4 Strategic Fundraising Questions for Your Business Storytelling

Effective storytelling is crucial to businesses seeking to raise significant funds from donors. For project managers seeking internal resources, entrepreneurs needing capital, or nonprofit leaders searching for funds, the power of story in fundraising is unequivocal.

Before starting your next fundraising efforts, determine your answers to four strategic questions:

  1. What problem will various stakeholders be able to solve?

    Select those few stories that speak to the main problem that'll get solved. Don't get distracted by side stories — those that relate to the beneficial ripple effects beyond the original idea or solution. Even though these can be pretty awesome, keep them in your hip pocket early on.

    Here are some specific audience needs to keep in mind:

    • Internal staff: Both pain and urgency are key here. To communicate pain, incorporate into stories how the program or project is going to solve problems that'll make their daily work life better. You'll also create urgency when these stories address what staff stand to lose. To galvanize action and create possibilities for a brighter future, include benefits for the end customer, consumer, or constituent.

    • Customers, consumers, community members, or constituents: In the public sector and nonprofit worlds, it's not about your mission, demographics, policies, or programs; it's about how constituents' lives will be different because of the solution you're providing.

      If you're a startup, project manager, or business leader, it isn't about your new cool idea; it's about why what you're proposing makes a difference. Don't tell stories of program or project features and benefits. Compare and contrast the present day with what'll be new or different in the future. Convey what's unique and hook people emotionally. Don't forget to also speak to pain points.

  2. When did you (first) realize that doing the work you do and solving the problem were important?

    People will want to know why you're asking for funds or resources, no matter what you're seeking them for. Tell them the reason(s) you're personally engaged and committed to the program, project, and/or organization.

    Through your stories, share what you gained from the original incident that sparked your interest — how it changed you, taught you a lesson, or provided an insight that's led you to speak to them. Skipping this step will compromise your ability to gain emotional and financial support.

  3. How personally invested are you in the resolution of the problem?

    One of the biggest problems in gaining support or raising funds is a lack of genuine connection to the project or cause. Do you really believe in it? Why are you choosing to fight for it? Are you truly motivated to solve it? How much time are you willing to devote to the issue, beyond what's merely required?

    Get clear on why you're inspired to do this work and share that story in addition to inspiring supporters or funders.

    For example, if you're an entrepreneur seeking venture capital, potential investors will want to know your personal stories related to the company and the product or service. They want to hear what inspires you to hop out of bed in the morning and devote your time to bringing this solution to the world.

    This passion also needs to be infused into the materials you send out. Giving boring formulaic material full of abstract mission and vision statements, financial data, and anonymous bland profiles to supporters or funders isn't effective storytelling. Sanitizing (watering down) stories is a surefire way to lose connection to the cause, project, or new product or service you're wanting to move forward.

  4. Who are you really trying to influence?

    Knowing the chain of influence will help you find, craft, and target stories to fit the needs of each audience and the different contexts you find yourself in.

    For example, an entrepreneur raising capital initially needs to influence an investor. A manager working to gain resources for a project initially needs to influence colleagues and executives. A nonprofit raising funds initially needs to influence grantors, donors, or funders.

    Who needs to be influenced beyond this first layer? What other partners and stakeholders — and ultimately customers, consumers, or constituents — need to be impacted? Dedicate time to mapping this chain of people and audiences.

You can do it! Be inspired by these success stories:

  • At one meeting, when a representative of San Diego Grantmakers shared a homelessness working group story, an audience member walked up and handed her a $25,000 check.

  • After being coached, a young girl from Just in Time for Foster Youth shared her story at a gala fundraiser and helped raise $75,000.

  • As part of raising $6.8 million in a single day (October 24, 2012), Columbia University used the story (aka an anecdote) of Morris Kaunda Michaels, a Sudanese refugee who came to study at Columbia with its alumni.

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