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Storytelling From The Heart

Updated: Jul 12, 2023

This essay is by JC Patrick, lifelong public radio fundraiser and consultant. Find out more at her website.

Several years ago, a group of fundraisers were in Atlanta, on a PMDMC bus bound for the evening’s event. Someone seated at the front of the bus started a stream of pledge drive patter – loudly – as a joke. For the next eight minutes or so, we laughed, hooted, and hollered out every hackneyed pledge phrase we’d ever heard or delivered ourselves. And boy, were there a lot of them! It was great fun, and we all had a blast.

I’ve remembered that bus ride in every subsequent pledge drive. Those phrases just rolled off our tongues without any thought at all. And I would bet money that our listeners could recite them right along with us. I see the same kind of mindless requests in almost every fundraising letter I receive: “Without your help, this project won’t get done.” And my answer to those plaintive pleas is: “Of course it will. You've done it before. You’ll most certainly do it again without my help.”

The patter heard on that bus ride demonstrated why the vast percentage of our audience does not donate to public broadcasting.

Think about the Salvation Army bell-ringers at Christmas. As you enter the grocery, you might drop a dollar in the red bucket and smile at the bell ringer. Do you know why you drop in the dollar? Where’s it going? Would you perhaps give even more if you knew how they used your donation? Successful stations aren’t just bell-ringers. Successful fundraisers tell prospective donors much, much more.

Good fundraising messages, like good sales messages, require good storytelling. Good stories engage both the listener AND the teller. The stories come from the heart. They have meaning. And most importantly, they answer the question, “W-I-I-F-M?”

What’s In It For Me?” is the one question our donors want answered before they open their wallets. It might sound a little crass, but it’s the motivational push that’s needed to spur action. No one gives without meaning, without benefit. And those reasons are as varied as our listeners.

Don’t talk about features, talk about benefits. NPR news, the music you carry, the community you serve – all of those features have deep benefits. Practice talking about those donor benefits. If you can make a statement and say, “So what?” – you haven’t offered a benefit. Make the donor see WHY and HOW, not just WHO and WHAT. For example, “KXXX brings you local and national news, as well as news from around the world.” That’s a feature. A benefit is, “When you listen to news on KXXX, you hear local stories that matter to you and your family, such as our recent series on graduation numbers in our local schools, and how our teachers are working to increase them.”

As you write your scripts, talking points, and messages for pledge drives, make sure that they are relevant to your station and to your market. Localism sells. Every single time I’ve heard station staff start talking about local stories with local station impact – the pledges come in. Make a point to gather lists of local news stories that you’ve aired prior to every pledge drive. Maybe there’s a local tie-in to a national NPR series, or maybe you did a special local series. News awards might seem self-serving to mention, but for some listeners, that outside validation is important for giving. But WHY you got those news awards is also story-worthy. It’s important that your listeners realize their donations power every step of those reporters’ days, from investigation to mileage to cell phones. Your donors have ownership – and pride - in those awards, too.

How are you more than a radio station? What impact do you have on your community? Maybe you host candidate debates during election season. Maybe you adopt a school…forge partnerships with other non-profits…host fun runs…gather listeners for social events…serve as media sponsor for the local arts community – the list is endless. And it’s not enough to just mention that you do these things – tell their stories. Make the donors see how far their dollars stretch in their own community. Emphasize that a gift to public radio stretches their giving dollars much farther than just one entity. Their gift to your station touches many, many local organizations.

And that’s another thing – you and all of your staff are part of that local community. There are stories there. You are neighbors, PTA members, Scout leaders, church members. You are part of the school bond issues, the local environmental concerns, the day to day activities of your city. It’s important to tell those stories – you are all in this together. I like to call a pledge drive a community celebration! Invite your local leaders, your donors, your business partners to share what the station means to them – in their own words. The more community participation, the more varied the community voices and stories – the greater the impact on donors.

Speak to your generations. Not all of our donors give because it’s the right thing to do, or because they feel obligated to do so. We know that some feel like they are paying for a service, or paying for a utility. But others might give because their family does, or because their friends donate. Some of our younger listeners might not really understand what a pledge drive is – but they help each other through go-fund-me campaigns all the time. A pledge drive is just one big crowd-sourcing project. And all the talk about sustainers? Sustainers is an “insider” term. We should explain what that program is and how it works – in detail. For that matter, we should regularly explain just how to make a pledge. We take the process for granted. We are teaching our younger generations how to give – and we need to lay it out, step by step.

When you write your scripts, how do you word them?

  • If you write complete scripts – please read them out loud. Make them conversational. Make them no higher than an 8th grade comprehension level. Yes, most of our listeners are highly educated, but most of us don’t have conversations in words with six syllables.

  • Write like you speak – and be sure to capture the voices, words and phrasing of all the generations on your staff.

  • Watch your grammar, yes, but let the words flow. And if your staff will be reading completely scripted breaks, work with them on delivery skills so that they aren’t reading – they are talking. There is a huge difference in sincerity.

  • Maybe a full script isn’t what you need. Often talking points are enough. You’re giving your on-air staff the leeway to use their own words around a common thought. A list of local news stories with some important facts about each is a good place to start. You’ll want to add talking points about local partnerships, local programs, NPR stories, reasons to give, and more. Create a book of ideas that can be easily turned into pledge talking points.

Finally, have an all-staff meeting prior to each pledge drive. Feed them. Get them talking. Lay out the goals, the strategy, the specials, the premiums – anything that’s pertinent to the drive. Have someone take notes on a flip chart or white board and get your staff talking. Brainstorm answers to the ideas above and other questions you might form. It’s a creative form of pledge rehearsal. You’ll walk away with a lot of new talking points prior to each pledge drive. They will be sincere points, ideas that you and your staff have generated, and local to your market – and in your own voices.

They will be stories you’ve told from your hearts.


JC Patrick


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