Gretchen Gallagher was working for a large animal rescue organization in Florida as the director of philanthropy when they raided an unethical breeder on a farm in Tennessee and saved more than 400 animals. Hundreds of people lined up to adopt them and Gallagher listened to their compelling stories about how adopting an emotionally and physically challenged dog was helping the people who adopted them heal as well. She turned their stories into an event called “Inspawration” that raised $235,600 in cash and pledges.
Gallagher is now an Arizona-based fundraising consultant who specializes in helping non-profits find their voice through storytelling. She has worked 15 years for comedian Jerry Lewis running his muscular dystrophy telethon, where she perfected the art of storytelling, and for 10 years in animal welfare, using this same concept to raise thousands of dollars. Here is her account of putting together a storytelling mechanism for fund raising.
What’s the best example of how you have raised money using stories?
When I worked with Jerry Lewis on his annual telethon, we televised stories to convey our need. When I went into animal rescue, I knew this concept would transfer. After the Tennessee rescue, one of our donors started telling me about Lilly, her rescued dog, and the first time Lilly’s feet touched grass and the way this little dachshund gingerly put her paws on solid ground. The donor felt it was a turning point for Lilly and she decided to celebrate that day as Lilly’s first birthday.
We worked to incorporate her story into a fundraising luncheon, where we told stories about the raid in Tennessee and when she got up to speak holding Lilly, there wasn’t a dry eye in the place. We all celebrated Lilly’s new birthday that day. We asked for donations, and because of Lilly’s story, people gave.
How do you find good stories?
You have to keep an ear to the ground and work with your program staff so they call you when they hear of a good story.
We also made the staff a part of the storytelling strategy—by asking them to tell their rescue stories at events. Our “Share Our Shelter” monthly tours included walking through our facility and talking to our staff tour guides, who did the actual rescues. It involved our staff in our mission and really influenced people on the tours.
How do you identify the types of stories you want to use to convey your mission?
Focus on what’s important to the donor and share a funding need in their area of interest. For example, some are interested in statistics and pie charts while others are motivated by emotion—stories that pull at their heartstrings. Identify your audience and what motivates them and then select your story appropriately. Ask for the gift and then follow up with the results. The type of story needs to be appropriate for the listeners.
How do you help people tell their stories? What tips do you use to make them feel at ease?
I let them know how they inspire me. Tell them I’m thankful for their courage and willingness to share their personal experience; why it’s important to the organization and how sharing their story will inspire others to volunteer, donate or share their own stories. I use open-ended questions that evoke sharing:
- “Tell me about your journey, what led you to our organization?”
- “What do you want others to know about your experience with our organization?”
- “Please share the most important lesson/peril of wisdom from your experience.”
We would also worked with them to write their stories and rehearse them repeatedly so when we called on them to speak, it was concise as well as compelling.
How do you incorporate stories into your marketing efforts?
We would do an annual campaign featuring three of our top stories for the year and feature the animals as our “spokespets.” We had an integrated marketing program that included their stories in an eight-minute video, which we showed at our fundraising luncheon, featured them in our collateral material and included them on our website with a donation link and in direct mail pieces. By the end of the year, our donors would know about stories like Lilly’s because she was part of our annual fundraising campaign and heavily promoted. So when we went to ask for money, they were ready to give.
How do you use stories for one-on-one donor meetings?
Successful fundraising is all about connections—connecting donors with the mission; sharing stories about how donors’ gifts directly impact the mission. Successful organizations share stories about their needs, the benefits and an example of how donations make a difference in fulfilling the mission. The really savvy fundraisers will follow up with key stakeholders as to the direct impact their gifts provided to the organization. We featured our stories in our thank you letters.
We were more specific with our needs when working one on one with donors at SPCA Tampa Bay. If we needed medical equipment, I would use an example of a story that demonstrated why it was needed to make it more personal. For instance, Lilly needed surgery after her rescue, but we didn’t have specialized equipment to do it on campus so we had to subcontract it out. The donor could identify with it more when it was linked to a personal story.
After they made a donation, we would bring the donor back to the campus for a tour to see the equipment in action and hear from the medical staff how their job was improved by this equipment and how it allowed them to accomplish their work improving the care if the animals.