With more than 4,000 colleges and universities in the United States, it comes as little surprise that higher education institutions are under mounting pressure to share their unique stories with prospective students and faculty, legislators, and of course, donors.

The importance of storytelling is nothing new. Human beings have been telling tales since the beginning of time. According to Andy Goodman, nationally recognized consultant in public interest communications and author of Storytelling as Best Practice and Why Bad Ads Happen to Good Causes, the pattern of narrative is so deeply embedded into our DNA that stories will always be the single most powerful tool that we have to inform, persuade and inspire others. They help us remember; they shape our identity; and they influence how we see the world.

For years, universities and other nonprofit organizations have used stories as lynchpins in marketing campaigns and public relations efforts. University development offices have likewise followed suit. On campuses across the country, gift officers endeavor to move donors and key influencers to action with narratives, often in the form of anecdotes woven into traditionally data-heavy proposals and cases for support. Crafting inspiring stories may be the key to inspiring donor support, but, on university campuses, it’s often easier said than done. Here’s a brief look at three major challenges- and solutions- to telling effective stories.

Challenge #1: We’re not all Shakespeare

Although we all have stories to tell, effective storytelling is an art, and as such, demands a little bit of talent and whole lot of practice. We’re not all Shakespeare and sometimes, despite good intentions and great ideas, we don’t know how to tell our stories. To help flex the storytelling muscles of both the Advancement and the University Relations team, last month the University of Florida Foundation hosted a “Story Telling Academy.” During the full-day workshop deans, development officers and other campus communicators practiced storytelling techniques, drafting and sharing anecdotes that captured the spirit and essence of their departments at UF. Participants were encouraged to use their workshopped stories in future proposals and pitches to prospective donors and volunteers.

Challenge #2: Diluted Branding

Universities are complex entities merging a myriad of voices and less-than-synchronized networks of campus communicators. This brings us to the second challenge: With so many storytellers creating and so many audiences receiving stories, how do we ensure coordinated messaging and branding? How do we project a unified institutional identity?

Andy Goodman suggests an answer, quite fittingly, by way of a story. The Lakota Nation, a confederation of seven Sioux tribes in the Great Plains, assembles what it calls its “Sacred Bundle.” A collection of tribal relics, the Sacred Bundle embodies the fundamental artifacts (and associated stories) that comprise the Lakota Nation’s identity. At tribal ceremonies, the Bundle is displayed and circulated, so that all gathered can honor and absorb the Lakota’s narrative history.

Colleges and universities are faced with a similar imperative to collectively build and preserve a narrative identity, much like the Lakota’s Sacred Bundle. In effect, universities must ask themselves: “What are the key stories that form our college/university/department’s ‘Sacred Bundle’? How will we preserve and honor those stories for years to come?”

Challenge #3: Sounding Generic
Our third challenge regards content. The higher education sector tends to place common emphasis on a few core motifs like affordability and access, economic impact and leadership. (If you doubt this, take a look at Pixar’s comical parody on the university story).

In a world of over-stimulation and constant communication, a world that prompted Mark Twain to once remark that, “There is no such thing as a new idea”, it can be difficult to generate novel ideas for stories that are fresh, original and memorable.

Faced with this very dilemma, Vanderbilt University launched a unique platform to capture raw material for stories. Dotting Vanderbilt’s campus, the university’s unique Story Telling Booths serve as mobile recording studios, drawing in storytellers from a broad cross-section of the campus community. As a result of this effort, Vanderbilt has been able to create a growing “Story Bank” for both marketing and development initiatives. It’s remarkable to think these personal anecdotes may never have been uncovered without Vanderbilt’s ingenuity.

How is your organization leveraging storytelling to inspire giving?

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About the Author

For nearly a decade, Kimberly Kicenuik Hubbard has helped develop major gift, volunteer engagement and campaign strategies at more than a dozen premier research universities and academic medical centers (including Brown, University of Florida, University of Missouri, Rutgers and the University of Miami). Serving as campaign counsel, she provided strategic oversight for development initiatives, identifying opportunities to enhance philanthropy (particularly principal and mega giving), productivity and efficiency across her clients' respective advancement divisions.