Narrative Philanthropy II: Checking the Pulse

Checking the Pulse: Alive, Well and Growing in Leaps and Bounds

By Norma Cameron, CFRE

It all started over a wonderful lunch with a good friend in a trendy Italian restaurant on Robson Street, downtownVancouver on a warm spring day in 2004.  We’d lived on opposite ends of the country for years, so there was a lot of catching up to do. I was in the midst of explaining to her this balancing act of what I was doing with one foot in the gift planning field and the other in the storytelling performance world.  She stopped me, mid-stream, and said, “You simply can’t be two people, you can only be one”.

Now, my friend is very influential, centred and calming and her wisdom climbed up onto my shoulder, dug itself in and wouldn’t go away. I guess there was a certain element of storytelling that had already crept into my work simply by osmosis, but from that point forward my storytelling and fundraising worlds were allowed to collide.  I started incorporating story listening, gathering and telling into all my gift planning activities and to my great relief it met with great success with prospects and donors.  Then, when I first read the term, Narrative Philanthropy in a Planned Giving Today article by Jim Grote, I felt even more validated and grew more and more comfortable in pursuing this even further. 

When 2006 rolled around, I was busy teaching storytelling skills of listening, gathering and telling in the gift planning arena. I developed various templates for gathering stories along with interview techniques designed to assist gift planning officers build stronger relationships with donors.  As I continued to work with a growing number of groups I realized that stories had a wider role to play in achieving a more integrated approach to fundraising.  I think everyone would agree that adopting a narrative approach to relationship building is beneficial regardless of the specific area of fundraising.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve been presenting to even more diverse groups comprising gift planning and fundraising professionals, non profit and public sector communications and marketing teams, teacher-librarians, seniors, lawyers and professional advisors in Canada and most recently in the UK.  Plus, I’ve been diving into applied storytelling to widen my knowledge base. 

For instance, I attended a ten week course (one afternoon a week) as a participant in a Guided Autobiography course held at a local seniors home, led by James Thornton, associate professor emeritus at UBC.  There were over 30 participants and the average age was mid-80s.  Based on the work of James Birren, associate director at the UCLA Center on Aging, over his 25 years of conducting autobiography groups, it provides a framework of ten major themes in building a tapestry of your life’s story. 

Each week everyone had to be prepared to read what they’d written for a minimum of ten minutes – so based on an oral culture – and there was no need to hand in written work at any time.  This was a great relief for those who lacked confidence in grammar or punctuation, and freed them up to simply share, and often in the sharing; memories long since forgotten were triggered.  If you’re interested in this type of work, I’d recommend Birren’s book:  Telling the Stories of Life through Guided Autobiography Groups.   From a practical perspective it has truly enriched my ability to work with older people in creating their legacies. 

I also freed up some time to dive back into storytelling in schools (nothing like children to keep you honest), and during the last week in January of this year, I had the pleasure of presenting 27 storytelling sessions to elementary school children on Vancouver Island.  This was part of a combined celebration of Family Literacy Week, Chinese New Year and of course, Robert Burns’ 250th Anniversary.  What was both surprising and a wee bit sad was for most of the students I was the first person they had heard telling stories “from their mouth” and not from a book.  This provided a wonderful opportunity to engage their little storytelling souls in what Sir Ken Robinson describe in his latest book, The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything as “applied imagination”. 

The reason I continue to take time out to tell stories to a variety of audiences is partly Ken Robinson’s fault.  I think that to be successful in fundraising in today’s ever-changing, increasingly-competitive climate, it’s vital that fundraisers enhance their creative skills. As Robinson puts it,  “To develop our creative abilities, we also need to develop our practical skills in the media we want to use….Being creative is about making fresh connections so that we see things in new ways and from different perspectives.” (Robinson, The Element, p. 76-7).

So what has all this to do with fundraising? Well, the one constant is the amazing and magical response, across age groups, professions, and sectors to the power of story. I don’t think we’ve finished mining this rich vein; there’s still more to learn that will help us improve our relationship building with donors and ultimately our fundraising revenues.

Plus, I’ll admit, I’m having lots of fun (and depleting my bank account – which is very difficult as a Scot) as I continue to devote more time to refining how to apply narrative to assist non-profit organizations.  The most recent focus is how to incorporate the power of story across an organization’s strategic communications plan – all the way from a richer understanding or our target groups, to the development of key messaging and also the best possible customized mediums and tactics.  It’s a vast and magical area for research and as someone who has worked in raising funds for many research projects over the years, I realize that the real task is in moving from the pure to the applied research (hmm! wonder if I could raise funds for a narrative translational research network)

This endeavor has taken me back to my original calling to become a journalist then public relations practitioner (before I fell backwards into fundraising like many of my colleagues, before this became a “chosen” career field).  Because I was trained to be “other-centred” in the PR field and still had the insatiable curiousity of a journalist, I instinctively approached fundraising (albeit 20 years ago) from a communications perspective.  I was convinced this must be the best approach simply because it worked and I was able to surpass that first fundraising goal of $4million for a national sports event (okay, so it was all corporate sponsorship – but it did involve lots of face to face meetings).  It was therefore, with great pleasure that I read recently in Ken Burnett’s brilliant wee book, The Zen of Fundraising that the new paradigm for fundraising is communications and not marketing.  A man after my own heart.

The focus of my applied research has been to create concrete ideas that can be implemented at non-profits, regardless of their size, with the hope it will assist everyone to tap into this rich natural resource; to mine and use stories to their direct benefit.   

In order to do this effectively you need to know what to capture when gathering stories, how to categorize the various types of stories, and develop a system to store them for easy retrieval.  So that’s what I’ve been working on and why I wanted to write this article and share the results of some of my current projects (and that’s what one would call a much delayed lead).

Gathering Stories

To assist in gathering legacy stories from my gift planning donors, I created a template: Creating A Legacy: Gathering Stories and distributed this at many workshops and have received very positive feedback from organizations that are using this, or a similar process, to interview and gather information.   I also know that lots of organizations have been using the narrative approach for years, but it’s not something that we’ve talked about openly and think the broader fundraising world still can benefit from learning how powerful it can be. What’s rewarding for me is that there are more and more organizations, both large and small embracing and adopting this approach.

I’ve always loved that the fundraising culture is one in which we really are comfortable sharing our ideas, mistakes and breakthroughs as well as copies of what we’ve developed in a very collegial fashion.  And so, I’m hoping that by sharing the following ideas will be of some use to those of you are continuing the journey along this “yellow brick road”. 

The Role of Stories in Your Case For Support

One of the key areas where stories can be applied with great success is in developing your case for support.  I’ve survived the case development process at various organizations and thought it was time to develop a narrative approach to this whole exercise.

At the heart of every case statement (i.e. proposal or expression of case) there should be powerful stories but they have to be used strategically for greatest effect. 

I decided to start with a modular design (def’n: a system of parts) for developing case materials. From there, I developed an ‘artsy’ way of framing how the various parts should fit together.  It all started with my own weird definition of case: all the information you need to have at your fingertips to be able to convince any prospect that your worthy of their support.  So, you take this coupled with the modular design visual imagery and in my mind you get an open wooden box full of small building blocks of all shapes and sizes.  Each block represents a different fact or story about your organization e.g., founding history, the latest versions of your mission, vision, goals, financial statements, annual reports, all the details of what you were raising funds for, past successes, etc. 

Then, when you need to design a ‘case statement’ for a specific target group or individual prospect, you would construct your building based on the blocks of interest to that specific target group; simple enough concept that meets the test of a donor-centred approach.

One organization has this “modular case” posted on a huge wall.  It’s a series of hanging files, labeled, and in each file are a few copies of the latest version of whatever the “block” is. And folks can literally put together a customized package for a prospect in minutes. It’s also on their shared directory as a virtual modular case, but the wall display is something that is noticed by staff, board and volunteers passing through the development area and has provided a great opportunity to explain this initiative to all (and build better internal relationships).

Now, to add the narrative layer: just as a full meal would have three courses, I believe every solid case statement needs an appetizer (Stories), an entrée (Stats) and then dessert (the Call to Action).  Let’s look at the role of all three.

Appetizers – Stories:

There’s an old adage that says you should open the hearts and minds, before opening wallets.  Therefore all case statements should start with the most appropriate “Impact”  story for that particular target group and/or individual.  Emotional engagement is vital at this stage and choosing a story that provides a shared platform of values and beliefs will create the right response.  After all, the role of an appetizer is to whet the appetite for more and ideally trigger a response like, “I had no idea…I’m intrigued…please tell me more.”

Entrée – Stats:

This is where you must have done your homework on two levels.  You must now be able to fit the “story” into the overall context of your organization’s charitable mission and specifically why you need their support now. 

Another tip for me is to always remember that your case should be both convincing and compelling.  Convincing from the perspective of proving that your organization is worthy of their support, so here’s where you’d include all the statistics of the impact and difference you’ve made in the community so far (also known as the Deeds of the Past).  Then, onto the compelling part where you need to show how your organization is uniquely positioned to meet the ongoing needs of your specific community. This is where you  introduce your strategic plans (with great emphasis on the vision and how you’re going to get there) as well as financial information, required resources, experts, etc. (also known as the Needs of the Future).  

Dessert – The Call to Action:

This is so important and sometimes completely absent.  You need to decide before you present the case statement what your objectives are. In other words, what do you want your target group or individual to do in response to what you’ve just presented?  Whatever this is, check you have included all the necessary information to make it as easy as possible for them to initiate that next step.  

Now, there are definitely ways in which you can weave different stories to create lasting impressions in each section, but at the very least, you need to ensure you start with a story.

The Role of the Narrative Database to feed your Case for Support

So, how do find the best possible story within minutes, at your desktop?  Simple, your organization sets up a narrative database. Stories, and especially good stories, are a very valuable commodity in every organization – but because we tend to hold numbers in higher esteem, stories are often lost and forgotten.  If you have to convince those who are slightly left-directed in their thinking to allocate resources for this, try introducing the concept that your narrative database will house the organization’s most precious knowledge management resources

To convince them you could try telling them that one of the leading knowledge management and corporate storytellers, Stephen Denning, gathered stories from Xerox photocopier repairmen and created a narrative database. It’s now called the Eureka database and estimated to be worth over $100M.  After all, cognitive scientist have discovered that we turn experience – both our own and those of others – into stories to help us remember and communicate them effectively.  You could also buy them Stephen Denning’s book The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling as a surprise gift. So, now that you’re convinced we should start to treasure our stories, here’s a story about my first attempt at setting up a narrative database.

I’m sure that someone out there, at this very moment, is developing the perfect narrative database which will be pretty snazzy and comprehensive enough to meet everyone’s needs in the very near future.  I would, however, say that while we can all wait and make this very complicated; we can also make it fairly simple and something each fundraising shop could establish with their local IT “buddies” without too much effort.

I currently have a pilot narrative database in operation at a public foundation, which has an amazing wealth of stories dating back almost 25 years.  It was my first test and I needed to find a way of tapping into the archives and current files to identify the stories best suited to support the current and future needs of the fundraising team (and to feed the strategic communications collateral machine).  I worked with an archivist and IT buddies and using MS Sharepoint, we created a narrative database.  

A detailed description of the steps we took to build this “searchable, relational database” would probably put you to sleep, so I’ll save you that chore.   For instance it included database architecture, views, structure…zzzzz…see what I mean.  In a nutshell, once we knew the type of stories we wanted in the database, we created a Story Submission Template, featuring the various fields in which to slot the key elements of each and every story making it easy for us to search and retrieve the stories at a later date. Once all the stories were entered, we could find what we needed in a couple of clicks of a mouse.  Let me paint a picture of this in use…

I’m heading out to meet with a 70 year old woman who during my first visit tells me she’s interested in setting up an endowed fund through a bequest.  The motivation is to honour her late husband who had suffered from a disease (the charity’s focus) and despite seeking the best medical attention available; he suffered chronic pain for the last 20 years of his life.  He loved children, but his disease had made having his own, impossible.  I was building a package to deliver to her on my next visit and needed to choose a story or two to include. 

So, I searched through the database for stories about other donors who’d established endowed funds (among the category labeled donor Maps & Model stories), first-person stories of people who had benefited from the research breakthroughs in pain management or relief and/or from research in improving reproductive chances (among the category labeled Impact stories), and stories about researchers who were currently working in these fields.   Armed with this knowledge, I could search the database and see what stories existed in those categories to help me build a customized package.

Other key factors in building the narrative database is being able to upload both stories and “story leads”, those story ideas that you don’t want to lose, but that you won’t develop fully until the need arises.  Otherwise, your communications team would be writing stories that might never be used.   Other factors include the ability to track whenever a particular story is used and by whom, for what, (this will save the organization from using the same story too often), and don’t forget to include a link to whatever images you have to support the story. In addition, remember to track when permission and privacy legislation issues have been satisfied and the story has received the necessary in-house approvals.

I’m also working with other, smaller organizations that doesn’t have the resources to develop a sophisticated narrative database.  So, they’re tracking stories and story leads on Excel and simply using the built-in Excel sort functions for searching.  

There’s a lot more to cover, but I simply wanted to plant the idea of valuing and organizing your stories to achieve maximum value from them.

In pursuing this project, you will have a chance to exercise those finely-tuned relationships building skills with your internal team, especially those in communications and those who control resources – as it does take some time to set up. This is a long-term investment.  After all, your stories do need to be culled, refined and most of all, shared.   In closing, I’d like to quote Ken Burnett from his book, The Zen of Fundraising,

“So fundraising is the inspiration business, and however much we may try to elevate and complicate it, at its heart it is little more than telling stories.  I’d encourage all of my fellow fundraisers to become master storytellers.”  

Norma Cameron, CFRE

You can reach Norma at

This article appeared in the February 2009 issue of Gift Planning in Canada, Canada’s premier source of comment and analysis for professional gift planners.


About Norma Cameron, CFRE

Norma Cameron is owner and principal of The Narrative Company, formed in 2006 to help people and organizations understand and apply the “power of story”. Prior to this, Norma had over 20 years’ experience in communications, fundraising, organizational development, performance storytelling, public speaking and training. As an engaging keynote speaker and seminar leader, she works with public, private and non-profit sector clients. As a seasoned storyteller, she has performed at conferences, concerts and festivals across Canada and the UK.
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