A visit to New York City’s Tenement Museum reveals powerful strategies for telling an authentic, engaging fundraising story… or any story.
By Lauren Brownstein
Over spring break, my daughter and I visited the Tenement Museum in New York City’s Lower East Side. This inventive museum, housed in a tenement apartment building that housed more than 7,000 working class immigrants over many decades, tells the story of America’s urban immigrant experience through the lives of real-life immigrants who lived there. It was a fantastic, memorable experience. We “met” Victoria Confino, a 14 year old Greek Jewish immigrant, in her apartment as she was getting ready for Shabbat. She told us about her family, her work, her home life, her friends, and her candid thoughts about life in the United States.
(Some of you may have seen the hilarious Saturday Night Live spoof of the Tenement Museum, which happened to air the night after our visit. In addition to Louis CK’s horrible Polish accent, the racist remarks of the costumed interpreters and the fact that the interpreters were reciting from a script were complete 180 degree turns from mine and my daughter’s experience! To the Tenement Museum’s credit, they sent out an e-newsletter that playfully highlighted the skit, and they even Tweeted Louis CK to offer to help him with his accent. Way to roll with it, Tenement Museum!)
Our experience of the museum was a highlight of our New York City trip, and it continues to stay with me. What made this experience so memorable, and how can these elements be applied to nonprofit fundraising?
It was a conversation, not a speech: Our interpreter did not have a prepared speech. The experience was constructed as a conversation between her and the visitors, who were introduced as “fresh off the boat” immigrants. Yes, I’m sure the actress who was portraying Victoria had memorized answers to certain expected questions. But she had no way of knowing what we would ask and in what order we would ask it. She had to study her character extensively and then be prepared to react and interact in the moment. This made the experience feel fresh and real, and it kept us (the visitors) on our toes. We were alert and engaged because we weren’t just watching the experience. We were part of the experience.
It was immersive: Victoria did not walk into a modern conference room and start talking to us. We visited her small, cramped apartment. We sat in her chairs and on her bed. We felt her mother’s hat and smelled the spices she used for cooking. We were in her space, surrounded by the multisensory experience.
It was authentic: Victoria Confino was a real person. We knew that before we met her, and our museum educator followed up our conversation with Victoria by telling us more about her later life.
The visitors drove much of the experience: The visitors, a group of approximately a dozen tourists, got to make decisions in advance about how this would unfold. We were given a choice: Would you rather be Jewish Russian immigrants, or Italian immigrants? What questions would you like to ask Victoria when you meet her? Once we met Victoria, she answered the questions we asked her. If we were silent, she was silent. If we were animated and excited, so was she. The visit wasn’t happening to us; it was happening with us.
Even though Victoria was portrayed by an actress, the experience felt authentic and real. When you are sharing your nonprofit organization’s story with a potential donor, you can find ways to make the experience real for them, too:
- If feasible, invite them into your space, to experience your work first-hand and meet some of your clients.
- In face-to-face solicitations, mailings, e-newsletters, etc., tell stories of real people (you can change details to preserve privacy, as needed, but you can still talk about real people).
- Engage the senses: can sounds, sights, or other sensory elements be integrated into your interactions? Can potential donors have a physical experience of your mission and work?
- Prepare, prepare, prepare: This experience worked because the actress who was portraying Victoria really knew her stuff. If she hadn’t prepared extensively, she couldn’t have interacted with us without a script.
- Go off script, or better yet, ditch the script: Sure, most people have a set of talking points that describe the organization’s work, mission, and clients. The people with whom you are meeting will have a more immediate, engaged experience if you can let go of your script and just have a conversation.
- Let the potential donor drive part of the experience: Can the potential donor (whether in person or online) ask questions or make choices about how their experience will unfold? Giving them a sense of control and responsibility helps them feel that you are in the experience with them, instead of feeling that something is happening to them.
Keep it real, let the potential donor have some control and some choices, and make your cultivation and solicitation activities a shared, mutual experience. It might seem a little scarier than just sticking to a canned script, but I promise it will be worth it!
Lauren Brownstein has been supporting nonprofits and elevating philanthropy for 25 years as a fundraiser, educator, program manager, and philanthropic consultant. Want to make your fundraising writing more creative, engaging, and memorable? More of Lauren’s tips and ideas on creative, engaging fundraising can be found HERE.