How much is a good story worth?

Written by
Michael Rosen
May 06, 2015
A story might make us sad or happy, so how much is a good story worth to a fundraiser?

We all enjoy a good story. Sometimes, a story will make us sad or happy. It might even make us laugh or inspire us. But, how much is a good story worth to a fundraising professional?

Sometime ago, I read a story that continues to stick with me. I read a news article from Lincoln in Nebraska. No, the piece was not about the bone-chilling temperatures resulting from the polar vortex blowing down the plains. Instead, it was a heart-warming tale about an 18-year-old server at a local restaurant.

Abigail Sailors whose willingness and, indeed, ability to tell her story inspired a donor to help her back into education. (Photo by Morgan Spiehs/Lincoln Journal Star.)

When two men visited the Cracker Barrel restaurant they asked the hostess to seat them at a table staffed by the grumpiest server. They explained they wanted to cheer up the person.

The hostess explained that Cracker Barrel did not have any unhappy servers; so, instead, she would seat them at a table staffed by the happiest server.

After placing their order, the men asked Abigail Sailors why she was so happy. Over the course of the meal, she answered their questions.

Years ago, Abigail's parents were involved in a tragic car crash. Her mother had suffered a severe brain injury. Her father could not care for the children by himself. Abigail and her four siblings were placed into foster care, in separate homes. Abigail was abused and bounced from home to home.

When Abigail, a sister and brother were returned home to their father, the story did not reach its happily-ever-after moment. Instead, the father was ultimately arrested for abuse.

The restaurant where she told her lovely story to some very willing listeners.

Then, nine years ago, John and Susi Sailors rescued the five children and cared for them alongside their own five offspring. Abigail and her siblings were finally together in a secure, loving home.

After talking about her past, Abigail spoke about her present and future. She had attended one semester at Trinity Bible College in North Dakota. She paid her own way. Unfortunately, she did not have enough money to return. So, she was working at Cracker Barrel and saving her earnings so she could go back to Trinity or study on-line.

Given where she has come from, where she is now and where she is going is why she is so happy, Abigail told her customers.

Now Abigail will be able to continue her studies here.

As the two gentlemen finished their meals, wrapped up the conversation and prepared to leave they did something remarkable. Actually, four things that are remarkable:

1. One of the men told Abigail that he just happened to be an alumnus of Trinity.

2. The men gave her a $100 tip, which she split with a fellow server.

3. The Trinity alumnus then pulled out his chequebook and wrote a $5,000 cheque made out to Trinity Bible College. He gave it to Abigail to use for her tuition.

4. He then wrote another cheque for $1,000 made out to Abigail to cover some of her expenses.

Abigail Sailors' powerful story, joyful spirit and willingness to tell her story resulted in gifts totalling $6,100.

Two people wanted to ‘do something good’. An inspiring story showed them the way.

I hope the development professionals at Trinity Bible College and elsewhere are paying attention. Stories inspire people to give.

After reading the article about Abigail, I visited the Trinity website and clicked on the 'giving' tab ( I was taken to a page that simply gave visitors the opportunity to donate by entering a gift amount, a gift designation(s) and basic contact information, before taking the donor to PayPal to complete the transaction. There was no case for support. There were no student stories. There were just some tabs to other, largely irrelevant, pages such as 'meet the president' and 'greetings from the president'.

I'm sure that Trinity's president is a great guy. It's good that the website includes his biography and message. However, wouldn't it also be nice if Trinity posted some heart-warming stories about some of its inspiring students?

I'm not saying that Trinity doesn't tell meaningful stories in other ways. I have no way of knowing. However, they are definitely missing an opportunity to share moving stories on Trinity's website.

In Abigail's case, she was visited by two customers who, from the start, were motivated to do something good that day. However, that 'something good' went undefined until the Trinity alumnus was inspired by Abigail's story.

Other Trinity alumni no doubt have the same motivation to do something good. However, is the school doing everything it can to inspire them to do so?

To raise more money for your cause you have to uncover new stores and tell them to your donors.

Prospective donors come to the table with their own set of motivations. So, it's not a fundraiser's job to motivate them. Instead, it is the fundraiser's job to understand what motivates people so he or she can inspire them to give. As the case of Trinity Bible College reveals, one clearly powerful way to inspire prospective donors is to share moving stories about its passionate students. Abigail Sailors has proved that a good story can raise a lot of money for the college.

Good stories are only powerful fundraising tools if you take the time to uncover them and share them. Here are seven things you can do for your organisation:

  • Find good stories and get permission to share them.
  • Tell relevant stories that will help you achieve your objective.
  • Relate first-person stories when possible.
  • Do not be afraid of the length of the story; folk will stick with you if the story is compelling.
  • Share those stories with your potential donors and your supporters using a variety of communication channels.
  • Refuse to use fictional stories or composite stories. Use only real stories.
  • Avoid being exploitative and, instead, use stories to demonstrate how your organisation is fulfilling its mission.

If you're interested in a more detailed account of Abigail's story, I encourage you to read Peter Salter's touching article in the Lincoln Journal Star, which I relied upon for this post.

About the author: Michael Rosen

Michael Rosen

Michael J Rosen, CFRE is president of ML Innovations, Inc a fundraising and marketing consulting firm serving nonprofit organisations and the companies that assist them. An AFP certified master trainer and certified fundraising executive, Michael is the author of the bestselling book Donor-Centered Planned Gift Marketing and blogger at

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