What Grandma Dot taught me about fundraising

Grandma DotAs a junior and senior in high school, I had the unique privilege of spending every Saturday evening with my Grandma Dot. After working a full day on the family farm, I’d go visit her. This was our time to catch up on lives, share stories and for me to learn to cook a few meals.

My grandma was especially good at telling stories. They were electrifying, funny and sensational. You were always left wanting more! Most of the time you were rolling with laugher. But every now and then, she’d have a more serious message to convey — the dreaded “life lesson.” In those times, I knew I had better listen.

One story she shared with me had to do with the Columbus Day storm of 1962. This day changed the lives of my grandma and grandpa forever. You see, up until that fateful day, they had been farmers. But all that changed when their family farm was destroyed.

My grandpa woke up that morning to start his day’s work and noticed the barn was gone — literally blown away. Without skipping a beat, he looked over at Dot and said, “I guess we’re done farming. Let’s go on an adventure.”

Within a few weeks, they’d sold their land, bought a truck and fifth-wheel trailer and headed off on a multi-year adventure, traveling across the United States.

My grandma went on to share all of the fun things they did while traveling, which included spending time with friends and family, seeing our glorious national parks and picking up all kinds of interesting jobs along the way to extend their adventure.

The story ended with my grandma looking me in the eye and saying, “Chris, the best day of our life was when the barn blew down. Whatever you do, don’t become a farmer. Make sure you get this farming thing out of your system now.”

Then, after the serious look had faded from her beautiful face, she smiled, laughed and went on to her next story.

Of course, the spirit of what my grandma shared was that farming is a 24/7 job with lots of hard work and little pay. It wasn’t until they took off for a few years that they understood all they had been missing in life.

So, what’s all this have to do with fundraising? Simply that we should tell more stories. And tell them well. In particular, our own story.

Why? Because stories matter. The best ones pull you in. They make you laugh. They make you cry. And after you hear a really good one, you realize that you’ve been touched in a deep and meaningful way.

How much do stories matter? Well, we recently conducted a test for one of our clients to investigate better ways of telling their story. Conventional wisdom says that for donors who give less than $200, it’s often best to share less, not more. So we tested a 4-page letter versus a 2-pager. The 4-pager gave us more room to develop the ministry’s story, explain what they were going to do in the next year and inject more emotion.

We were pleasantly surprised to learn we could raise 20% more income from this audience simply by telling a more complete, carefully crafted story.

Ken Burnett, a well-known fundraiser, says, “Storytelling can change the world.” I think he’s right. A well-told story can help us connect with donors, pull them in, help them feel a part of the work and invite them to participate in the solution.

So, a friendly suggestion as you’re working on your always crucial year-end appeals and newsletters: consider how you might improve your results with strong stories — about unmet need, changed lives and high-impact ministry.

And don’t hesitate to focus heavily on need. Because need is what motivates your partners to give. They have no reason to help if you haven’t clearly and compellingly expressed a need that will not be met unless they give now and give generously.

If you do this well, I have to believe you’ll see better performance. At least, that’s what I learned from Grandma Dot.