Authoring the real story: How to humanize philanthropy beyond the business of fundraising

In fundraising, we talk often about the importance of “putting a human face” on philanthropy, as presumably donors will care more about a cause if it is connected to an actual person via a testimony or “real story.”

When this is done well—telling a real story—it can be extremely successful for an institution’s fundraising. Think campaign case statements, which often feature sidebar profiles of individuals close to the cause. We’ve seen them done right, and we’ve see them fail, which can be painful.

Getting it right is not as easy as one might think—particularly when it comes to picking the right people to profile. What’s my advice? Think out of the box. Don’t go for the obvious choice, which often feels forced. Go for the unique angle. Because the better story is the profile that ignites curiosity, compels further reading, and inspires the generous gift.

A few examples might help, all drawn from my experience writing campaign cases over the past 20 years. Here are some favorites:

  • Rather than focus on the director of preservation at an historic site, I profiled a staff carpenter who discovered his passion by building awesome forts when he was a kid.
  • Instead of an arboretum’s head of conservation, I profiled a staff arborist whose story about Kentucky coffee trees and dinosaurs was nothing short of thrilling. (See, aren’t you interested?)
  • Rather than focus on an aquarium’s head of collections, I profiled the intern who found a fish in a bucket that had been left on the institution’s front steps. (The grouper now weighs 200 pounds.)
  • Rather than describe a university’s program for self-directed learning, (a lesson in pedagogy, anyone?), I let a profile of a student say it all: He taught his own section of a course out on the quad—and the school supported him.

Each one of these examples gets to the very essence of why donors make charitable gifts: People support people, not programs. Powerful storytelling connects donors emotionally to the causes they believe in, whether it’s an historic site, an arboretum, an aquarium or a university.

The most successful campaigns are the ones that humanize philanthropy beyond the business of fundraising by telling good stories.

Anne Reusché is a Senior Affiliate Consultant for Marts & Lundy Communications. Contact her at reusche@martsandlundy.com.