Technology and Storytelling

Technology and Storytelling: Seeking Support With Multiple Channels
by Richard McPherson

The power of a good story is widely understood in philanthropy and fundraising, whether it is the effect of a disease, the transforming impact of education or the struggle of wildlife. Fundraisers also recognize that the most powerful storytelling occurs when one person talks passionately, face to face, with another. Charities have long attempted to transfer the authenticity and power of personal communicating to other means, notably direct mail, phone calls and e-mail. Thanks to a talented and restless technology sector, the creation of new tools continues through YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Google and many more, and charities are challenged to tell their stories in many new settings. In terms of fundraising performance, the results are decidedly mixed or at the very least difficult to measure.

Charities often chalk up the difficulty of using unfamiliar media tools to a lack of staff skills, a shortage of resources or the false comfort of the notion that “not everyone uses all these things.” But there may well be a different reason for charities’ struggle to use multiple media: a simple lack of understanding of the distinct ways in which each “channel” serves the storytelling process. Even dubbing such diverse communication vehicles “channels” suggests they merely provide more ways to distribute passive content to eager recipients, in some way distant cousins of cable television. Certainly it is handy short-hand, but with mounting data available from using these various media, the nonprofit sector can begin to think more productively about them.

How “channels” are used, how they are useful

What is the actual function of each channel in the overall process of cultivating and seeking a contribution? And what role should fundraisers play to tell their organization’s story?

  • Personal meetings for face-to-face solicitations are carefully considered by donors and carefully planned by charities. At their best, they function as a way for volunteers to tell their story to peers, e.g., why they give, how they are fulfilled, what impresses them about the charity, etc. The ultimate goal is a significant, personal commitment. Successful fundraisers in this setting must think like matchmakers.
  • A direct mail piece is scanned and put aside for later consideration. It tells the story of the charity at work meeting a need, usually in specifics. Its goal is to generate immediate help for the organization. Note this is different from a deep personal commitment, which is rarely made by mail. In this setting fundraisers must think like investigative journalists or short story writers.
  • An e-mail is rated almost instantly against the tide of messages flooding BlackBerries, laptops and desktops. It helps people choose the part of the story that interests them, to be a quick guide to the most relevant or newsy elements of a website. E-mail serves one purpose to the donor: it must answer the question, “What do I want to do next with this charity?” The goal of e-mail is to spark a concrete action that builds the relationship. This action may include giving a gift, but more often does not. It is more likely the action taken is a visit to the website to do something specific, even if that means viewing new photos or an event calendar. Successful fundraisers using e-mail must think like community organizers.
  • A website visit has a vital, often misunderstood function: to allow a supporter to become part of the story. A successful charity website makes the donor feel like the proverbial kid in a candy store, faced with an inviting array of ways to be involved. The website tells the charity’s entire story, but tells it from many different perspectives. It allows the donor to enter the story however they prefer: to learn why the group was founded, to sample the actual work of the organization, to examine measurable impact or financial stability, to see who is involved, etc. The goal when a prospect visits a website is to gather information for contacting the visitor and obtain permission to use it for further communication. The goal when a donor visits a website is to produce an action that reaffirms commitment and advances an organizational goal, whether the goal is education around an issue, igniting advocacy, creating awareness of an event, or yes, generating an actual contribution. Why is contributing listed last here? Because the gratifying rise in online giving should not obscure the fact that donors, especially the most ardent, visit their charities’ websites far more frequently than they give a gift. Thus the function of a website is to maintain high interest in the charity through timely stories and frequent opportunities for involvement. Using the web, successful fundraisers must think like sherpas, friendly guides with complete local knowledge of terrain that may be unfamiliar, even to those who have visited before.
  • Video in the age of YouTube has a single, overriding function: to make your story irresistible, so memorable that people want to share it. The story told by a successful YouTube clip is always one of impact. The goal of your YouTube channel or website video is to incite your donors to pass along your story. The most widely acclaimed charity videos command our respect not because they were skillfully produced, but because they were shared and seen by thousands of potential news supporters. It is their broad reach we seek to repeat – and it is the power of their storytelling that creates their reach. Nonprofits often race to post video, mistakenly thinking this will give their organization currency. But the world is not demanding more video – it is demanding more compelling video. In the same way charities would not send unconvincing volunteers to ask for million-dollar gifts, they dare not post sterile, dull video destined to be compared to genuinely powerful content. In this case, fundraisers must think like producers of movie trailers.

Increasing public support through all these channels, though, depends most of all on a single strategy: experimenting. Just as direct mail and phone fundraisers conduct testing, just as boards send different volunteers to seek big gifts, organizations are called to experiment with every new medium and setting. When the experimenting responds to the changing media habits of donors, it will produce the fundraising results so urgently needed by charities.

Richard McPherson pioneered fundraising campaigns in both the civil rights and conservation movements, and served with Earthwatch before founding Philadelphia-based McPherson Associates Inc. The agency represents leading PBS and NPR stations, higher education institutions, conservation organizations, women’s health and advocacy groups, and international organizations. Long known for innovation with traditional media, Mr. McPherson has emerged as a leader among Internet strategists and is the author of the acclaimed book Digital Giving: How Technology is Changing Charity (2007, iUniverse, A Barnes & Noble Company). Mr. McPherson is on the faculty of New York University’s Heyman Center for Philanthropy and Fundraising.

Thanks to SOFII: showcase of fundraising innovation and inspiration for bringing this article to our attention.