You need a hero: Storytelling subjects in your institution’s fundraising campaigns. You need a hero: Storytelling subjects in your institution’s fundraising campaigns.

When it comes to higher education fundraising initiatives, storytelling as a strategy is tried-and-true. You’ve probably been using it as a tactic to raise support for a while. But if you feel like your storytelling’s gone a little stale, sorry to say it probably has.

Before you dive into (yet another) navel-gazing narrative revolving around your institution and its merits, back away from the marketing brochure. It’s time to flip the script and double-down on drawing the donors back through better storytelling. Compelling, gripping, and relatable storytelling. 

In other words, you need a hero. 

Each time you launch a new fundraising campaign, you’re asking the same thing of your audience: Please give. Month after month, year after year. And the pressure is on to deliver impactful fundraising goals in every campaign. The consequences of not producing consequential donor engagement are big. Less than enthusiastic engagement equals lower donations and money. 

Your audience tunes out, hangs up the phone, or deletes the email. Full stop.

Not to mention, poor campaigns can cost you important initiatives that advance learning, research, and even society. Yikes.

So, back to flipping that script. And that hero you need. You know why storytelling works on a fundamental level. It evokes empathy, draws your audience in emotionally, and makes a connection. The trick is to get out of your own way and make your audience — real-world people — the hero of the story. 

And just as important as the who is the how and the why. If they reach for tissues at the end of it, well done. Wallet? Bingo.

Here’s what we’re talking about.

Higher education fundraising campaigns have an unsung hero.

Facts, figures, accolades — these are all great for your proverbial mantle. But how well do they connect with people when you’re fundraising? Without context, numbers aren’t exactly evocative. Think about the last time you laughed or cried over a TV commercial. I’ll bet it wasn’t because of a list of polite accolades.  

Facts, figures, or accolades shouldn’t always be the star of the show, and your institution shouldn’t be either. You’re getting out of your own way, remember?

The hero of your story needs to be able to come face-to-face with the audience you intend to reach. They need to be able to connect with your audience on an emotional, relatable level. Numbers can’t do that. But a tangible, real-world perspective into what was achieved, who persevered, or who overcame adversity because of your institution? That’s gold. 

Find stories that contextualize the ‘so what’ behind the initiative you’re raising funds for. Do you want to develop 50 new scholarships for underprivileged kids? Talk about the outcome of that. That’s the so what? What’s the alternative if the scholarship didn’t exist? There is merit in showing the adverse effect of not giving, in certain cases. Your stories don’t always have to have a warm and fuzzy ending to hit people emotionally. 

There is an endless supply of inspiration that illustrates what your school exists to be. So if you’re not already taking this step, or if you’re under leveraging this step, it’s a huge missed opportunity. Use it.

Strategy in storytelling can fortify your fundraising for the long haul.

Effective storytelling makes a difference in your fundraising because when it’s done right, it works. Your audience realizes the true impact of their engagement (or lack thereof) through your storytelling. They not only can connect with the hero but can see themselves as having some skin in the game.

A well thought out strategy also comes into play, too, because remember: You’re never not fundraising. You need to know how you’re going to keep things fresh. Capture people’s (really short) attention spans. But let’s go back to basics first.

How the story structure informs your fundraising strategy.

If you go back to English class, you’ll remember there are four parts to building a story: a beginning, a problem, a turning point, and a conclusion. These key touchpoints of your storytelling are not only essential for a story to make sense –without them, you can’t make an emotional connection. 

Look at it this way: if your donor officers are only talking about what your faculties and departments need from a fundraising perspective, they’re only seeing half the picture. The other half of the picture is what’s happening in those faculties so you can prove they’re worthy of investment. Where is the turning point? Where did that story begin, and where is it now? Providing context is telling the story.

What comes next is strategy. Your ask will always be the same in that you will always be asking your audience to give. That’s why strategy in your storytelling matters; if you do it the same way every time, it’s going to be less effective. And don’t worry, there’s still room for your institution in the picture. Ultimately, you want to establish how your university is a conduit through which change (the turning point) can happen. 

Another thing: If you’re talking to a specific audience, then be specific. The goal is not to tell everybody everything about you. The goal is to inspire them enough that they will consider a donation. And keep them coming back for more reasons to engage.

The heroes for your fundraising campaigns are all around you.

From your art department to cancer research, inspiration (read: heroes) for stories come from every direction. Naturally, your university has a lot to offer, and because of that, there is endless fodder for heartwarming, heartstring-pulling, uplifting, and action-driving stories. 

There’s a wealth of material at your fingertips if you know how (and make the effort) to find it. Liaisons and certain departments can help. But just look at the amount of work that’s being done and the people and lives being impacted all around you.

The scholarship student who’s the first in their family to go to university. 

The 4-year-old cancer patient cared for at your facility and her family’s emotional experience. 

The group of students who tirelessly contributed to the advancement of groundbreaking COVID-19 research. 

And when all else fails, remember the why behind your storytelling. It’s not for navel-gazing. You’re not raising money for the sake of having money. You’re raising money to do something with it that will make a difference in society. And students are a catalyst for societal change. 

Remember: you’re never not fundraising.

You’re not just trying to change that student’s life for the sake of changing that student’s life. You’re making a better world. That’s the mission of a university, isn’t it? Your reason to exist is to enable students to become changemakers for society. So look to them, share their stories. 

Give your audience a glimpse of what it’s like to contribute to the current roster of changemakers. And a reason to grab tissues…and their wallet.