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Storytelling In Advancement Matters

Effective engagement comes from storytelling and human connection

September 17, 2019

Storytelling in Advancement is an often-overlooked strategy, and yet, it can be one of the most compelling agents in convincing donors to give back to your university. For years, advancement directors have overlooked the power of storytelling because the method doesn’t yield analytics-friendly engagement data.

However, the traditional, shallow engagement metrics of the past are now being placed under public scrutiny. Even Instagram, a platform built on the hope that “likes” would motivate posts on the platform, is considering removing this metric. If universities want to drive deep, meaningful engagement, they must look beyond the numbers and dig deep into the stories that bind their alumni community.

Finding Your Narrative

In order to turn towards storytelling in an advancement strategy, department directors must learn how to listen for the most salient stories and ask questions that prompt them. Effective questions, in this case, can generally be grouped into two broad categories — “nostalgia-inducing” and “impact.”

Nostalgia-inducing questions ask about life experiences. They help strengthen the emotional connection to your university and enhance alumni identity; both proven drivers of giving. Examples include: 

  • Where did you spend most of your time on campus?
  • How did you meet your friends in college?
  • What were some funny dorm experiences?

Impact questions, on the other hand, are designed to help advancement officers discover who might be willing to give back to the university financially, and in what ways. They help uncover the passions and motivations of potential donors. Penelope Burk of Cygnus Applied Research found that 47% of respondents who made an unrestricted gift recently would have given more if they had been asked to support a specific program or initiative.

Examples of this type of question include: 

  • How did your college experience help you in your professional career?
  • Which professor had the greatest impact on your life?
  • Which extra-curricular activities did you enjoy the most?
  • How did being the first in your family to attend college change your life?

Asking smart questions, like the ones outlined above, can help you discover the emergent story that your alumni network is trying to tell. Whether this collective story is about a single professor that influenced hundreds of lives over her tenure at your institution, or about an area where many alumni want to give money and support, the information can prove extremely useful from an advancement perspective. The responses to these questions offer priceless, authentic stories, driving engagement that goes far deeper than a mere “like” on the university’s Facebook page.


A Good Story

So, what makes a really good story, and how can you leverage that story in your advancement strategy? The University of Illinois offers a striking example of how you can take a powerful story and turn it into an event that everyone at your university can resonate with.

The University of Illinois had a student who, fifty-three years ago, was the first in his family to go to college. He was from the south side of Chicago, and never expected to make it to college in the first place. Yet, he stayed over the summer to struggle through an English course in order to graduate, and still managed to pass. Despite overcoming the odds, he never walked at his commencement ceremony. This alumni was the renowned engineer George Nelms, and more than 50 years after his graduation day, he was invited to walk at the university’s commencement ceremony.

Authentic stories like that of George Nelms resonate with people. These stories inspire pride in an alma mater and motivate alumni to want to give back to a university that clearly values each and every one of its thousands of former students.

Finding Value in Storytelling

Events like the commencement ceremony described above offer an intangible boost in engagement. Metrics cannot measure the pride of the alumni network at that moment, or quantify the gratitude Nelms likely felt towards his alma mater. Yet, the engagement from that event is ostensibly far greater than anything posted on Facebook could ever achieve.

After all, stories lend value and meaning to education. Advancement directors can use stories to achieve goals, boost engagement, or mobilize a group of alumni to take action in a tangible way. These stories, and the human connection that they are built on, can help advancement leaders convey abstract concepts, such as the university’s support to underprivileged students in need of a second chance.

Furthermore, stories can invite people into a conversation who would've otherwise remained silent, and can contribute to ongoing discussions within a university. In the case of George Nelms, the story he told was conducive to a discussion about the importance of higher education for people from all walks of life. Such powerful narratives can be adjusted for different audiences, repurposed in different campaigns, and used throughout time.

Moving Forward

In order to ensure that a university's advancement strategy remains effective, directors must look deeper than numbers. The most powerful and effective stories are not the ones written by the Marketing Department, but the authentic stories written by the alumni themselves. The stories that alumni have to tell aggregate to form the large, shared narrative of the school and this narrative is what makes people think back about their college days with reverence and thankfulness. If universities bring these stories to the forefront of their advancement strategy, then it is likely that more alumni will be willing to give — and give more — than ever before.

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