Debunking Three Fundraising Myths

My favorite part of the storytelling workshops that I offer for not-for-profit and community benefit organizations are the questions and unanticipated turns. Each surprising develop opens the possibility for deeper conversation and more significant change than even the best prepared material.

Here are three stories that you may find interesting and useful.

Part I: The Mythically Short Attention Span

‘How is this useful for social media? These stories are great, but they take too much time. All the research says that attention spans are too short for that.’

The question comes from a man at the back of the room. He’s served on the Board of Directors for a community based organization for years and we’ve met a few times before. He loves to ask ‘gotcha’ questions.

‘That’s a good question,’ I say. ‘Can I question a couple of your assumptions?’

When you say ‘all the research,’ what exactly did this research investigate? If you’re working with Big Data, it may not be relevant to your organization. Much social media research revolves around maximizing reach and growing an audience as large as possible. But most of us in this room are interested in building community around a local organization serving a defined geographical area. So the guiding question is not ‘how can I reach as many people as possible,’ but rather ‘how can I reach the right people and move them to action?’

There’s not Big Money in answering that question, so not much research has been done. From my own experience, I know that for my community social media posts with longer, thoughtful stories get more meaningful engagement than others. But if you’re going to invest any time at all in developing stories for social media, you owe it to yourselves to do some research into what your audience, both existing and potential, responds to. You may find that posting one blog post per week is the way to go. In other words, all research has built in questions and assumptions that may make it less than useful for your purposes.’

The man looks at me for a moment. Nodded. ‘Thanks,’ he says.

I take a breath.

Part II: The Myth of Competition

‘How does this help us win?’

It’s a small group, 8 people, all Board members of a small nonprofit in Southern California. They’re extremely savvy, both as Board members and as humans. I’m here to help them harness the power of story to become more effective stewards of the organization.

The man asking the question has written multiple books on leadership. He holds patents on something technological that I don’t quite understand.

And now I’m about about to get into it with him.

‘Well, honestly, it won’t. But before we write off everything I’m saying, is it ok if I question your assumption?’

‘What assumption?’

‘That a fundraising conversation has anything to do with competition.’

‘What do you mean?’

He looks at me like I’m an idiot. I might be.

‘Well, if it’s a competition, you must be competing against. . .who, exactly?’

‘Other organizations asking for money. We have to show that we’re the best use of their funds.’

‘Ah. Ok. Cool. So, if I own a toothbrush company am I in competetion with a car company?’


‘Well, both are companies. Both are asking for money in exchange for their products. So, following the logic, they must be in competition?’

‘No. They’re totally different.’

‘I think so, too. So are nonprofits. A school offers something different than a hospice offers something different than an animal rescue. They’re not competing against each other.’

He looks as if he‘s about to reply. I push forward.

‘If it works for you to think about it as a competition and to see a fundraising conversation as something you have to win, then that’s great. I’m suggesting that there might be a different way that allows you to connect as human beings, share your dedication to this organization in such a way that it becomes contagious, and have your prospect ask how they join your community of support before you even ask. And I’m suggesting that storytelling is a powerful tool to facilitate that type of connection. Ultimately, though, you get to choose.’

‘You win,’ he says.

(not really, but it would have been cool if he had).

Part III: The Power of Storytelling is really about. . .

Yesterday, I got a great reminder that listening is the unsung hero of great storytelling

I walked into a board of directors training fully prepared to deliver my normal workshop. Story is great! Here’s story structure! Here’s how to tell a fundraising story!

It’s a good workshop. People find it interesting and useful.

Within about 5 minutes, I realized that this group required something different. Mostly because they knew more about storytelling than I did.

One had done her graduate thesis on organizational storytelling. Another had written several books on story in leadership. One guy regularly delivered keynotes in which his storytelling regularly brought people to tears.

After a moment of panic in which I questioned my value in the world, I regrouped and started asking questions about their greatest challenges as board members.

They struggled, they said, with sharing their deep passion for the organization with people. The organization, I should mention, is a hospice provider. Sharing their passion, in this case, meant talking about death…something that not many people want to talk about.

After listening to their frustration, I saw a way to be useful. We did a simple storytelling exercise that, secretly, is actually about listening.

The exercise left a charge in the room.

When I asked what they noticed, one board member, a master storyteller himself, quietly said: ‘I think I need to listen more. If I allow people to share their feelings about hospice or even dying before trying to convince them to support us, then I’ll know how to connect with them.’

This is so simple. It’s something we learn in kindergarten. But the world places all the emphasis on speaking, making yourself heard. A different type of connection becomes possible when we approach a conversation, whether a fundraising conversation or otherwise, with no agenda, a gentle curiosity, and willingness to be surprised.



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Michael Kass

Michael Kass

I’m on a mission to help build a future for all beings by harnessing the power of the story to create change. Want to help?