These last few weeks, I’ve made an effort to have, at the very least, fully functioning ears by 8.50 on Sunday mornings. Oh and an arm that is awake enough to switch on the radio in time for David Attenborough’s ‘Life Stories’.
If you’ve heard it, you’ll know that each episode is just ten minutes long, during which David Attenborough tells the story of a species he has studied. This week’s was about his first pet – a fire salamander. You can hear all the juicy details, including its innovative mating habits, here.
But for me, the best one so far was the one about Bower birds (I will get to fundraising in a minute, promise).
Bower birds are brilliant. With their eye for colour, they’re the graphic designers of the natural world. To attract a mate (or preferably several), they build themselves an irresistible love nest from sticks, grasses, feathers, fruits, pebbles. Decoration is all. Here’s one that’s gone with a blue theme, here’s another that likes flowers and here’s David Attenborough taking you for a guided tour round a Bower bird’s pad as he builds it.
Amazing. But what’s the link to fundraising? You’ll be relieved to know it’s not just the (painful) observation that Bower birds are like graphic designers.
Thankfully, I can turn to Ken Burnett to make a better point. I’ve taken this from his book The Zen of Fundraising – read it if you haven’t yet, “Fundraising is and always will be all about storytelling: human interest stories, engaging stories, touching stories, involving stories, moving stories – all of them welcome, well judged, well timed, well illustrated and above all well told: concise (if possible), believable, memorable.”
If that seems a little strange to you, think about the process of coming up with an appeal – that’s clearly about telling a story. But what about pitching to a prospective corporate supporter? Coming up with a new product? Formulating a brand? Done well, these are about telling stories too.
Which brings me back to David Attenborough.
‘Life Stories’ is a great example of storytelling, but not I’d say because the structure of the story-telling is particularly good. It's too anecdotal to transfer to Direct Marketing.
Those of you who’ve been kind enough to follow this blog from the start may remember the first post was all about getting beginnings right. It ended with a list of suggestions, but having listened to 'Life Stories', I’ve realised that I missed one off my list.
As I've said, the openings to life-stories aren’t particularly attention grabbing on paper. The part I lifted for my opening (about the semen) comes about half way through. (And what an unfortunate sentence that is).
What grabs your attention is David Attenborough himself. I’m not sure if I’d be that interested if it were anyone else telling the story.
So when you think about the stories you can tell to inspire your donors, you should also think about who tells them. Martin Bell, Michael Palin, Bill Bryson, Terry Waite, Jon Snow – these are just a few people who have measurably lifted response to some of the packs we’ve sent out in recent times.
Simply making Michael Palin the signatory of a cold pack, rather than the Chief Executive, more than doubled response.
But ‘celebrity’ needs to be used with caution. All of the people mentioned above had a real involvement or interest in the work we were describing. They’re also authoritative, respected individuals. And a quick look at this or table 15 here will tell you why they lift response.
Donors want and should feel important to the charities they support, but often this ‘need’ is neglected.
One route to making them feel important is who communicates with them. Another, described in this post, is how we communicate with them. And finally, there’s what we actually communicate.
I’m only really re-iterating Ken Burnett’s words here, but we need to find what’s inspiring, ingenious and innovative about what we do and share that with the donors we work with. (And, when it comes to wildlife and the natural world, David Attenborough has been doing that for over seven decades.)
At every single project I’ve seen, for every single charity I’ve worked with, there’s been something genuinely incredible being done. But often that gets lost in poor story telling within a charity, when we lapse into jargon and generalities to describe something magical and special.
More on that another time.
But to finish, here’s an example of a piece of work chosen because it combines some of the things we’ve talked about today (but not the last bit about bad story-telling).
This piece of work went out in two versions created for low and mid value supporters. As well as loads of great information from VSO, we were also given the chance to speak to a volunteer doctor who had been working on maternal and infant health in Indonesia. It was that interview that really unlocked the story we wanted to tell and who should tell it.
This is a grab from the top of the letter which came from the VSO volunteer doctor. She tells the supporter what the first Indonesian words she learnt were.
It's hardhitting, but it tells the story as truthfully and memorably as we could. And no-one could tell that story better than the person who was actually there. I'm sure, whatever your cause, there are staff members or volunteers who could provide similar insight.
That letter was accompanied by specially prepared briefing notes giving insights into the wider issues affecting maternal and infant health - as well as the practical measures the VSO volunteer doctor is taking to change that.
The notes came with this - a potent reminder of the precious life that is at stake. And meaningful because one of the innovations the VSO doctor had introduced was showing staff how to use a scan.
But before the supporter got to any of this, they'd have read this - a covering note from Jon Snow, a VSO volunteer once himself.
And a last piece of learning from 'Life Stories'. One of the best ways to test whether what you've written is insightful, flows well and has a good pace is to read it aloud. The average appeal letter won't take nearly ten minutes so if you can't find someone to listen, it's time for an edit.