Stories are history
’Tis the season for cultivating prospects.
Advancement teams are strategizing new-and-improved ways to close the calendar year strong. Consultants are posting advice on LinkedIn.
And though I am just a pee-wee-league supporter of a handful of causes, my inbox will soon be stuffed with solicitations.
Because I’m a storyteller, I will read them all.
Good stories are key to raising money. The cold open. The warm-and-fuzzy close. Stories need to be great out of the gate—and leave us wanting for more.
Stories need to show transformative impact on a kid or a community. Yet somehow avoid “tragedy porn.” In other words, we storytellers need to deliver authentic drama, but resist the urge to exploit.
I’ve worked for several university presidents who have struggled to find true and meaningful stories to share. Before public events—or before important face-to-face meetings—I’d hear the echo of footsteps coming from down the hall.
And then, the familiar refrain: We need more (or better or different) stories.
Why do leaders struggle so much for material that resonates and inspires and allows them to deeply connect with their institutions?
Why are they forced to speak in clichés and generalities, especially when they aim to differentiate their university’s legacy and make a great case for multi-generational giving?
Advancement success is measured in dollars, not in clever turns of phrase. Universities know they have to spend money to raise money. They open satellite offices and spend big on lavish events. But rarely do they invest in a sophisticated and ongoing process to record the stories of donors who have transformed them.
Negative news bias. According to the Pew Research Foundation, readership drops when media organizations increase their coverage of good news. Subconsciously (or consciously) that logic may discourage universities from investing in telling their best stories of generosity and impact. But readership isn’t the point. Those stories are critical to institutional knowledge, to stewardship and to future financial health.
Announcement scramble burn out. When a major gift comes in, it’s all hands on deck. After the press release, the announcement event and the media pitch, there’s the web story, the social media push, and a few months later, the conundrum of how to cover an already-told story in the print magazine. No wonder we neglect the really important follow-up story a year or two later—or a decade later—when the impact of the gift is clearer and the donor is feeling underappreciated.
But there’s a relatively easy fix.
Figures vary, but universities typically spend 1.5–6.0 percent of their annual operating budget on marketing. And as much as 17% (or maybe more) on fundraising.
Why not redirect a small percentage of resources—preferably from the advancement side of the house, where the relationships with donors and ROI are managed—to the kind of storytelling that honors the past and helps fund the future?
The paradigm is well established for contracting (vs. hiring) feasibility strategists and content creators for their wisdom and their ability to focus wholeheartedly on the important work.
According to this story at Inside Higher Ed, 20 percent of senior fund-raisers plan to retire in the next four years. It’s important, of course, to create a diverse pipeline of future professionals, but we also should plan ahead for capturing the institutional knowledge that will be lost.
Every university should have a sustainable strategy for telling stories about the generous families that help build them.
Raising money will always be advancement’s top priority; but information is power. Without meaningful documentation about the legacy of transformative gifts, every university will look alike.
Every donor will feel overshadowed by the latest, greatest, shiniest gift.
And every leader—regardless of his or her intelligence or charisma or drive—will struggle.