With more than 4,000 colleges and universities in the United States, it comes as little surprise that institutions of higher education are all working toward the most effective way to share their unique stories with prospective students, parents and caregivers, faculty members, legislators, and of course, donors and non-donors from the alumni community.
The role of storytelling and its importance in all facets of life is nothing new. According to Andy Goodman, a nationally recognized public interest communication consultant and author of Storytelling as Best Practice and Why Bad Presentations Happen to Good Causes, the pattern and necessity of storytelling 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. Stories help us remember; they share experiences and help shape identity; they establish communities; they promote culture and values; they provide instruction; and they reveal the past with the intention of shaping the future. And, when delivered effectively, they inspire action.
For years, nonprofit organizations have used stories as the centerpiece of 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, with so many different departments, goals, and priorities, it’s often easier said than done. Here’s a brief look at three major opportunities, and how addressing them can lead to a refined message that positions you for success.
Identifying and Leveraging Your Existing Strengths
Although we all have many stories to tell, effective storytelling is an art, and as such, demands a little bit of talent and whole lot of practice. Despite good intentions and great ideas, we are challenged with how to bridge a compelling and bold vision into a story that is easily communicated and effectively inspires the audience. The starting point is setting aside time to identify your institution’s strongest attributes and making sure they are incorporated into your messaging.
For example, the University of Florida Foundation hosted a special “Story Telling Academy,” a full-day workshop for Deans, Development Officers, and other “communicators” from across the university. Workshops focused on storytelling technique and enabled participants to share anecdotes that captured the spirit and essence of their departments. The activity was very successful, enabling the advancement and university relations teams to flex their storytelling muscles and to use their workshopped materials during prospect visits and in proposals and pitches moving forward.
At Fairfield University, advancement team members have implemented strategic “listening sessions” with academic and university leaders. This practice has become especially valuable to the development of prospect-facing materials. By enabling deans to speak freely about their visions, goals, and the outcomes they desire for every student, compelling stories and themes emerge. For example, through discussion, Fairfield is no longer simply seeking to enhance its College of Arts & Sciences. Instead, a storyline narrative reflects upon its proud past, communicates the urgent and specific needs within society today, and projects what is possible when the “College of Arts & Sciences is Redefined for the Modern Era.”
Unifying the Elements of Your Branding
Universities are complex entities merging a myriad of voices and less-than-synchronized networks of campus communicators. With so many storytellers and so many audiences receiving stories, how do you ensure coordinated messaging and branding? How do you 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. In effect, universities must ask themselves: “What are the key stories that form our college/university/department’s ‘Sacred Bundle’? How do these stories come together to form an accurate portrayal of our university and our mission?” Once you have honed in on the commonalities among your different elements, you can show how they all contribute to the University’s mission.
Crafting Unique Stories
When it comes to content, the higher education sector tends to place emphasis on a few core motifs like affordability and access, economic impact and leadership. But in a world of over-stimulation and constant communication, these motifs may appear everywhere, and it can be difficult to generate novel ideas for stories that are fresh, original, and memorable.
Faced with this very dilemma, Vanderbilt University launched an innovative platform to capture raw material for stories. The University created storytelling booths all around campus to 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 that these personal anecdotes may never have been uncovered without Vanderbilt’s ingenuity. Now Vanderbilt has real testimonials that go beyond marketing speak.
Practical Steps to Move Forward
Once you have considered how you can take advantage of these opportunities, there are tangible ways to get started.
1. Take inventory: What stories have already been effective in your development efforts, and what about them has resonated with your listeners?
2. Activate your biggest advocates: Find out who you need to speak with in order to gain the best insights and figure out how best to inspire them to participate and engage.
3. Show, don’t tell: There are many ways to tell a story, and an innovative approach can have a significant effect. Consider using visuals like infographics, videos, or mixed media that feature real perspectives that connect with your audience more immediately.
This post has been updated from its original version which appeared in Philanthropy Now in 2015.
CCS Fundraising is a strategic consulting firm that partners with nonprofits for transformational change. To access our full suite of perspectives, publications, and reports, visit our insights page.
About the Authors
In his career with CCS Fundraising, Nathan Gregoire has designed, implemented, and managed many development initiatives including capital campaigns, annual appeals, needs assessments, feasibility and planning studies, board development, and research and analytics. He has experience working with organizations in a variety of nonprofit sectors including higher and secondary education, healthcare, faith-based, advocacy, conservation, human services, and culture.
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.