Story, ritual and symbols in fundraising – engage their power

It was 4:00 pm Friday. Fifty young people dressed in puffy red jackets, white t-shirts, khaki pants, and work boots were swapping partners in a crazy reinterpretation of ballroom dancing and musical chairs – and my prospective donor (also a prospective Advisory Board member) was right in there with them.

I’m at community meeting at one of the sites of City Year, the national youth service organization. During this end-of-week event, the youth service corps and professional staff reflect on their service work using City Year’s unique form, complete with its own language.

When the dancing stopped, Alicia rose to tell us her Ripple – a child she was tutoring came up to her today to show off the first ‘A’ he had ever received.

After that, Sam shared a Moccasin, his edgy original poem about racism and poverty.

Jane and Lekisa proudly introduced their community hero, Anthony, the owner of a tiny neighborhood diner, who made sure the three men living on the street nearby got lunch and a hot cup of coffee every day.

By the time that Thuan told his life-story about his journey from a street gang to his work on a community garden in the neighborhood, my prospective donor was salivating to learn how he could get involved.

Reframing fundraising

For most of our history, humans have relied on stories, rituals and symbols to make sense of the chaos and unpredictability of our world. Our creation stories illuminate the unexplainable. Fables and parables convey moral lessons. Rituals mark important life passages.

Over time, the symbolic has yielded to the scientific, especially in our institutional life. Where once we consulted the oracles, today we look to business plans, databases, organization charts, and statistics to bring sense to our world.

Fundraising is no exception — researched, dissected and studied as it is today in universities and by its practitioners.

But the symbolic hasn’t totally vanished from organizational life. In their classic work Reframing Organizations, scholars Lee G. Bolman and Terrence E. Deal name the symbolic as one of the four conceptual underpinnings or “frames” of organizational theory (the others are structural, human resource and political.

In the symbolic frame we transmit the meaning and values of our organizations – through our organizational culture, and as expressed through story, ritual and symbol.

If I were to ask any professional to describe the components of a well-run fund development program, most would readily cite elements from the structural frame (e.g. a fund development plan, donor management software) or the human resource frame (“people give to people”). But, they might feel at a loss and perhaps even uncomfortable if asked to describe the elements of their symbolic strategy.

Whether you realize it or not, your organization already uses stories, rituals and symbols in fundraising. You need only look to your fund appeals, newsletters, special events, donor cultivation programs, giving societies, recognition events to find many examples of the symbolic.

The question for fundraisers isn’t how, but how effectively you infuse these rituals and symbols with the meaning and significance that will motivate donor giving and loyalty.

So how do you use story, ritual and symbols in fundraising?

Telling Powerful Stories

The experts in direct mail copywriting constantly remind us that the best fund appeals usually start with an inspiring story. More and more of us are adding stories to the proposals that we write, and making sure to include them in our case statements.

What makes stories so valuable? Stories are a shorthand way to communicate to donors the powerful and critical work that you do. They convert cold statistics of need and response into unforgettable human drama. They are engaging teaching tools that resonate long after the facts and figures have been forgotten.

Great stories can take on mythical status within your organization, quickly communicating to your donors your values, beliefs and program strategies.

For many nonprofits, one of the great stories is their “creation myth.” What makes this story linger after all others is its ability to convey the essence of the founding experience – the passion to right a wrong and the amazing power of ordinary individuals to change the world.

At PLAN USA, it was the oft-told legend of José. As the story came down over the years, a child was found by aid workers during the Spanish Civil War. The note in his pocket read:

“This is José. I am his father. When Santander falls I shall be shot. Whoever finds my son, I beg of him to take care of him for my sake.”

Nearly 70 years later, the story still trumpets the human potential of cross-border responsibility that makes child sponsorship one of the most powerful vehicles for individual donations to overseas assistance by United States citizens.

Where do you find good stories?

Most nonprofits are awash in stories. A senior board member reminisces about early victories. A front line staff member describes a rough day that ended in joy. A client sits down with you and breaks your heart. Record them, find their essence and then unlock their power in the retelling.

Re-affirming Ritual

“On my honor, I will try:
To serve God and my country,
To help people at all times,
And to live by the Girl Scout Law.”

All Girl Scouts events, with donors or volunteers, include a flag ceremony with a reciting of the Girl Scout Promise. Through this simple ritual, donors internalize Girl Scouts’ values and symbolically re-affirm their support for the history and tradition of this 90 year-old organization.

The Jewish Foundation of Manitoba set out to create a meaning-filled experience for donors when it created its Endowment Book of Life. Donors create a written story of their lives which they sign at a special Signing Ceremony in front of family, friends and peers.

Their story is then displayed at the Foundation through an interactive, web-based kiosk and the stories are also posted on the organization’s website. Signers receive a commemorative gift of their story mounted on specially-designed plaque.

Since 1998, the Jewish Foundation of Manitoba has averaged 56 new signers a year and generated $2 million in received gifts with legacy commitments from 255 more (as of 2004).

Events and activities that seem ordinary can be elevated to symbolic ritual. For example, in past years on a Sunday in early March, hundreds of members used to attend a Save The Bay Annual Meeting, in Newport, Rhode Island. Lunch was served, logo stickers were donned, speeches were made, the board was elected, awards were given.

But this was no ordinary gathering. The Governor welcomed the guests. The congressional delegation and state officials shared tables with the members. The executive director’s rousing speech unveiled critical environmental concerns to the politicians and the press. Supporters left pumped up for the year ahead. Well-scripted to be sure, but inspirational nonetheless.

What rituals and ceremonies do you create for your donors? How intentionally do you consider the meaning of these events for your donors?

Philanthropic Symbols

In his seminal work The Masks of God, Joseph Campbell described the power of symbol to create an experience of the indescribable:  “to amplify the force and appeal of the…forms even while carrying the mind beyond them.”

Symbols abound in philanthropy. Who doesn’t understand the meaning of the giant fundraising thermometer? Crepe paper poppies sold to raise funds embody the sacrifice of veterans as symbolized by the first plants that sprouted from the blood-soaked battlefields of World War I.

With your contribution, the Toronto Humane Society will hang a paper outline of a bone or toy mouse (your choice) with your name on a Christmas tree, symbolizing your gift of a real toy for a pet at the shelter.

In the UK (and now the US), celebrities and citizens don bright red clown noses and take part in goofy events on Red Nose Day, a nation-wide charitable campaign of Comic Relief UK. The Day raises money for projects in the UK and in Africa.

“Tzedakah,” the Hebrew word for “charity” derives its roots from justice. Jewish households typically have a Tzedakah box to collect coins for the poor – a constant reminder of their religious obligation.

While most nonprofit organizations use logos as symbols, how many take the time to infuse those logos with deeper meaning? Whatever symbols you use, the best are evocative reminders of your traditions, your values or your promise to the community.

A Success Story

My opening story described an experience when I was development director at a City Year site. For me, City Year best reflects the power of the symbolic frame – in its founding stories (Moccasins, Ripples, etc), its rituals (community meeting, opening day, Cyzygy), and its symbols ( the uniform, the logo).

And it works. From its start as a small pilot project in Boston in 1988, this self-proclaimed “action tank” for national service is today a $73 million national nonprofit in 15 cities across the US. In January 2004 Fast Company magazine named City Year as one of its Top 20 “Social Capitalists – groups that are changing the world.”

Remember that prospect I told you about – who went on to become a donor and advisory board member? He summed up his experience this way:

I wish that City Year had a special signal, something that would allow me to flash my connection to corps members no matter if I knew them or not – a sign that showed I understood, that I was part of the network, and shared the belief in what these young people were doing.

Now that’s a story!

Author’s notes: Many thanks to Lisa Desbiens, Susan D. Smith, Jane Garthson, Hillel J. Korin, Renata Rafferty, George Williams, Norman Olshansky, Janet Savitt Tennen, Kevin Feldman and the many others who contributed symbols, rituals and ceremonies for this article.

Works cited:
Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice and Leadership. Lee G. Bolman and Terrence E. Deal. Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco. 1997.



This article first appeared in Contributions Magazine.

Gayle L. Gifford, ACFRE and her colleague Jonathan W. Howard at Cause & Effect Inc. help nonprofits from the grassroots to international create strategic change for a more just and peaceful world. With over 30 years of nonprofit experience, Cause & Effect helps nonprofit organizations with strategic planning, board development, fundraising and communications needs