Rethinking the Ask, Part 2: Storytelling, Not Selling

“The market for something to believe in is infinite.” — Hugh McLeod

Ken Burnett (, managing trustee for the Showcase of Fundraising Innovation and Inspiration (SOFII, and author of the classic handbook Relationship Fundraising: A Donor Based Approach to the Business of Raising Money (Jossey-Bass, 2002), loves that quote.

Burnett believes that fundraising could be on the cusp of what he calls a “golden age,” but it will not happen unless donors’ experiences become consistently and continually very much better and more desirable. However, will the profession be willing or able to come together as a whole to make the kinds of sweeping fundamental changes that will permit that era to come to pass? It could, Burnett explains, if there is a confluence of three distinct factors:

  • The enormous untapped potential represented by improved donor retention;
  • Dramatic demographic changes resulting in an increase in donors age 65 and up who are looking for fulfilling activities that nonprofits can provide; and
  • Opportunities to engage the corporate sector, which is increasingly wants to be seen as contributing to the social good.

“What prevents us from making the most of all these opportunities, tragically, is the nature and quality of the experience that we’ve traditionally offered our donors and that, in our current paradigm, we seem unable to change,” Burnett writes. This is why he has come to see storytelling, not selling, as the essential activity of fundraisers.

People still care about nonprofits and the causes they were created to address, but they want to be engaged by them in more meaningful ways, and on their own terms. Ken Burnett believes that the way to do this is through relationships in which shared storytelling is used to convey the need. Otherwise, if fundraisers don’t change their approach themselves, change may be forced on them.

“People are going to have to want to listen to us,” says Burnett. “We have the best stories to tell and we have the best reasons to tell them. Right now, people can hang up on us or cross the street to avoid us, so we have to find ways to make people cross the street to come to listen to us instead. And no one pretends that’s going to be easy.”

Dramatic changes in technology have made it possible to reach more people using certain techniques, most importantly the rise of the World Wide Web. “Communications have changed completely since the first edition of my book came out,” says Burnett. “I fundamentally believe communication is the core of fundraising, and given that it has changed so much, I think it’s remarkable that my book is still relevant.”

It’s easy to see how today’s fundraisers can use social media channels, e-newsletters, email blasts, interactive websites, and mobile apps to accomplish those goals more readily. But at the same time, does Burnett feel that relationship fundraising is in danger of becoming passé in an age where many relationships are conducted primarily through tiny screens?

“I do think that things are becoming more superficial, that you need to have a shorter attention span now,” Burnett admits. He notes that the boomer generation is aging out of the prime giving age bracket, and the generation that is moving into their prime giving years have different expectations about how they want to be approached and be engaged. “We can’t just keep asking the younger generation the same way as we asked their elders,” he says. “We have to find a better way that is more inspiring and less obvious.

“I’ve never met a donor who wants to be marketed at,” he concludes, “but I’ve met many who want to be inspired.”

This post was adapted from “Inspiring Better: How Relationship Fundraising Can Win Back Skeptical Donors and Change the Way Fundraisers Think about Approaching Them” by Paul Lagasse, Advancing Philanthropy, Spring 2016 (reprinted with permission) You can read the whole article here.

Author: Paul Lagasse

Paul Lagasse provides expert-to-expert communications services to nonprofit, business, and government clients in the metro Baltimore-DC area. Specialties include science and medical writing, technical report editing, and content marketing.