Connecting with the benefactor inside us

Connecting the beneficiary inside us


A guest blog by Anne McCrossan.

Writing puts a spotlight on how very incomplete the communication process can be. In committing words to a page and trying to make a connection, the furthest we can only ever go is halfway.

There’s a special kind of challenge that comes from realising how incomplete we are without being able to know the reaction the words create.

This is what’s at the core of the biggest challenge of every fundraiser, isn’t it? Connecting with the benefactor inside us. Benefaction, taken literally, is about making something happen with goodwill. The word comes from two words originally in Latin – ‘bene’ the good, and ‘factor’, from ‘facere’, the desire to make. Together then, this describes the benefactor as someone who inherently wants to make good things happen.

I’d been thinking about this idea of benefaction for a while when the other day someone gave me a Values document from a charity, for its staff, that made me think about it again.

This was a booklet talking about the values of the organisation for those at the heart of it, the people who get it, people who are giving dozens of hours every week to try to make it happen.

Yet the voice in this booklet was disembodied and disembowelled, anonymous and unfeeling. It began with ‘At [insert charity name here] we recognise that [we have to do insert task here] and carried on with a series of passive commands phrased as [‘Let’s].

The result was that, as an attempt at reaching over the communications’ divide and connecting with the benefactor in me, it backfired. I could only feel sad and disappointed. My benefaction was to want to step up to the call, but that had been completely evaporated.

Somehow, the organisation had got in the way of the human connection. This matters in a networked world because, in networks, human connection makes organisation, not the other way around.

This is the dynamic that creates action potential. It’s at the heart of benefaction too. The personal touch of the unexpected moves us, so does the sincerity that comes with daring to be original. Non-conformism in human connection gives rise to hope and possibility around the wanting to do good, not as a mechanical process, as a spontaneous feeling. We want people to be moved, roused, hopeful and excited, to want to be a part of the challenge that fundraising is.

A great idea obviously copy written can’t do this. And we’re getting more and more adept and seeing through the memes and clichés. Have a look at this video of Taylor Marli in action about the way people talk up at the end of sentences.

It’s a humorous illustration of the way we adopt protocols to stay safe and, once we see through them, their spell is broken.

Great fundraising communication encourages these innate desires we have to want to do good. Human nature is such that we revel in and value the quality of the experiences we have so, to be interesting, things can’t be formulaic, we have to connect with conviction.

There are clearly advantages to developing communications methods that can scale and the industrial charity complex has some real strengths going for it. Many charities have valuable communication assets to think of – a big name brand, a clearly identifiable proposition and a structural approach that can create communication that can reach as many as possible on a regular basis.

Culturally it’s a challenge to enable environments in which it’s ok not to play safe and to measure their value. Big data analytics enable levels of insight and awareness that can help. There are A/B tests and algorithms to develop and choose from, but the big data angle needs balancing with intuitive and intimate connection too.

There are signs in fact now, validated by data, that the model of the industrial sized charity might actually be getting in the way of encouraging benefaction. And benefaction rather than fundraising is the word being used here quite deliberately because, in networks, time and attention, love and advocacy and money are all connected.

The Visceral Business 2013 Social Charity Study has been gathering data across nearly 300 charities over a period of the last three years. Our findings indicate that in industrialised large-scale charities, there is often less of a relationship between funds raised and their numbers of supporters, and that in large charities supporters are disproportionately less likely to share content.

We’re coming to an interesting conclusion here that big isn’t necessarily always best that is being verified by data. A small charity designed for digital can track where money goes, donation by donation. So can a Kickstarter campaign or a heartfelt three-minute video on YouTube, measurably and positively reinforcing the sense of benefaction.

This takes me back to the beginning. Trusting that this is a two-way process and the other half is out of our hands creates an insight, which is this: We can’t ever know the reaction that anything we say or write will get, but writing it from the heart can connect with the benefactor in all of us, the spirit to want to do good, and the hope that we can.

Anne is the founding partner at Visceral Business and specialises in major brand-led organisational change. A social business specialist and TEDx speaker, Anne has worked with some of the world’s most influential organisations. You can follow her on Twitter @Annemcx.




How we are hardwired to learn and think through storytelling

Aspen Ideas Festival

Aspen Ideas Festival

I recently discovered the Aspen Ideas Festival and a session by Kendall Haven about why we are hardwired to think and learn through storytelling.*

Given that human beings have been relying on storytelling for over 100,000 years to learn and archive it is no surprise that the human mind is predisposed to think in story terms to understand, make sense and remember. Story is in our DNA.

According to Kendall, there is now scientific research that clearly shows that a good story:

  • Provides superior memory and recall
  • Provides improved understanding
  • Creates context and relevance
  • Creates empathy

Why does story work?

Kendall claims that whether you want to do it or not our brains are wired to make sense automatically and understand through stories. We simply don’t have a choice. So as a storyteller your job is to present information you want to convey in a way that lands in the conscious mind and memory of your listener.

Kendall refers to a part of our brains called the ‘neural story net’. It’s like a processor that lies between the external world and internal mind that makes sense of incoming information. It responds most effectively to information presented as stories. If the information presented is incomplete or parts of the story don’t make sense, the neural story net either disengages – it just ignores the information, or fills in its own gaps so that the story makes sense. This can lead to making assumptions, distortion of the information, miscommunication and misunderstandings.

So Kendall shows us that as a storyteller, if you can make the information you are providing fulfil the needs of the neural story net then your story will be understood, relevant, emotional and memorable to the listener.

Below are the elements that the neural story net requires to make sense of the information it is receiving and make your story stick;

  1. Why: what is the goal for the main character? What are they seeking? (not what they do) A clear goal is really important. The end of the story is when the goal is reached. (or not in a tragic story)
  2. A motive: which explains why the goal is important. A motive also creates suspense that helps the listeners identify with the character.
  3. Who: stories need characters, people that we can understand and identify with.
  4. A conflict: something that blocks the character from reaching their goal.
  5. Risk and danger:  involved in resolving the conflict in order to achieve the goal.
  6. Struggle: when we know what people are up against our emotions are engaged.
  7. Some detail: (but not too much) just enough so we can relate to and create a picture in our minds of the characters and the situation

In summary; Interesting characters have a goal that is important to them and relevant to you (the listener) blocked by some combination of problems and conflicts that the character has to struggle around or past or through facing risk and danger to achieve their goal.

Below is a quick checklist of the elements to include in your next story to ensure your message sticks.

  1. Be clear on who the main character is.
  2. Describe their character traits that make them interesting to the listener.
  3. Be clear on what their goal is – the thing they need to get or achieve.
  4. Why the goal is important. What is their motive?
  5. What is the conflict? What are the problems that block them.
  6. Include elements of risk and danger.
  7. How does the character struggle to overcome risk, danger and conflict?
  8. Include enough detail to be real and compelling while keeping the story as succinct as possible.

If you don’t include the 8 points above then your listener does one of two things.

  1. Make up their own version to fill in any gaps which may involve assumptions, distortion of the information and misunderstandings.
  2. Cannot make enough sense of the information so just disengages. They just ignore you.

We are hardwired to think and learn from storytelling. And with 100,000s of years of practice we are already masters at telling stories.

And in a massively competitive environment, where we are constantly bombarded with advertising messages, the better our storytelling skills are – the more chance we have of making our important message stick. Storytelling is a skill worth practicing.

You can also hear the whole session from Kendall here. And for more information about storytelling training and coaching you can email me.

*Thanks @CatherineRaynor

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