The Art of Story-Telling: The Journey From Fear to Bold Asking™ (Part 3)

Susan reading a story to her grandson, Walker. 

Susan reading a story to her grandson, Walker. 

(Part 3 in an 8-part series of topics to contemplate.  Designed for boards, CEOs and advancement staff) 

Southerners are great story tellers. 

Now, that’s not to say that others are not.  But, I’ve found that southerners who know how to tell a really good story have an almost innate ability to draw people in and move them.  They weave a web with strong personal connection, oftentimes including family and community, and then add a touch of intrigue and suspense, and almost always inject a little, sometimes, wry humor.  As someone who moved to the south as an adult, I marveled at the affects of storytelling.   Of course, we’ve all known the great southern story-tellers from Faulkner to Tennessee Williams to Twain, Harper Lee and Margaret Mitchell, to name just a few, along with the more recent writer-historian Jon Meacham and my neighbor, Ann Patchett.  They are the giants.

But, we don’t have to be literary giants to tell a good, authentic story that connects people to our cause, our hopes and our visions.

“Stories provide a framework for meaning. Tell me a good story and it will take up residence in my heart and perhaps my mind. Tell me data and I’ll likely forget them.”

In philanthropy, we need to be able to tell powerful stories.  No matter your role; whether you are a board member, a CEO or advancement officer, stories are essential to your craft.   It is through stories of humanity that we connect to the heart and the emotion.  This is the great tool of philanthropy. Remember, first and foremost, philanthropy is about emotion.  Yes, impact data will augment and support the case.  Absolutely, it has an essential role! And, project data will provide important benchmarks for significant transformational gifts.  (What are we going to achieve, by when and who is responsible.) But, data rarely opens the heart and connects.  As my longtime associate, Jon Kent, likes to say, “Speak to the heart and the mind will follow.”

“You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone’s soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows that they might do because of it, because of your words. That is your role, your gift.”

— Erin Morgenstern, The Night Circus

Throughout my career, I’ve heard board members and sometimes even from CEOs confess that they don’t feel comfortable asking for a gift.  There are many fears and concerns associated with asking for a major gift.  I encourage you to read the other blogs in this series.  Story-telling is one of the best and most persuasive ways to move beyond fear and become a partner in the process of creating transformational gifts.

There are many ways to create stories.  Perhaps they are your own.  Or, perhaps they are your constituents’ stories that you share. Better yet, they may be a combination of the two that in turn create community, connection and increase impact. 

Years ago, I had the privilege of working with the family that provided a very significant ten-figure gift that named the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.  This gift launched the “Imagine a World Without Cancer Campaign”. Orrin Ingram always began his campaign talk with a very personal story about his father’s battle with cancer.  But, the story did not end with his family’s experience.  Instead, he included others and their fight.  He ended with a statement about his strong belief in the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center to provide excellent care, make discoveries and deliver on the family’s philanthropic investment.  He closed with, “Cancer is too big for one family to solve.”

“The purpose of a storyteller is not to tell you how to think, but to give you questions to think upon.”

— Brandon Sanderson, The Way of Kings

He didn’t have to ask for a penny. 

The message was clear. The proposals came later, presented by the Cancer Center director or the development officers, teaming up with Orrin or a doctor.  The proposals included the technical information; the data, the ways to make a gift, and any benchmarks. We well exceeded our campaign goal.

More recently, a client had another transformative experience with story-telling.  During an interview for a campaign video, one of organization’s new friends told the story about how deeply meaningful the organization was to him and the community.   His testimony was poignant.  Shortly after the video’s premier, he made a first-time, seven figure gift to the organization.  I wonder, did telling his story influence his gift?  I suspect so. The information about his gift was quietly shared with board members. 

Soon afterwards, at the conclusion of a retreat, another board member shared a very personal story from the heart about the care his family had received from this organization.  He shared the impact the institution had had on their family’s life, and then he talked about how he had been influenced by the recent gift announcement.  He announced that he too was making a similar gift and why.  I watched as other board members were deeply moved with happiness and gratitude, some with tears in their eyes.  He didn’t ask for a penny.  He simply told his story.

Not long after the retreat, a family was invited to attend a board meeting to share some personal news and the way the organization was caring for their child.  The CEO was concerned that the story might be too personal, but quite the opposite.  Philanthropy is personal. 

Since then, another board member has come forward with a significant gift intention and is passionately joining the development director on calls to share stories and experiences.  These events, these deeply personal stories, are taking this organization to a new tipping point, creating even stronger community and meaning.

Some people are naturals at story-telling.  Others need encouragement.  When told from the heart, we rarely go wrong, although there are a few tips that are useful.  You can help your team become better story-tellers.

Of course, remember we have various media that can be employed, from personal story-telling and testimony, to video and multi-media to written pieces. 

The following exercise has been designed to help your team create their best authentic stories.  Doubtless, they will vary depending on the perspectives and your roles.  I encourage you to participate in the exercise in a forum when you can share your results and together begin to develop tools in your toolkit from fear to bold asking.  Remember, you are partners in this journey together!

Toolkit III:  The Art of Story-Telling  -  Tips for Board Members, CEOs and Advancement Staff

Invite all of the philanthropy team, including the CEO and executive team, board members and advancement staff, at an appropriate time, to participate in this exercise.  The questions can easily be divided and posed at various times over the course of staff meetings, retreats or other gatherings.  First, look over the exercise in Toolkit II.  These will be helpful as you answer the following questions:

1. Think about the most powerful story you’ve heard or read.  Did you feel moved by the story?  Most certainly, you did.  Describe what moved you in the story; what you liked about it.  Hint:  it could simply be the message.  It might also be the delivery; was it bold or simply humble?  Perhaps it was a call to action.   Write these points down.  Of course, for many, a famous moving story is likely to be Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” story.  You may want to read about the history of this story.  Dr. King received a lot of encouragement in its delivery.    

I’m reminded of an event years ago. A patient told her story about her experiences, many of them very profound, in a research hospital. The details of every x-ray did not add to the story. Much to our dismay, 45 minutes later many in the audience were moved to tears by our guest. But, the most poignant parts of her story were nearly lost. Fortunately, the audience fell in love with our endearing guest otherwise most would have left.

2. Now, think about the stories you read or were read to you as a child.  How did they make you feel?  Was there a comfort in these stories and how they resolved?  Undoubtedly there was some intrigue and great imagination thrown in.  Write down four or five things that you liked most about your favorite childhood stories.  One of my favorite activities as a grandparent is ready to my grandson at bedtime.  No matter what the story, it just feels good, in large part because of the intimacy of the time together.  It also gives us a great time to explore what's on his mind.

3. Now, create one personal story about your unique experience with the organization.  Perhaps it is your own story.  Or, perhaps, it may be someone else’s story that you share.  The story may be a very long one.  If that’s the case, identify one or two of the most poignant and significant experiences that had a profound impact on you and others.  Make sure you share the passion you have for the organization in your story.  Remember, the old adage, “less is more”.  You will likely have to hone your story. Think about your answers to questions 1 and 2 and apply them to your own story.

4. In the next blog, Active Listening, we’ll talk about the importance of listening and asking the right questions. Remember, personal stories shouldn’t suck all the air out of the room. And, don’t bury the lead! It is just as important to allow time for questions and listening, especially in intimate settings.  I was especially guilty of this as a young development officer, eager to share my organization’s stories.  But, frequently, it left little time for learning about the other. 

5. Practice, practice, practice your story with trusted friends or associates.  Get their feedback.  And, include questions that draws in your audience and provide a platform for dialogue and learning!  This is grist for the mill!

Next, Part 4:  Actively Listening – Asking the right questions

For more information about Bold Asking™ workshops, please contact

About the author:  Susan Holt is the founder and president of Vision Philanthropy Group, a full-service philanthropy and fundraising communications consulting firm specializing in health care, biomedical sciences and education philanthropy.  Susan has partnered with others in creating gifts ranging from $1M to $250M and has been the architect of multi-million and billion+ campaigns. VPG is based in Nashville, TN. 

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