It’s cool for cats – reflections on storytelling, psychology and fundraising

This week I took a rare day out to attend the Institute of Fundraising’s National Fundraising Convention. My purpose was to take some of the ideas and experiences from the large and huge charities and translate them into something that can be quickly picked up and used by other, slightly less resource-fortunate organisations.

And it was a fruitful day. Four of my sessions seemed to dovetail each other nicely, and it is from those four that I am sharing some reflections.

Starting something from scratch is hard. Many of the charities I have supported as a consultant are facing similar problems – they want to diversify their income and need to grow their supporter base to do this, but getting going is a hurdle in itself.


If you are in this camp, then the currently very in vogue ‘storytelling’ seems to hold a lot of useful shortcuts that could help. What is great about storytelling as an approach is that it doesn’t actually want you to have lots of stats and figures and evidence of impact. The big outcome measurement headaches that plague smaller charities are essential for grants and contracts, but just window dressing in the storytelling methodology.

Charlie Hulme and Lauren Semple gave five top tips in their session.

1. Relevance

Make sure the story is relevant for the audience. What are they interested in

2. Individuality

The story needs to be about an individual, with whom the listener/reader can empathise –and if they really exist, all the better.

3. Hope

Positive stories work better than negative ones. For our sector, hopeful stories that need the reader to do something to achieve a happy ending work even better.

4. Social norm

Make the listener feel that supporting you is a popular thing to do.

5. Deference to authority

People tend to believe those who exude authority and power.

Behavioural economics

The last two were underlined by Omar Mahmoud and Bernard Ross later in the day, thinking about the psychology of behavioural economics. And they make me a bit…well demoralised. Because it means that actually, in order to tell a story that people will want to get involved in, you have to achieve that anathema of all teenagers, it has to be cool. And to do this, you have to convince people that you have a crowd behind you already. You are the cool kid in the playground. Donate to me, because everyone else already is. Think about the Ice Bucket Challenge, think about the most successful crowdfunding and sponsored events. People give because others are giving. Because others have endorsed the appeal as a cool thing to be involved with. Which is clearly a problem if you are a smaller charity with a modest track record of fundraising from the public.


So, what do the big charities do? As well as use the tricks of storytelling, they will also launch appeals secretly, to warm supporters, to friends, to contacts, as Nicola Tallett and Emma Whitcombe reminded me in their session about developing a culture of philanthropy. They will make personal approaches and enable their boards and volunteers to make personal approaches to get the ball rolling. So that when they launch the appeal, they’ve already got the crowd and they’ve already been endorsed. They are asking people to join something popular. It’s a clear strategy to get started that will make any new endeavour much more likely to work. (Take note those who are jumping on the crowdfunding bandwagon!)

Community engagement

All that said, I was never very good at cool. I could never be bothered, to be honest. And what was clear from Terence Lovell, Neal Robertson and Alex Anderson’s session on Community Engagement is that jumping on a bandwagon and supporting someone to do their own thing is always going to be much better than anything you come up with yourself. You learn quite quickly when you are a teenager that the next cool thing is pretty hard to engineer. And usually, for all the posturing and hair gel, the coolest people are, eventually, those who have the confidence to be themselves. Their stories become their own and become more powerful.


While on the one hand behavioural economics offers charities the opportunity to control communications like never before, the message from fundraising with the community asks that we let go. Cool has never been more elusive.

By the way, in case you were wondering, oddly, no-one in any of my sessions mentioned cats.

The four sessions I’m drawing from in this post were:

1. Community Engagement in Practice, Terence Lovell @tejlovell, Save the Children, Neal Robertson @CommunityNeal, Havens Hospices and Alex Anderson, Myton Hospice

2.Defining, developing and delivering a culture of philanthropy, Nicola Tallett @Nicola_Tallett and Emma Whitcombe, MS Society

2. How to find and tell the right story, Charlie Hulme @charlieartful, Donor Voice and Lauren Semple @LaurenSemp2311, R Fundraising

3. Behavioural Economics, Omar Mahmoud, UNICEF and Bernard Ross @bernardrossmc, =MC

This entry was posted in Practical support and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Like this? Read more

Ros is NCVO's lead in Sustainable Funding, promoting a more sustainable, suitable and strategic approach to generating income of all kinds - donations, grants, contracts and trading. @RosJTweets

3 Responses to It’s cool for cats – reflections on storytelling, psychology and fundraising