Has storytelling come of age in Arts Fundraising?

12 June 2017 | By Cause4 staff

The Arts Fundraising & Philanthropy programme has worked over the last four years to transform fundraising by developing innovative and efficient solutions for cultural fundraisers’ needs. Underpinning our work has been a commitment to providing quality affordable professional development and training to help support individuals and organisations develop their capacity to generate more income.

Every year, we see emerging trends in fundraising and 2017 is not proving to be any different. Some of the successful approaches taken to expand organisations’ supporter bases have been achieved by fundraisers embracing new technology. Many have seen their donor base diversify and grow by putting time, effort and investment into crowdfunding, Facebook campaigns or refreshing their membership giving schemes.

With seemingly limitless options for reaching new donors – whether hosting an event, sending a tweet, posting a video, scheduling an email campaign...the list is endless, new techniques are emerging and developing all the time. However, at the same time, internal resources are either limited or being reduced. So in order to be most effective it’s well worth going back to basics and considering not just what we do, but why we do it. As Simon Sinek’s famous TED talk some years ago clearly articulated ‘People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.... the goal is to do business with people who believe what you believe’.

Fundraisers cultivate, develop and grow relationships with current and prospective supporters in all manner of ways. But what sits at the heart of any ask should be a good story. Across the cultural sector there are many excellent communicators, it’s in our genes! So why should we use storytelling in fundraising? When we tell a story to someone, we reach parts of the brain that aren’t reached by facts – that’s because we use emotional shorthand to get a message across. Stories are easy to absorb, recall and remember. In a few sentences we can communicate and cut through barriers to understanding - and it’s that emotional connection to a story that makes people care.

At the end of the day people won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel” Maya Angelou

Passion, creativity and confidence are skills the sector already has in abundance, being able to craft good stories that will attract new donors and keep current ones engaged is something we all aspire to. Fundraising exists in order to solve a problem but the cultural sector is not always as good at using its cultural assets in this way. You only have to look at the success of crowdfunding to see that this is built on the principle of people wanting to personally connect, give directly and not go through an organisation. We can also learn much from the wider charitable sector which offers creative and compelling stories about their needs and the impact support has had on beneficiaries. World Bicycle Relief is a global charity that effectively uses simple, motivating messages and tells stories about those whose lives have been helped in inspirational ways.

A poll last year by creative agency Aesop rated UK brands against storytelling elements including: being authentic, having a vision or mission, having an opinion, being memorable or evoking an emotional response. The National Trust was 5th with Macmillan and Help for Heroes ranked 8th and 9th respectively. These are charities that have really honed the art of storytelling. They also make a concerted effort to create sharable content that can make a story go viral, while keeping donors involved year-round with personalised messages and updates.

So will 2017 be the year that storytelling works for you? Make your fundraising ‘ask’ come alive by turning facts into stories and post these on your website, in newsletters and on social media. Take your reader on a journey. Your story is an emotional contract, so what does it require to turn reader into donor and to ensure a happy ending? Most importantly, ensure that any prospective giver knows how a gift will help deliver the solution, which tells them not just what you do, but why you do it.

In summary

  • Get out of the office, see the beneficial outcomes of what your organisation achieves for yourself.
  • Talk regularly with your programming, marketing and education colleagues about the impact of your organisation’s work to understand not just what you do but why you do it.
  • Have a genuine story to tell, with a good character you can talk about; the person/s your supporter base would be most interested in.

The Arts Fundraising & Philanthropy programme inspires, trains and develops people at all levels, helping to enhance fundraising practice and achieve a networked, skilled and resilient arts and cultural workforce. See our current training programme at www.artsfundraising.org.uk Follow us for regular updates @artsfundraising

Pamela Johnson, Head of Programme, Arts Fundraising & Philanthropy @pfrodo


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"The course was informative, enjoyable, covering plenty of ground in just one day without feeling rushed at all. It came at a crucial time in our planning and thinking as a development team and was a very welcome pause for thought. Michelle was a brilliant facilitator and it was a real benefit to hear about her experiences across the sector."

Jane Reynolds, Development Manager, Manchester International Festival

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