“Great stories happen to those who can tell them.” Ira Glass
How many times have you been sitting with a friend, relative or client trying desperately to keep your mind in the room? If the surroundings are interesting, you’ll find something to focus on. A fraying edge of carpet needing nifty scissors, or notes and scribbles on the flip chart left from another meeting; two large circles, arrows pointing skyward.
This drifting syndrome is somehow super-human. It steals you from a place you know you need to be – but mental planning of supper’s menu or which items to collect in Waitrose somehow have the power to silence another human being even as they continue to speak.
But there is something that can snap you back, like a magnet into connectedness, and suddenly Waitrose and supper can wait.
It’s the power of a story from the heart of another human being.
But not just any story; a true, sincere and emotional one. It’s the moment Aunt Sally shares what she witnessed the lump in her throat revealed – or when client X confesses his true thoughts on the proposition because of what’s happening with his daughter.
We jerk awake. Eyes connect. Pin drops.
Personal stories cut across life’s busy din, the distraction of commercial bombardment; the individual’s drive towards productivity. Somehow the language of emotion, the exposure of raw honesty and the poignancy of a touched or troubled soul can change the course of a conversation, a day or even a lifetime. Human connecting with human is the currency of major business deals, the affinity of friendship; the warmth of family. We connect through our stories.
And that is the way in fundraising. We pitch to secure major gifts. We strive to cultivate relationships. And we call ourselves a family. But do we make connections? I mean real connections?
And who’s telling our stories anyway? The agency copywriter with two paragraphs of scribbled quotes, or the cancer survivor with no breasts?
A story told well is a story from the heart. Ones which are fabricated, ‘branded’ and regurgitated across all the channels show up like a pair of cheap, fake jeans. They preempt drifting syndrome like a badly played poker hand. Two seconds from the DM pack’s opening; “I fancy curry tonight.” Two minutes from the initial hand shake; “I think Waitrose is doing a 2 for £10 deal.” I’ve heard all this before.
Yes you probably have.
I’m sure you’ve read a case study two or three times over, thinking, “Wait a minute, I thought this kid was called Gemma?” Now she’s Katie. Then Sarah. Then Nicky. Changing names doesn’t just protect identity. It gives license to hide snippets of authentic truth, and multiply the story for our various evolving needs.
What charities need to realise is that heart stories aren’t easy to come by. But they must be authentic, and they must be true. And most importantly, they must be told.
These girls, mothers, patients, babies are not ‘beneficiaries’. They’re humans. And your donors would far rather meet these humans than you, your CEO or your brand.
The question is; how do we orchestrate their meeting without drifting syndrome being an uninvited guest? And how do we even come across these heart stories in the first place? This is a question I am yet to answer, but I’m not about to give up trying.
The closest I’ve come is when one charity had the guts, trust and resources to send me overseas. Having cobbled together many a DM pack with a few pages of garbled, transcribed prose, I stuck my neck out one day and said, “Send me.” It was more of an audacious joke than a sincere request, but I was bowled over by the humble agreement and risk-taking investment that got me on that plane.
Eliko weighed just 780g when she was brought into the world. This in itself is an utter miracle. But what’s more of a miracle is that her mother walked miles across vast Malagasy rainforest to reach the bush hospital where she was delivered by a missionary midwife. Even in wintry September, months after the heat has passed, temperatures can reach the high 20’s.
The hospital where I met Ranory, Eliko’s proud and modest mother, is called Hopitaly Vaovao Mahafaly – translated ‘Good News Hospital’. It is a magical oasis, a place where good things happen to the desperately poor. My first impression when jumping out of the sweaty, clapped-out jeep is of utter beauty and tranquility. Huge frangipani trees shade an open courtyard, which acts as the patient waiting room. Babies play together in the dust as mothers lean against red-brick, savouring the shade. Delicate sheets of X-Ray hang from trees, stirring in the breeze to dry and process; another patients’ fate revealed.
This is no concrete NHS block; where vending machine queues and irritable outpatients scuff and winge to one another. “The parking’s just gone into yet another hour – yes, that’s gunna cost me over a tenner.”
The day of my visit was not only glorious for its stark contrast to the West’s entitled demands and unreachable expectations; it was the day Eliko was finally going home 65 days after her miraculous birth. This was a day of celebration.
It was a very brief encounter, and I didn’t hold or even touch baby Eliko, but I was struck by the fight. The fight of an expectant, miscarrying mother. The fight of a fragile, unborn child. The fight of a glowing, British midwife; welcoming and dedicated to each new patient, wiping sweat from her brow and accepting a life of minimal means in a distant land with her own husband and small children; together sustaining a livelihood serving Madagascar’s isolated poor.
So many heart stories. So few words. So little time.
If I had had the privilege of telling even one of these women’s stories in full, I fear I would not give them justice – or more alarmingly – disrupt the delicate balance between innocent acceptance and powerful contentedness that typifies the third-world.
But incredible stories exist all around us. It is both stereotypical and narrow-minded to think that the sector’s most moving heart stories need necessarily be imported, transcribed or fabricated. They take place every day in the clinics, laboratories, offices, therapy-chairs, food banks, charity shops and drop-in centres that we sustain as a sector up and down the country. The army of staff, volunteers, fundraisers and service-users who interact with our charities day in, day out carry the human connections which need to be told. They hold the power to inject inspiration, emotion and growth into our organisations.
And one of those individuals is you.
So next time you put pen to paper, consider the stories you tell, do not indulge your reader or listener in drifting syndrome – make sure that you yourself have a heart connection before writing another word.
Joanna Lamb is Regional Fundraising and Development Manager at The Children’s Society.
Images taken at ‘Good News Hospital’ by Joanna Lamb