Think carefully and creatively about who tells your story. An unexpected choice could make the world of difference, as Leah Eustache explains.
This article was first published 30 May, 2018
I’m amazed at the number of organisations I talk to who only send out appeals signed by the leaders of their organisations. And, when I question why they’re doing it that way, they’re not sure. They’ve always done it that way, so they continue to do it that way.
Often they haven’t thought through whether their organisation’s leader is the right signatory for the appeal. Sometimes the leader is the right person, but often the story you want to tell is more powerful coming from someone else.
If you’re sending out a letter or email asking loyal donors to consider leaving a bequest, does it make sense for the letter to be signed by an executive director who hasn’t left a gift in her will? Probably not. Perhaps the story should come from a fellow loyal donor who has already made the commitment to leave a bequest.
They can talk about why they are passionate about the cause, what led them to make a bequest decision, and what they hope their gift will accomplish.
Here’s an example from a veterinary school:
“Many of us have been blessed to have a special pet in our lives. For me, it was a little black and white terrier that I named Whisky.
It wasn’t long after the death of my husband, Cory, and I was visiting a friend. In the backyard next door there was a little dog crying and howling. I started talking to him, trying to soothe him. The neighbours came out to see what I was up to and next thing I knew I was heading home with a puppy, a leash and little dog boots.
He was so special to me. He was the most adorable little thing and he followed me around like a shadow. He gave me such comfort and companionship. It’s in his memory, and my belief that all companion animals should have the best of care, that I left a gift in my will to the University of Guelph’s Ontario Veterinary College. Let me tell you a little about how that came to be…”
This appeal is signed by a fellow donor. She’s relatable, a big pet lover (as are all the donors to the school) and she focuses her story on why she’s made a gift in her will rather than how she’s done it.
Are you trying to raise money to purchase medical equipment? The best signatory might be your executive director, or maybe the patient whose prognosis improves because of the latest medical technology. A patient like Anna:
“I knew the news was going to be bad when my doctor’s personal cell phone number showed up on my caller ID. After all, how often do you get a call directly from your doctor rather than their office? ‘Anna, you have breast cancer.’
Things were blurry for me for a few minutes. I guess I was in shock. I remember that my first thought was, ‘I’m only 25 years old. You’re not supposed to get breast cancer when you’re 25.’
That was two years ago and I’m happy to tell you that I’m doing well. But, if it hadn’t been for the support, encouragement and knowledge of the doctors at Niagara Health, my story might have been very different.”
And remember, there are many different ways of telling your organistion’s story. Have you gathered and told the story of the founding of your organisation? It was no doubt founded from a place of deep personal passion. If you can’t track down your founder, track down a descendant of your founder. Or talk to the person who has been around the longest and ask them to tell you about the history of your organisation. Ask that person to sign the appeal.
What are your impact stories (sometimes the most powerful stories of all)? Talk to beneficiaries about the difference your organisation has made in their lives. Talk to the researcher who can help you connect donor dollars to a breakthrough medical treatment. Tell their stories and get these people to sign your appeals.
Some organisations have legitimate challenges in telling their stories. Perhaps you work at a shelter for women fleeing domestic violence, or an organisation dealing with young children, or for a cause that is one step removed from having people as beneficiaries (for example, an environmental group or a group focused on restoring an old library).
In these situations, you can get creative. If you’re with a mental health crisis line, tell the story from the perspective of a telephone. What did the telephone hear today? How did a young person get help on the phone?
A women’s shelter here in Canada has had amazing success in attracting new donors by sending out an appeal letter signed by the dining room table. The table is the first place that newcomers to the shelter go. The other women gather around the table and provide friendship and support. The table sees laughter and tears, pride and joy.
“When a woman walks into Interval House for the first time, she’s surprised to hear so much laughter, especially coming from the kitchen.
I can understand that. She probably can’t remember the last time she felt like laughing. All her hopes and dreams for her marriage – for her life – have come crashing down around her like a broken mirror.
Pull up a chair next to me and you’ll hear the stories that I hear – they will shatter your heart into a million pieces, too.”
Powerful stuff, and a perspective that the donor has likely never heard before.
Are you with a healthcare charity? Could you tell the story of a pacemaker or a stretcher?
Are you in fact restoring an old library? I bet the front door has an amazing story to tell about the people who have walked through the doors to borrow a book.
Once you match the story you want to tell to the signatory who can best tell it, you will find that you can raise more money and better engage your donors.
Leah is the President of Blue Canoe Philanthropy, a boutique consulting agency located in Canada. Leah focuses on cases for support, direct marketing, legacy giving, strategic planning, program audits and is an internationally renowned speaker. You can find Leah at yourbluecanoe.ca.