Tell me a story and we'll write the future together

publication date: Apr 4, 2018
author/source: Lisa MacDonald

The title of this article is borrowed from Canadian author and intergenerational expert, Tom Deans because it spotlights the intersection of philanthropy and storytelling - namely that telling a story is the starting point for any philanthropic activity we hope to accomplish.

I recently spoke at the Alzheimer Societies in Ontario (ASiO) annual conference and my assigned topic was "storytelling." I was a little disappointed to see that my session was scheduled as the final one of the conference. You know how that goes. By the end of the final day, conference attendees are oversaturated, fresh-air deprived and have one foot pointed toward the door. Nevertheless, I thought my topic (and possibly some chocolate enticements) may be compelling enough to engage my audience for the final hour and a half of the day.

As I listened to the two other presenters ahead of me - I was struck with the number of instances that their topics (gift planning and stewardship) intersected with mine. And, in the 10 minutes before I started my slide show I realized that I needed to shift the narrative that I had prepared. Being cast in the final speaking slot of the day had been a gift. It allowed me to clearly see how the act of listening to, and telling stories underpins all the activities that successful fundraising professionals do.

Want to help a donor create a meaningful, values-driven legacy? Listen to the things that matter to them and then tell them a story of how their dream can make a positive difference in the future of the beneficiaries of your organization.

Looking for ways to steward your major contributors? Let them hear the stories of those most impacted by their gifts. Maybe the story is told in a simple thank you card, a short video or over a quick phone call. The method of communication is less important than the message itself. (Sorry Mr. McLuhan.) The point is that as humans, we are programmed to listen to stories, to narrate them and, as Francesco Ambrogetti points out, "... through this mechanism, learn, store and enrich our action options to use in various situations."

We feel emotions, therefore we act when we hear a story. And in the nonprofit sector, as it is for our corporate counterparts, getting people to act is always the end game. We have even incorporated reminders of this ultimate goal into our marketing imperative when we note the need for a "call to action." Many organizations live or die by their donor communications, but may not even realize why that is the case.

Nonprofit sector stories are hopeful, funny, engaging, heart-breaking, truthful and compelling in their humanity, yet so many of us have a difficult time understanding how to effectively utilize a story and instead rely on bullet points, facts and jargon. We must continue to demystify what it means to incorporate storytelling into everyday fundraising activity. Only then will we be creating the type of communication that inspires change and incites movement toward a better future for all. 

As the Managing Editor for The Hilborn Group, Lisa MacDonald helps nonprofit sector leaders stay connected with current trends and best practices across the country.  Contact her at  or connect on Twitter, @lisalmacdonald.  

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