The Fundraising Executive

SIX BLIND MEN & THE ORGANIZATIONAL ELEPHANT: Microscopic and Telescopic Versions of the Fundraising Narrative

By Eddie Thompson | December 10, 2013 | Donor Communications

fivemenThe story of the elephant and the six blind men has been told in one form or another since the early fifth century B.C. and has been used to illustrate everything from religious toleration to team synergy. Here’s my application to donor relations and organizational communications.

The Elephant and the Blind Men
Once upon a time, there were six blind men who were told by their neighbors of a great elephant that had come to their village.

One of the blind men said to the others, “I have heard stories about this creature, and even though we cannot see it, we should go and give it a feel.” And so, all of them went to touch and feel the elephant.

“Hey, the elephant is a pillar,” said the first man who touched his leg.

“Oh, no! It is like a rope,” said the second man who touched the tail.

“Oh, no! It’s like a thick branch of a tree,” said the third man who touched the trunk of the elephant.

“It is like a big hand fan,” said the fourth man who touched the ear of the elephant.

“It is like a huge wall,” said the fifth man who touched the elephant’s side.

“It is like a solid pipe,” said the sixth man who touched the tusk of the elephant.

Of course, they had a unique experience and perspective because they were touching and feeling different parts of the elephant.

As the Director of Institutional Advancement, you and your team are the chief solicitors and communicators. That means you represent the stories and perspectives of people at all levels of the organization — from the Board of Directors and CEO to the program staff to those individuals impacted by the organization.

People have touched the organizational elephant in many different ways. Each unique story, if told well and to the right person, represents a compelling reason to give.

Your responsibility would be a lot simpler if there were just one type of donor, one kind of interest, one reason to volunteer, and one version of story to tell. However, staff and stakeholders have different stories to tell and their own reason for contributing time, talent, and resources. And so, as a fundraiser, you might be called upon to tell the story of any group, function, or activity —that is, from the telescopic to the microscopic perspective (big picture to small picture).

In other words, people have touched the organizational elephant in many different ways. Each unique story, if told well and to the right person, represents a compelling reason to give. See: THE POWER OF STORY: Using Historical Narrative as a Compelling Case for Your Mission

Last month I had a meeting with a communications professional at a missionary organization. He was responsible for writing the monthly gift-acknowledgement letters from the organization’s president. Someone in the organization had read an article about the importance of storytelling and testimonials. Consequently, the communications consultant was tasked with strictly following a formula in each letter. The President’s letter would be about an individual whose life had been impacted, including a 3- to 6-line quote about his or her experience of touching the organization elephant.

Testimonials are a great way of demonstrating impact. There were, however, several problems with that particular communications strategy.

1. PREDICTABLITY: His formula had become very predictable, and after 6-8 months, donors began to recognize the familiar format. A quick survey revealed that donors had concluded that the President probably had little to do with the content of the thank you letter. Of course, the sense of genuine donor appreciation, therefore, diminished.

2. CREDIBILITY: While the testimonies appealed to a certain type of donors, especially tactical donors who give in response to clearly defined needs, strategic donors tend to respond to opportunities that make a difference on a broader scale. In other words, they look for an organization in which to invest, and thereby, leverage their impact—the most bang for the donated buck. It’s not that strategic donors don’t care about individual needs; most do, indeed, care a lot. However, strategic donors quickly become skeptical of anecdotal evidence of organization impact. They soon begin to question if that is the one and only organizational success story of the month. See: STRATEGIC AND TACTICAL PLANNING — PART 1: The Fundraising Approach and STRATEGIC AND TACTICAL GIVING – Part 2: Hans Brinker with His Finger in the Dike

3. NEARSIGHTED VISION: My friend was locked into communicating one perspective of the organizational story. It was the organizational story from a microscopic perspective. That is to say, content in the President’s gift-acknowledgement letters had become secondhand stories the communications consultant had heard from field staff.  Donors need to occasionally hear, or read, the words of the President making his case for strategic giving on an organizational level—i.e., the long-range, telescopic perspective. That usually includes quantitative measurements of the scope and reach, as well as the impact-per-dollar of donor investment.

Most donors, staff, and stakeholders can talk about the organization from several perspectives. But generally speaking, storytellers in the organization default to their own particular story from their own experience. For example:

      • Board Members tend to talk about the community. That’s his or her primary story to tell.
      • Chief Executive Officers tend to talk about the long-term vision and the case for giving.
      • Doctors tend to talk about patient care and cutting edge treatments.
      • Nurses tend to tell the story about interaction with patients.
      • Corporate Donors tend to talk about supporting the quality of life in the community.
      • Major Donors tend to talk about strategic gifts that have taken the organization to a new level of effectiveness.
      • Donors at all levels, particularly those who give as a tactical response to an advertised need, tend to talk about making a difference by their financial partnership.

Of course, all of these groups can tell stories form several different perspectives, but these are the primary ways they have touched and felt the organizational elephant. The difference between these groups and the development staff is that the latter have to be experts in telling the organizational story from any and all perspectives. See: THE ART OF THE TELL; Identifying the Heroes in Your Organization’s Story


1. Stewards of the Organizational Narrative
For those who know the story so well and have told it so many times, it is easy to become complacent. Development professionals have to constantly monitor the organizational narrative—blogs, tweets, and the public conversations by and about staff, stakeholders, board members, and end-users—stories about metrics that reveal scope, impact, and efficiency. Sometimes you have to dig around for the new perspective; a story of someone recently touched by the organizational elephant.

If the story becomes old, stale, and predictable (static rather than dynamic), so will the response and the giving.

2. Static vs. Dynamic Storytelling
The organizational narrative is not static but, rather, a dynamic and constantly evolving story. If the story you have to tell has become static, the organization is probably in decline. I understand that staying up-to-date with all of the evolving perspectives takes a lot of time and effort. And, it’s easy to assume this to be the job of the public relations or communications professionals. However, you are the frontline storytellers, and if the story becomes old, stale, and predictable (static rather than dynamic), so will the response and the giving.

3. Schedule the Messages and the Mix
I’m sure you have some kind of schedule by which you try to organize a certain number of donor touches each month. A good strategy will vary the forms of touches—letters, calls, emails, events, and personal visits. An even better strategy also plans out the mix of story perspectives.

As chief storyteller, one of your ongoing objectives is to master and maintain all perspectives of the organizational narrative—to whip out the right story at the right time for the right person.

You may have a donor so geared towards strategic giving that all he or she wants to hear about are progress metrics.

You can also have donors who focus exclusively on a tactical response to a specific need, and want to hear stories of individuals who are impacted by the organization.

Occasionally, a donor will be highly motivated by operational giving (supporting logistics and infrastructure).

Only a few of your donors are going to fit exclusively into such extreme categories. For the rest, you need a balanced diet of big picture, small picture, and medium picture storytelling. You never know, for sure, what is going to appeal to a particular donor at a particular time.

As chief storyteller, one of your ongoing objectives is to master and maintain all perspectives of the organizational narrative—to whip out the right story at the right time for the right person.

Eddie Thompson, Ed.D.

Copyright 2013, R. Edward Thompson