The power of storytelling: Development directors discuss challenges and opportunities


Recessions, stock market swings, election years – none affect nonprofit fundraising, Cincinnati insiders say, as much as telling compelling stories. Stronger storytelling, they say, leads to more donors and higher levels of loyalty and giving.

But as they enter 2016, development directors in Cincinnati aren’t looking merely for financial donors but, rather, to build relationships with people who care about the organization’s mission.

While the growth of video and social media makes it easier than ever for organizations to tell their stories, it also creates a white noise of competition for people’s eyes and attention spans. Several fundraising leaders spoke with Movers & Makers about the challenges and opportunities they see entering 2016.

“In the world of philanthropy, it’s not about the institution. It’s all about the donor and how they can help, and it’s our responsibility to listen,” said Judy Levenson of Lighthouse Youth Services, which offers a range of services and support for Cincinnati youth and families in need.

Judy Levenson Lighthouse Youth Services

Judy Levenson
Lighthouse Youth Services

Levenson is looking to raise between $1 million and $2.5 million in 2016 for general operating expenses on top of Lighthouse’s capital campaign for a new building. Lighthouse’s next fundraising event is an April 16 awards ceremony called Beacon of Humanitarian Light.

“The story we have to tell, it’s pretty hard to not be passionate about,” Levenson said. “What still amazes me is people who haven’t heard of Lighthouse, and it’s really critical for us to start educating that next generation of donor. Unfortunately, some of the younger people didn’t learn to be philanthropic; they learned about me, me, me, me, me. So how do you get them to care about your organization?”

At Tender Mercies, which supports mentally ill adults with housing and other services, director of development Jackie Baumgartner said fundraising efforts have climbed since focusing on the stories of people they serve.

“We have 150 residents at any one time, and I realized we weren’t telling their stories,” said Baumgartner. The organization’s next large fundraising event isn’t until June 6, the 24th annual Tee Up for Tender Mercies golf outing.

Jackie Baumgartner Tender Mercies

Jackie Baumgartner
Tender Mercies

“We were sending out (fundraising) letters from our CEO, but nobody cares who our CEO is or who the development director is,” Baumgartner said. “I tried to get everyone to understand we had to tell the residents’ stories, about why our mission is so important. So I’ve redone all our material and we always have quotes from our residents about the effect we’re having in their lives.”

At the Cincinnati Zoo, Reba George Dysart’s department has an annual goal of raising between $9 million and $10 million – nearly a quarter of the zoo’s budget. Dysart frames the main challenge as educating the public – which already supports the zoo through a tax levy, memberships and daily admissions – that the zoo also needs donations like any other nonprofit organization.

Of the zoo’s 58,000 member families, Dysart said, only 800 donated at $295 and above this past year to join the zoo’s Keepers Circle. Tickets are still available to the Zoo’s annual Tulip Event April 13.

Reba Dysart Cincinnati Zoo

Reba George Dysart
Cincinnati Zoo

Storytelling at the zoo takes the shape of animal tales. A capital campaign that raised $34 million in private giving for the zoo’s Africa exhibit has, at various phases, depended on turning the story spotlight on giraffes, cheetahs, lions, African painted dogs and, most recently, hippos. Still, Dysart said she’s motivated to continue expanding the circle of donors beyond board members and volunteers.

“As fortunate as we’ve been to have repeat donors, we can’t keep tapping the same sources,” she said. “So we’re constantly looking for new sources.”

Deborah Morgan faces much the same challenge at the Cincinnati Arts Association, a nonprofit that manages Music Hall and the Aronoff Center, among other venues, and has trouble telling its own story. For example, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Cincinnati Ballet and Cincinnati Opera make their homes at Music Hall and the Aronoff, and people assume they’re supporting the maintenance and operation of both halls through their support of those arts organizations, Morgan said.

Deborah Morgan Cincinnati Arts Association

Deborah Morgan
Cincinnati Arts Association

“People think we don’t need the money. Yes, we’re partners with (those arts organizations) and we get a very nominal fee for selling those tickets,” she said. “Other than Broadway (Series productions), the other partners we have are also not-for-profit, so we’re all in this big soup together trying to raise money for our own organizations. I live on the premise that I have to develop a relationship with an individual, a corporate entity, and educate them about how we’re separate.”

“We have 150 residents at any one time, and I realized we weren’t telling their stories. We were sending out (fundraising) letters from our CEO, but nobody cares who our CEO is or who the development director is.”—Jackie Baumgartner

Storytelling is a tricky proposition for social service organizations, where privacy issues always loom large.

“I can’t just go down the halls and talk with our patients,” said Mary Alexander, the development director at the Lindner Center of Hope, which supports people suffering from mental illness. “We talk about our new program for adolescent diagnostic and treatment, called Williams House, but it’s not as easy to turn that into an engaging story.”

“While I’d love to have a documentary video that would make people really feel something, I can’t use the youth that way,” said Levenson, of Lighthouse Youth Services, citing privacy concerns.

Mary Alexander Lindner Center of HOPE

Mary Alexander
Lindner Center of HOPE

Alexander said she faces two other challenges in fundraising for the Lindner Center: its relative newness – the center opened in 2008 – and the perception that the foundation of support from the Lindner family is enough to carry the center.

“What I try to convey to other people is you can’t just rely on one family for the mental health care of a community,” Alexander said. “It’s just like if one family wanted to start a college – you don’t rely on just the largesse of that family to fund a university.”

In the age of social and mobile media, development directors often dream up concepts and campaigns before their organizations have the technical capacity to fulfill them. The Cincinnati Zoo, despite a variety of online avenues for giving, still receives the bulk of its individual donations from checks in the mail, Dysart said.

“It’s great for getting news out there, but I don’t know that we’ve quite been able to crack the code in terms of fundraising and social media,” she said. “If our social media messages are time-sensitive and it’s something compelling enough, (social media) works really well for fundraising. But if it’s ‘$250 helps feed a gorilla for one month,’ it might work in a brochure, but it doesn’t resonate with our audiences as much through social media,” hinting that age and lack of digital connectivity may still be factors in raising money.

Tender Mercies recently launched a new donations web page, but its website didn’t get a mobile-ready makeover until January. Still, Baumgartner said, Tender Mercies has had fundraising successes that weren’t possible before social media. This past year, on the annual Giving Tuesday, Tender Mercies attracted 10 new donors who came through promoting the Twitter hashtag #GivingDignity.

“We asked each of them what drew them to us, and they said we had a really cool graphic about pots and pans,” Baumgartner said with a laugh. “But generally, donations don’t come from social media. People go to the website and donate.”

At the Lindner Center, fundraisers are working social media channels to attract younger donors to a Feb. 7 Super Bowl Sunday event called Touchdown For Hope.

“When you’re looking at the younger generation, they’re just starting to think of where their philanthropic dollars are going, so to capture what we do on social media is important,” Alexander said.

While all organizations focus on deep-pocketed donors, development directors say it’s vital to remain inviting and accessible to donors even at the smallest levels. That’s all the more essential at Cincinnati Arts Association, where Morgan said she’s careful not to compete – at least not aggressively – with Cincinnati’s symphony, ballet and opera companies for young professionals and others in the early stages of philanthropy.

The CAA centers its storytelling on its education program, which sends artists into schools, and stages productions featuring local and regional artists, in which tickets go to students for as little as $1. The association also highlights its Overture Awards scholarship program, Feb. 27 at the Aronoff, which pads college funding for 36 local high schoolers excelling among six artistic disciplines.

“We’re also a small city, and (fundraisers) all know the same people,” Morgan said. “It’s difficult because everyone’s tight-lipped about who’s giving them money until you see it on a program or a sign, and nobody wants to take from somebody else.”

In the end, Levenson said, development is matchmaking – connecting donors to avenues they’ll find most engaging.

“When you do your job well, you don’t have to ask anybody for money,” she said.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story had incorrectly listed the date and ticket availability of the Cincinnati Zoo’s Tulip Event.

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