As the founder and CEO of Ignited Fundraising™, Lori L. Jacobwith teaches nonprofits a key component of success. Whether in fundraising or simply bringing people into relationship through gifts of time and money, that component is telling their stories. What’s her own story?
Growing up, Jacobwith had two ideas for her career path, which both focused on specific goals she had for her vocation. In grade school, she already knew that she wanted to help others, and decided she’d be governor of Minnesota or a flight attendant to travel around the world. Though she has not ended up in either of those careers, she believes she had the work identified correctly, just not the job titles.
“I do both those things, but with different titles,” Jacobwith says. “I’m now a fundraising culture change expert and master storyteller, who travels the world helping thousands help others.”
At first, her interests did take her into politics. From there, Jacobwith moved into a position as Development Director of a small human services organization in Minneapolis. She continued working in the nonprofit sector, eventually becoming a nonprofit fundraising trainer and coach for five years. Even though she was working with nonprofits, Jacobwith still wanted to more deeply help nonprofit organizations with their fundraising, communication, and board engagement. In 2006, she started her own company now called Ignited Fundraising™.
In her time working in the nonprofit sector, Jacobwith had experienced the power of sharing stories live out in real life. To encourage eye screening for preschool students, Jacobwith often shared the story of Madison, a five-year-old girl who was blind in one eye. Due to the eye screening conducted by the nonprofit Lori led, Madison’s blindness was fully correctable.
Jacobwith credits the power of sharing Madison’s story with the incredible growth over a 2 ½ year period. The budget grew from $80,000 to $1.2 million, and the number of vision screenings increased from 250 children per year to 25,000 per year.
Madison’s story quickly became personal for donors and volunteers. Madison and her mother would attend donor meetings, thanking them for their contributions. The story resonated, and supporters developed genuine care for her.
“People would ask how Madison was doing at meetings and send emails,” Jacobwith recalls. Stories like Madison’s allow active and potential donors to understand more deeply what it would be like to be a person helped by the organization.
According to Jacobwith, every staff member of a nonprofit should know a story of someone helped by the organization. Reminded of the work of Lisa Cron, author of Wired for Story, Jacobwith says, “Our brains are wired to tell ourselves a story, so that we feel something, so that we can make a decision.”
“Our brains are wired to tell ourselves a story, so that we feel something, so that we can make a decision.” – Lori L. Jacobwith
As digitally-focused fundraising increases, stories do not disappear. In fact, Jacobwith sees exciting increases in the ways organizations can share mission moments. Facebook live, Instagram stories, Snapchat, and video blogs all provide engaging methods of conveying narratives. Now, the challenge becomes developing stories that are noticed in today’s 4 to 6 second attention spans. Because of this, Jacobwith points to the importance of showcasing stories through captivating titles. “Walking in Madison’s Shoes” has a deeper draw than “Blindness Prevention Fundraiser.”
Within organizations, Jacobwith knows that the stories individuals tell themselves also matter. Frequently, she sees organizations fall into scarcity thoughts like, “We can’t pay our staff,” or “We’ll never have as much money as another organization.” When she meets with a new client, she’ll tally the number of scarcity words they use: “hard,” “can’t,” “too busy,” etc. This scarcity language implies a lack of value in the organization, but Jacobwith insists that this lack of value is a false narrative.
“I want everyone to understand that they are worthy, that their work is changing lives one person, one clean river, or rescued animal at a time, and that they are deserving of quality,” she says. This is the narrative that Jacobwith teaches and coaches at Ignited Fundraising™. Jacobwith feels word choice and shift in internal narratives completely change an organization’s perspective on fundraising. When the work causes others to feel something: proud, frustrated, hopeful, angry; fundraising is more connecting and successful.
“I want everyone to understand that they are worthy, that their work is changing lives one person, one clean river, or rescued animal at a time, and that they are deserving of quality.” – Lori L. Jacobwith
“There’s a big difference between utilitarian language and inspirational action-causing language,” she comments further. When fundraising, transitioning from saying “donors” to “investors” and “repeat donors” to lifelong partners” communicates a deeper relationship and emphasizes commitment to a common mission. To raise more money, Jacobwith recommends shifting from fundraising discussions of “What we need,” to the more story-based, “Who you will impact?” And “What will it take?”
In a world where we are constantly barraged by content through email and social media, Jacobwith invites organizations to embrace inspiring word choices and a storytelling focus. Jacobwith’s experience and advice: Well-told stories are the window to empathy and action.
Lori L. Jacobwith, Founder of Ignited Fundraising™, is a master storyteller and fundraising culture change expert. With a passion for the positive, she has provided coaching and training for more than 4500 organizations and 500,000 people. Her work has helped nonprofits raise $300 million from individual donors. And counting.
Lori shares her coaching and training expertise in the Complete Storytelling System with nine short video training modules and 100 pages of worksheets and in her weekly Fire Starters blog voted one of the Best Fundraising Blogs of 2017.