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Reaching college alumni, donors and parents through effective storytelling

Philanthropy marketing means connecting with a different audience than students
University Business, November 2017

My grandfather was a master storyteller. He had an exceptional ability to engage those around him with his stories, seasoned by years of wisdom, challenge and humor.

A regular customer of his gas station once said he’d drive around town until his gas tank was nearly empty just so he could come by for one of my grandfather’s stories.

Regardless if the person was a child or an adult, my grandfather always knew his audience well. He never talked over the heads of people. He found common ground where people could best relate to what he was telling.

His stories would often be laced with true-to-life humor, or life challenges that were conquered by sheer will and determination—or simply messages of encouragement.  

Focus on content

Those of us in higher education and in the nonprofit sector could certainly take a chapter from my grandfather’s book on effective storytelling. We all know the importance of effective storytelling, yet we often fall prey to telling stories that we want to tell instead of what our audiences desire to read or hear.

This is especially true when preparing stories for older audiences—alumni, donors and parents. Their life goals are different from those of the college-bound. They’re seeking sincere, tangible ways to engage with our institutions.

To improve your storytelling, ask yourself these content questions:

  • Does your story know its audience? Such a question may seem obvious, but it is imperative you prepare content for your intended audience. This must be the first question you ask yourself honestly when preparing content for your alumni, donors and parents. All too often we try to make the content prepared for student recruiting also fit our needs for reaching older audiences. As with each stage of life, our personal interests and goals change. The content we prepare should mirror that fact.
  • Is your story impactful? Does the story and its supporting visuals spark an emotional connection for the reader, viewer or listener? It is critical that alumni, donors and parents relate to our stories’ champions and learn how they too, in some way, can become champions for the institution.
  • Does your story support the goals and objectives of the strategic plan and capital campaign? One of the best ways to develop a story idea is to link its relationship with the institution’s strategic plan or, if applicable, the capital campaign. Philanthropy feature stories are among the finest ways to communicate how the fervent passion and dreams of the donor resulted in achieving an institutional priority.  
  • Does the story encourage others to take action? An effective story must encourage your institution’s supporters to take some form of action—as a volunteer, advocate or donor. Be careful not to talk at, but rather with, your audience. Clearly present ways your alumni, donors and parents can become engaged in the life of your institution, then offer them excellent examples of those whose philanthropic leadership is paving the way. This will challenge and inspire them to become involved, too.  

The pay-off

Test your content with a small sampling of alumni, donors and parents. Allow them to provide feedback on the stories you prepare. One-on-one meetings—rather than electronic surveys or focus groups—will provide you with keen, personalized insights for improved story-telling.

This approach takes time but, in the long run, it will pay off in a big way for your communication shop.

Examine opportunities to blend photography and video with written online content.  Not only will this satisfy your audience’s information needs, it will greatly advance your institution’s capacity for sharing its many success stories with your greatest advocates through print and digital means.


Marc C. Whitt is director of philanthropy communications at the University of Kentucky Office of Philanthropy. Follow him on LinkedIn (linkedin.com/in/marcwhitt) or Twitter (@marcwhitt).

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