The power of storytelling – A guest blog by Russell Benson!

Everyone has a story

Here is a story about Esther.

When I worked for a homeless charity, I was invited, alongside five other charities, to give a talk at a £4.5k per year private primary girls school to their final year students – 10 & 11 year olds. The teacher informed me that the children were going to select three charities to support for their summer fete.  In full competition mode, I decided that it might help our chances if I took Esther, a female client whom I had known since she spoke at our carol concert.

We arrived on a warm day and I began speaking about the charity. The girls were politely fidgeting, but when I introduced Esther to tell her story, they were totally engrossed. After she spoke, I asked if there were any questions. Unsurprisingly, I wasn’t asked about our CEO pay or how much we spent on admin costs; all of the questions were for Esther and after ten minutes, hands were still raised!

A few days later I got a package from the teacher with many letters addressed to Esther. There was also a note from the teacher telling me that the children had unanimously voted for us and that our charity was the only one that had brought a beneficiary to the school. The children had written letters to Esther without being asked, writing how they had changed their opinion of homelessness and wishing her well.  We received £1,000 from the fete and in the five years since that talk, the school has given over £20,000. I’m certain that without Esther, we wouldn’t have been selected as one of the three, never mind having that long term support!

Esther was overjoyed that she was able to help the charity in this way and it’s humbling for me when she gives that same story as one of the reasons she was able to recover from the issues she had. This was my eureka moment in fundraising! I learnt many lessons from that day that will stay with me throughout my career.

Storytelling is a powerful tool. Science tells us this. When we listen to, or read, a character driven story, our brains flood with Oxytocin, which is the love hormone. I think it’s safe to say our generosity is definitely up when we are feeling love.

I know, as fundraisers, we instinctively understand this, but do we try hard enough to get our beneficiaries to speak directly to our supporters?  Are we satisfied with simply putting a case study on our materials? Is that enough?  Do we write these case studies in the third person and the only voice our beneficiary might get are some quotes in speech marks?

To begin, we need to find the stories.  They are there to be found and of course we can seek them and ask our beneficiaries. But stories can also come to us… if we know where to look!

  • Stephen Sutton blogged about his life with cancer and the support he was getting from the teenage cancer trust and raised £5.5m for the charity.
  • Zoella is a vlogger with millions of followers. She vlogged about her mental health issues. She is now a digital ambassador for Mind reaching new audiences.
  • And who can forget Aylan Kurdi, the refugee child who was photographed on the beaches of Europe. His story changed perceptions of refugees and stimulated support for many charities working with refugees

It’s not only beneficiaries who can speak on our behalf!

  • We have our Staff – I subscribe to Medicin Sans Frontier’s whatsapp service and most of their messages are links to blogs written by the doctors on the frontline and are the stories I am most engaged with.
  • Our army of Volunteers – during volunteer week, I read many stories about why volunteers are committed to our causes. But volunteer stories are for all year, not just for volunteer week!
  • And we have our fundraisers, in fact we especially have our fundraisers, who have great stories. In my role, I see many JustGiving pages that have incredible emotive and engaging content. These fundraisers are asking others to give and as all online platforms tell you, the personal story is key to a successful page.

As the old adage goes, ‘people give to people’ and never has this been more clearly demonstrated than recent viral campaigns. The Ice Bucket Challenge raised nearly £7m for the Motor Neurone Disease in three days and £8m was raised in six days for Cancer Research UK with their ‘no make-up selfie’. But vitally, these campaigns were not driven by the charities, they just took advantage of the stories being shared and allowed people to take action.

  • We also have our personal stories. Why do we work for the charity we do? Why do we work for charities at all? I used to talk to rotary clubs and because of the audience, I often spoke about my own prejudices against homelessness before I volunteered at Christmas and ended up working at a homeless charity.

I talk about beneficiaries, staff, volunteers and fundraisers as different categories, but there are many overlaps amongst these and it’s important to recognise this and take advantage where possible.  At the homeless charity, around 10% of service staff are ex homeless themselves and their stories become even more powerful as they vividly highlight the success of the charity.

We’ve chosen our stories, so how to communicate them?

  • Public talks in schools and other groups are preferable for the best impact, but it’s not always possible for charities to do this.
  • Social media & other digital channels is an obvious option. And why not? It’s easy, cheap, can be interactive, shareable and gives the largest potential exposure. Options include live Q&A/webcasts, blog posts & other case study material (in first person!)
  • As much as possible, use video and/or picture content. Let’s use videos to bring the story to life. If pictures tell a thousand words, videos must tell a million!
  • Let’s do this in as much of our stewardship journeys as possible. Do beneficiaries ever say thank you to fundraisers?  Of course, if you’re from an organisation that has traditionally had a sponsor a child or animal model, you’ve been doing this for years, but we now have technology to do this even better, more cost effectively and with a bigger reach.

We have the story and the channels, so what’s the message?

This is where it can become complicated as we balance authenticity of the voice against controlling the message and having that charity ‘tone of voice’. Of course, there are times we have to control the message to an extent, especially for big campaigns or adverts. But where we can, we should let the authentic voice shine. Remember, people give to people, or the cause, not the charity. We should not think of donors as giving or raising money for the charity to then spend on making the world better.  Let’s remember that donors give money to make the world better – we just enable that to happen by connecting those who want to change the world  with those that can. Just this simple language change can connect the donor more to the cause. And if we can get this through beneficiaries talking directly to our donors, it’s an even better connection.

Language is important.  Once, when I spoke alongside a homeless client, he listened to me and as always, I asked for feedback. He told me everything was fine, but could we stop saying ‘homeless people’ and instead say ‘people who are homeless’ as he rightly wanted to be seen primarily as a person and homeless second.

Our beneficiaries are often faced by prejudices, stigma and stereotypes in society. By giving them a voice, they can breakdown these barriers.  Just last week, Julia Unwin, the CEO of Joseph Rowntree Foundation said we must… ‘enable the voice on those who live in poverty and to ensure that those voices are heard, and listened to. Not met with the oscillating insults of pity and scorn.’

And we need to do this now. We live in a new world in many ways and we know  trust in charities has been dented in the past 18 months. We also know that many people don’t trust experts anymore. But our beneficiaries are the authentic experts that people will listen to, so let’s get them heard.

We have the most incredible stories in our organisations that we can use to sell our cause. They rarely exist in any other type of organisations and if we can give our beneficiaries a true voice we can not only help ourselves to get income, but help our beneficiaries feel valued and play our part in helping the wider public understand these issues we care so passionately about too.

It’s our job to go out there and find our own Esther and give them a platform to be heard.

About Russell

5D5-2SYIRussell Benson is a Community and Events Manager at MS Society and previously worked at St Mungo’s. Connect with him on twitter @russellbenson.

  • I don’t have any connection to them, but If you need support, training or inspiration, SoundDelivery is a great organisation that focus on storytelling for charities and their events are awesome.

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