Once Upon A Time

September 10, 2014

We all like to hear a good story. It’s in our veins.

By Laurie Hileman

Long before ink met paper, storytelling connected one generation to another, passing along the hard-earned wisdom and traditions of those who came before. Stories inspired, instructed, incited, and entertained.

But somewhere along the way, particularly in business and government, stories were set aside for the sanctity of statistics, the frankness of facts. Modern technology, with all of its conveniences and capabilities, unleashed a raging torrent of information that leaves us gasping for breath.

“People don’t want more information. They are up to their eyeballs in information. They want faith—faith in you, your goals, your success, in the story you tell,” says Annette Simmons in her book, The Story Factor. 

Yes, it all comes back to the stories we tell.

So, how do organizations tap the power of storytelling to build stronger relationships, and at the same time, strengthen their bottom lines? Well, let me tell you a story…

Identity Crisis

It was a great frustration to his board of trustees.

“Here we are, doing great things—and have the potential to do more great things—and nobody even has a clue we’re alive,” says Dan McKune, executive director of the Catholic Community Foundation of Mid-Michigan (CCFMM), located in Saginaw, Mich.

The fledgling foundation, despite having grown to more than $20 million in funding assets, had an identity problem. Rather, a lack-of-identity problem, impacting not only donor solicitations but grant distributions as well.

“People didn’t know to ask for money. Didn’t know it was available to ask for it,” says McKune, referring to their funds that are granted for education, assistance to the poor, and other areas of need.

CCFMM had a story that needed telling, and they turned to professionals for help.

“We needed something that could be done at the producer level,” says McKune. “Too many things we do around this place consume too much time.” Working with Michigan-based Great Lakes Bay Publishing, which specializes in producing consumer and B2B magazines, newsletters, annual reports, and commemorative editions, CCFMM created a custom charitable giving publication that highlights who they are, what they do, and how readers of the publication can support their mission of sharing Christ’s love with those in need.

Brimming with stories of donors and grant recipients, along with helpful information on giving options, the 12-page, full-color piece appealed to a broad range of the 100,000 Catholics who call the Diocese of Saginaw home. CCFMM mailed one to every diocesan household as well as to financial planners and planned giving professionals in the area.

The donation results were immediate—in both amount of gifts received and how gifts were made.

A welcome surprise for CCFMM was that many new gifts were general in nature, or marked by the donors as “unrestricted” and being able to be granted where the need was greatest, which was a real boon for ongoing operations. With a wry smile, McKune says, “We can pay all of the bills except our own.”

CCFMM also received its first charitable gifts made via an online donation option, thanks to an article in the publication about a new online giving tool.

In an organization that relies heavily on planned giving, McKune notes some results are not easily measured. “I’ve talked to numerous planned giving professionals who have met with clients [as a result of] them receiving the publication. But, we don’t know what those benefits will be until some point in the future.”

Due to its initial success, CCFMM committed to producing the publication on a yearly basis. In fact, McKune says the second issue of the publication was even more successful than the first, yielding a 25 percent increase of donations over the first-year response. This, perhaps, may be due to more potential donors being made aware of the existence of the foundation and available giving opportunities.

McKune closes his story with the example of a donor who came to speak with him after receiving the first issue of the publication. The donor, who had planned to give a six-digit donation to a larger organization, chose instead to give to CCFMM. The donor said, “They don’t need the money as much as you. I’ll give it to you.”

Connections that Matter

As CCFMM discovered, the power of a story lies in its ability to connect readers with the experiences, emotions, and motivations of your central characters, and translate them into their own frames of reference. Savvy marketers are taking note.

Research shows 94 percent of business professionals who read custom magazines say that the publications are an important source of information. More importantly, according to the Custom Publishing Council, 70 percent of regular custom magazine readers have purchased a product or service as a direct result of reading a custom publication.

“ROI? You bet. Try our earning 5x in new business what we invested in developing our custom published magazine,” says the president of one Midwestern manufacturing firm. “No other marketing strategy has been able to tell our story in a way that truly resonates with our customers and prospects. My sales staff absolutely loves it.”

With a precise strategy, targeted audience, and compelling custom content, you, too, can harness the power of storytelling with amazing results. Says screenwriting lecturer Robert McKee, who has worked with businesses such as Nike and Microsoft on brand management and communications, “Storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world today.”