THE POWER OF STORY: Using Historical Narrative As a Compelling Case for Your Mission

indian storytellerI was put into a situation early in my fundraising career that became an unforgettable example of the power of a story to influence people and move them to action. As a development representative for David Lipscomb University, the Vice President assigned me the responsibility of following up with a particular donor. He was extremely wealthy, but also extremely tight with all that he had. No one from any organization, that I am aware of, had been able to convince him to make more than one significant donation. He was assigned to me, but not because anyone thought I would have any more success. Rather, as the junior executive on the staff, I inherited all the files of lapsed and unlikely donors.

I had an initial meeting with the donor, “Mr. X”, at which time he showed no enthusiasm for the university or its mission. However, I discovered that he really loved to eat catfish; so, every month, or so, he and I would meet for catfish. This went on for quite some time. I kept trying to befriend him and build a relationship. Every now and then I would try to show him giving or estate planning presentations—lots of projections, full-color graphs on slick paper in folders embossed with the Lipscomb University logo. He was polite, as always, but still uninterested. I also discovered that Mr. X loved basketball. So, when Lipscomb won the NAIA National Championship, I delivered a basketball signed by every player and coach. He thanked me but still no traction.

Having pulled out all the stops and gone for the ask, Mr. X responded by immediately changing the subject.

One day as Mr. X was getting out of my car after another catfish dinner, it occurred to me that I might not have many more such opportunities. So I asked him to wait; that I had a story I wanted to tell him. He closed the door, and I began with my story of two men and two gifts given several decades apart. I never knew the former donor but got to know the latter pretty well in the last years of his life. This man had donated hundreds of acres of valuable Nashville real estate to Lipscomb University.

I went on to talk about these two amazing individuals, and the details of what their gifts had done for the university. Those were what we would call “institutional changing” gifts. Finally, I said, “You know Mr. X, I don’t know anyone who could do for this institution what you could do for them. And I don’t know of another such gift in Lipscomb’s foreseeable future. I just want to ask you to consider something at that level.”

Having pulled out all the stops and gone for the ask, Mr. X responded by immediately changing the subject.

Getting Traction with a Story
About three months later, Mr. X asked me to come over to his house. I remembered telling the story about Lipscomb’s two greatest donors, but it was part of my standard repertoire. And, with Mr. X’s standard cool response, I had failed to recognize the significance of it. As we sat down in the den, the first words out of his mouth were, “You’re asking me to give a whole lot of money.”

Three months had gone by and the first words he said to me were a response to the story I told about Lipscomb’s two greatest donors. He seemed to be continuing right where my story had left off.

“Well, Mr. X,” I replied as before, “I just don’t see anyone else who would be able to do for us what you could do. There is nobody in our future who has the capability that you have.”

What followed turned into my all-time strangest donor relations visit. Mr. X got up without saying a word and walked away down a long hallway to the back of the house. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do. Did that mean the meeting was over? Was I expected to excuse myself and leave? After 15-20 minutes, I saw him walk across that the hallway at the back of the house. After another 15-20 minutes passed, he returned to the den and asked if I would like something to drink. Disappearing into the kitchen and coming back with a bottle of 7-Up, he said, “You know Eddie, you’re asking me to do something really big. You’re asking me to give up an awful lot. I’ve got to think about that.” He turned around and walked off again, this time disappearing for about an hour.

What I learned in that one hour and forty-five minutes was this… It was the story that inspired the reluctant, and notoriously tight, Mr. X to do for Lipscomb what no one else I knew of could do.

I had about two years of fundraising experience under my belt, and there was nothing in my training, or experience, about what to do in a situation like this. In all, I sat in his den by myself for about an hour and forty-five minutes with Mr. X appearing every now and then for a few moments, before walking out again.

Finally, he came back in and declared with great resolve, “You know Eddie, I’m gonna do that. Can you meet me and my controller at my office in a few days, and I’ll have something for you.”

What I learned in that one hour and forty-five minutes was this: That a year’s supply of catfish, a signed basketball, and all the charts and graphs I could produce had no real impact. It was the story that inspired the reluctant, and notoriously tight, Mr. X to do for Lipscomb what no one else I knew of could do.

That night I lay awake with a loaded shotgun in the corner of the bedroom and the briefcase in bed between my wife and me.

Several days later I met Mr. X and his controller at his office. When they had finished assembling a large stack of stocks and bonds in front of me, Mr. X said, “I’m not sure how much this is worth, but I think it’s a big gift.” It turned out to be worth $12.4 million. The meeting concluded, and I began stuffing over $12 million worth of securities into my satchel briefcase and trying desperately to get it closed. Since it was late in the afternoon, our offices and the bank were closed. The briefcase had to go home with me.

Walking around with a briefcase stuffed with negotiable securities terrified me. I felt like I had a neon sign on my back saying, “I’VE GOT $12 MILLION STUFFED IN THIS BRIEFCASE.” That night I lay awake with a loaded shotgun in the corner of the bedroom and the briefcase in bed between my wife and me.

That was the largest gift David Lipscomb University had ever received. What I received was a lesson in the power of the right story to move people to action when nothing else will.

Eddie Thompson, Ed.D.

Copyright 2013, R. Edward Thompson
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