story” answer encourages advancement officers to focus on “story-telling.”  Even seasoned advancement officers can get confused about the fundamental nature of our work and lament the fact that they don’t have enough data about that program, or enough information about this initiative, or enough collateral materials to tell “the story” effectively.  All because they have bought into the notion that their primary responsibility is to tell “the story.”

But our first job isn’t about telling a story.  It’s about listening for a story.  The donor’s story.   Our first job is about asking thoughtful questions and listening to the people who care about our work.  It’s about better understanding them, their values, their passions, and their interests.  And, then, secondarily, our job is to educate them on how our mission and work aligns, supports, and affirms those values, passions, and interests.  Of course, we may educate them using stories, but not always.  Sometimes we educate by providing them with an experience – engaging them personally in the work itself as a volunteer, for instance.  In fact, I would argue that providing an experience for our donors and prospects is a much more effective pathway to activate their generosity than is simply telling them a story, no matter how compelling.

Additionally, it is clear today that donors get much in return for their giving besides a story.  Research has shown that giving is linked to better physical, psychological, and emotional health, a more positive attitude, and even living a longer, more satisfying life.  Giving, it is becoming clear, is a hard-wired attribute of healthy human living and we dismiss it at our own peril.

Hank Rosso, founder of The Fundraising School now a part of the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University, is quoted as saying, “Fundraising is the gentle art of teaching the joy of giving.”

Advancement professionals are teachers.  We are teachers of one of the most important lessons in life – that it really is better to give than to receive.  And, like any good teachers, we must begin not by telling stories, but by understanding our students.  Only then can we teach effectively.

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