On Monday, October 25 I presented at Blackbaud’s Conference for Nonprofits. I participated in a panel on non-profit storytelling and my talk was titled: “The Missing Ingredient in Non-Profit Stories.” What’s featured below is an excerpt of my talk. Enjoy!
How many of you have a favorite family recipe?
Now, have you ever tried to make it, only to find that it doesn’t taste quite the same as it does when Grandma makes it? I certainly have.
I’ve learned a lot from my adventures in baking and cooking. This last year in fact, it’s taught me something surprising about storytelling.
In these cherished family recipes that we diligently try to recreate, sometimes it seems as though something that’s missing from a recipe that we can’t quite put our finger on and it’s what keeps it from tasting exactly like Grandma’s. Some people will tell you that the missing ingredient is love. Others will say it’s a top secret ingredient not listed on the recipe card.
What I’ve noticed recently is that storytelling is lot like our sometimes frustrating experiences making family recipes. By that I mean, there are countless pieces of advice out there telling us how to tell a great story. We may follow those instructions to the T only to find that our story doesn’t connect with our audience or get us the fundraising results we desire. I know how frustrating that can be.
What I want to suggest to you today is that there is a missing ingredient in many non-profit stories.
That missing ingredient is empathy.
Empathy is a special kind of connection that we form with other people. It’s different from sympathy. Sympathy is when someone feels bad for someone else. In fundraising, sympathy manifests itself as donors feeling bad or guilty about an issue. I don’t know about you, but when I fundraise I want people to give because they are inspired and because it feels good to help someone out. Not because they feel guilty. This is where empathy comes in to play.
Empathy is when we feel with someone. It is the core of our human experience in that it allows us to feel that connectedness with others. That desire to feel connected to others – a sense of belonging – is something that we as non-profits can create for our donors.
Yet, all too often we are missing this opportunity with our stories. Instead the stories we produce end up sounding like every other run of the mill non-profit story. The basic formula of: “here’s someone we have helped, they had this big problem, they couldn’t solve it on their own, but then they found our great organization and we were able to help them. Isn’t our organization great?! Now, make a gift.”
The problem with this model of storytelling is that we fail to form a meaningful connection with our audience. This connection will help them see how they are connected (in a variety of ways) to our work. By that I mean, they are not connected just because they are donors. They are also connected through their basic humanity.
In some of the examples of visual storytelling that Sean shared, we could see this humanity right in front of us. Although we might not have known the whole story behind the picture, we can also create our own narrative for it.
Let’s explore this idea of connectedness and basic humanity a little more. One of the questions I like to ask people when I teach workshops is: “How do you form a connection with someone?” We are immersed in all sorts of relationships in our lives, yet we are on autopilot when it comes to making connections. That’s a good thing because it’s how we are wired as humans. But what I’m suggesting is that our organizations are not on this kind of autopilot yet. So how can we get ourselves there?
There are so many ways to make a connection with someone. Today, I’m going to share with you what I think are the two best ways to form an empathetic, emotional connection.
#1 Shared Values/Beliefs
Our values and beliefs are the core of who we are. One of the ways that we can connect with our audiences through our stories is to communicate the values or beliefs that we share with them. So let me ask you – What does your organization stand for? What do you believe?
I’m on the board of an organization in Vancouver called Women Against Violence Against Women, which is a feminist rape crisis centre. You would think that ‘feminist’ is a defining value that brings many of our donors to us. On some level it is. But over the last year of many conversations with donors there has been a much more fundamental value that has emerged – safety. Our donors want the city to be safer – for themselves, for their wives, for their relatives, for their daughters. Knowing that this is a value that we all share, we have told stories and started conversations about safety. Throughout this process, I have been reminded of the fact that figuring out what values and beliefs you might have in common with your donors is like watching a bud unfold into a flower. As it opens, there is more to discover and know. It’s our job as fundraisers and communicators to get to know each petal.
#2 Life Experiences
The second way that we can find common ground with our audiences through our storytelling is through shared life experiences. There are probably a lot of things you have in common with your donors. Perhaps being a parent. Maybe experiencing grief. It could be something as simple as joy. Think about what life experience you could tap into in the stories you tell.
I always think that universities and colleges have it somewhat easier when it comes to talking about shared life experiences with alumni because they all went to the same school. Sure, that might be the same life experience that they all had. But the layer beneath that is that alumni have all experienced the sense of possibility when entering into adulthood. They have known idealism, potential, and immense opportunity for their lives. Helping people reconnect with this spirit is a way to peel back the hard shell that adulthood puts on many of us.
These are just two examples of what it could look like to tell stories about shared values and common life experiences. As you can see, there are immense opportunities and it’s really a matter of honing in on what best will resonate with your audience.
To round off this lesson on empathy, I want to tell you a story about how to figure out what will resonate with your audience. It’s a story about my mom, one of my clients, and me. This picture is of me and my mom a couple of years ago. Before I tell you more about her, I want to tell you about one of my clients.
Last year, I was working with an organization, Cancer Care Connection. They provide social work support for people affected by cancer. In simpler terms that means that they provide counseling, coaching and resource referrals to cancer patients and their loved ones. As a part of the work I was doing with them, I was working on their case for support. I had done my initial research and interviews before I started writing, and I was feeling pretty confident that there was a strong case to be made for their work.
But then there was the day when I sat down at my computer to start writing. And, as with all my projects, I start the writing process by thinking about what emotion I want the reader to feel. But here’s the thing – I had never personally been affected by cancer, nor had anyone I knew. I counted myself as very lucky for this, but in this moment of wanting to do my work well, I had a moment of panic. I thought – “I don’t actually know what this experience is like. How will I know what emotion to convey?”
So several hours of panic and writer’s block ensued for me, until I finally mustered up the courage to call my client. I decided to call one of their social workers who I had previously interviewed, her name is Kathy. I got Kathy on the phone and I asked her, “What kind of cases have you been seeing lately?”
Kathy explained to me that at that time one of the common calls she was getting was from adult children, whose parent had been diagnosed with cancer. Their parent had either elected to stop treatment or enter a hospice, and because of this the child was having a hard time accepting their parent’s choice. As Kathy explained to me, it’s not her job nor the organization’s job to persuade patients to any one treatment. They believe that people have to do what helps them have their best outcome – even if that includes dying.
As Kathy tells me a few more details, it dawns on me that these adult children all have one thing in common when they call Cancer Care Connection. They are feeling helpless. They would go to the ends of the earth to save their dying parent, but there’s nothing they can do.
As I realized this is the emotion – the helplessness – I realized that I was very well acquainted with that emotion. My mom was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis when I was 12. She no longer has vision in her left eye and on several occasions has had terrible symptoms. As a child and as an adult, I have seen her suffer. I have seen the agony that she’s in, the depression that sometimes comes, and the ever-present fact that while this disease won’t kill her, it will slowly steal her quality of life.
M.S. affects the brain, and I would literally give my mom part of my brain if it would save her from all that she has to endure. But it won’t. So I am confronted often by the same feelings of helplessness.
The reason I’m telling you this story about Cancer Care Connection, my mom, and I is because it so beautifully illustrates how we can feel empathy for others. Although as I said I have never been affected by cancer, I do know the emotion of helplessness well. Even though it’s in a totally different context and life experience, knowing that there are others who experience this makes me feel less alone.
When you tell a story, you are opening the door for your donors to have an experience like I had. By telling your donors stories and highlighting a universally experienced emotion, value or belief, you can help them feel more integrated in a community; your community. I invite you to understand your organization as a connector – someone who can create these kinds of profound connections and experiences for others.
Because at the end of the day what we all long for is to realize our own humanity in others.