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.