Episode 48: Story-telling and Growing your Resilience – with Max Newton

Episode Notes

If you’d like ideas to help you be resilient; or ideas to improve the way you inspire your supporters through stories…then this episode is for you.

This time I talk again to Max Newton, Head of community fundraising at Shelter. Earlier this year, Max completed the Tunnel Ultra, running for 200 miles non-stop, back and forth through a dark tunnel in a single weekend. As I write this, Max is ‘Running Home for Christmas (inspired by Chris Rea!) that is, 410 miles up the A1 in December, to raise funds for Shelter.

Through his hobby Max has learned a great deal about resilience. Most interestingly, he applies these lessons to his fundraising and leadership and this approach has paid dividends, especially this year. As well as tips for being gritty, Max and I also explore story telling tactics that generate results.

If you want to help share / spread the word about this or other episodes… THANK YOU VERY MUCH! And Max and I would love to hear what you think. We are both on Linked In and on twitter Max is @MaximoNewton and I am @woods_rob.

Further Resources

This episode is part of a full film Max and I recorded for the training and inspiration site for fundraisers, Bright Spot Members Club. If you’d like to find out more about all the training films, downloads and live sessions available each week, go to www.brightspotmembersclub.co.uk/join.

Episode 44. Achieving what seems IMPOSSIBLE, in fundraising and beyond, with Max Newton.

If you’re listening in December, please do check out how he’s doing in his mammoth Running Home For Christmas challenge – 410 miles up the length of the A1, inspired by the Chris Rea song, raising money for Shelter to prevent homelessness.

Quotes

‘Sometimes you need to be open and ask for help. I’ve learned this is actually a sign of strength, and that people will want to help you, and not think anything less of you for that.’

Max Newton

‘I learned that sometimes you need to hand over certain responsibilities to someone else. It’s hard if it’s something that’s really precious to you, but doing this has made a massive difference to our results.’

Max Newton

Transcript of Episode 48

Rob:

Hey there, folks. Welcome to Episode 48 of the Fundraising Bright Spots Podcast. My name is Rob Woods, and this is the show for anyone who works in fundraising and who wants ideas for how to raise more money, enjoy their job and make a bigger difference.

You’re about to hear the second part of my recent interview with Max Newton. Max is the head of community fundraising at the UK homelessness charity, Shelter. And if you’ve heard the earlier episode we’ve made with Max for Episode 44, you know that about 10 years ago, he gave up smoking, took up running, and then took up ultramarathon running. This year, he completed an extraordinary endurance challenge called The Tunnel Ultra, which involved running for 200 miles, backwards and forwards through a dark tunnel over a single weekend. Yes, you did hear that right.

In fact, at the time of publishing this episode, Max is right now engaged in another crazy feat to raise money, this time for Shelter, and it’s called Running Home for Christmas. It’s inspired by the Chris Rea song, and he’s running 410 miles up the length of the A1, between the 1st and the 25th of December. And as you might imagine, Max’s hobby has taught him some valuable lessons about resilience, stamina, and bounce-back ability. And these ideas have really helped Max and his colleagues in the way that they’ve handled their fundraising challenges this year. They’ve done actually really well in lots and lots of areas. And one of the many notable successes has been winning a brilliant partnership worth £250,000. So here’s our interview about resilience and storytelling. I started by asking Max what transferable lessons he’s learned from ultrarunning.

Is there anything else in particular, that the doing of these ultra runs has taught you about how one can keep going through really difficult times, or when there’s a setback, how you can get back on your feet and get back to a calmer or more productive way than many of us usually do?

Max:

Yeah. I think there’s probably a couple of things. I think when doing most of the ultramarathon runs, there’s checkpoints, and the checkpoints were maybe every 20 miles or something like that, that are staffed by amazing volunteers and first aiders and so on, who are usually people that also do the sport. And sometimes, you get into those really bad ways, your knee is an absolute agony. There was a time running, one run I did was Race Across Scotland, which was on the Southern Upland Way, which is, I think 214 miles, plus about another 20 for getting lost a few times along the way. Which makes the tunnel run a lot easier in that respect. And I was coming down a mountain, and with every step, my knee was agony and with every other step, my knee was agony, and it was giving way.

And I thought I couldn’t go on. I sat on the other side of the hill, I probably had a bit of a cry. I tried to WhatsApp some people, and stuff like that, did eventually get going again and get into the checkpoint in a pretty bad way, tired and knee in agony. And in those situations, I think, and as a fundraiser and as a leader, you just need to surrender to people, to ask for help and be prepared to be helped, and in a really open and honest, and you’re pretty stripped bare in those situations. There’s some pretty fundamental stuff that you need some help with sometimes. And I think that’s the same in any walk of life, and definitely in fundraising, but sometimes you definitely need to ask for help more and be open and humble about it, and really open.

I think that is often the thing we really struggle with because we’re trying to hold everything for our teams. And also, sometimes to show that it’s not bothering us, to our managers and our colleagues and so on. And I’ve definitely been somebody that’s tried to do that. So I think definitely during my last two runs and during lockdown, learned to, so albeit, being cheerful and not letting it get me down, but sometimes it does and it’s important to be open and ask for help, because people will want to help you, and actually not think anything less of you for that.

Rob:

And the crux is when we might have tried to avoid that, it might’ve been because we wanted to appear capable and strong. Whereas the paradox is, as I understand it, it’s not a sign of weakness to ask for help. It’s a sign of ability and strength and high achievement to be willing to do that when you need to.

Max:

Yeah. And I think being aware of yourself as well, and I think doing the runs and probably also emergency appeals and things, I get to understand my body well and what’s needed, and also sometimes my emotional state as well. So I think it’s an important thing for us to… We’ve been talking a lot about wellness at Shelter, I think everybody has. We’ve been looking at the mind wellness action plans, which I think is a really great thing to do, both with your teams, but also for yourself. I find it really, really useful to externalize and identify what might be the different stages that I might go through to getting towards my limits, or what I think my limit is, and at which points I need to ask for help, and who would I ask for help? And also, they know my plan, so they know that in this situation, displaying these signs, what I need is this from you, and they’re ready and we’re prepped. And that’s really similar to ultramarathon running, where you might have a support crew who know that, “If he’s doing this, he needs more salt.”

Yeah. I think that’s definitely something we’ve put in place a lot recently. And I think very much related to that is there’s a phrase, I was saying, in ultramarathon running about, “Don’t pack in on the way into a checkpoint.” And I think that’s definitely something that’s really resonated with me throughout this time, and throughout other really, really busy times of, in the running terms, like I say, you’re battered and beaten and you come to a checkpoint and you think, I made it to checkpoint, I’m at the lowest I can possibly be. I’m packing in. I’m signing off. I’m the DNF, I’m Do Not Finish. But actually, you could go in there and DNF, but probably in an hour’s time, after you’ve had a cup of tea and sit down and your blisters have been looked after and you’ve had a chat with some people, you probably actually would have felt all right to carry on again.

And I definitely take that in the work context of, usually my checkpoints are at the end of the day. Just get to the end of the day, turn off, switch off, spend some time with the kids, go and watch some football, have a drink, and then start again the next day. And if you’re still feeling like that at the start of the day or after a bit, perhaps that’s when the time might be to pack in. But there’s been too many ultrarunners that have packed in going into a checkpoint, and then have regretted it badly afterwards.

Rob:

Yeah. Because my understanding of what you just said is when you’re in a bad state, you’re unlikely to be thinking clearly, rationally about how possible this project is, or how important it is, or what other resources you could bring in to somehow change your strategy and solve whatever seems like an insoluble problem right now. That’s the last time you should be making important decisions like whether to quit or not. So just take the break that needs to be taken, say, “Okay, in the morning, I may well make this radical decision, but for now, I’m not in a fit state to make that decision. I’m going to postpone the decision.” And you found that invariably, once you take the break, that’s needed, get whatever new resources are, your state changes, so therefore, your ability to make a more accurate decision changes, and therefore, usually that helps you keep going just to the next checkpoint, the next tree.

Max:

Yeah.

Rob:

And then, the next step in that really important work project. And if you keep doing that day after day, or week after week, sooner or later, you get to some kind of finish line that is valuable for you in your project.

Max:

Yeah, absolutely. And going back to crying on the side of a hill, I’m not quite sure how this bit works in fundraising or leadership and stuff, but I’ll say it anyway. So I’d messaged a friend of mine who was looking after my social media accounts at the time, whilst running across Scotland, to say, “I think I’m done. I think I’ve had it,” 110 miles in.

Kerry Thomas is her name, who is head of public fundraising at Bowel Cancer UK, so big shout out to Kerry. And she shared it on my Facebook page. Loads of people commented on it. And on tops of the hills, you get really good 4G, and tons of messages came in, tons of posts came in, and they were split into two ways. There was, “Don’t give up, keep going,” but the majority where, “You’ve done really well. It’s brilliant. It’s a great achievement, blah, blah, blah. Don’t worry about it.” And actually, the ones that made me get up and carry on where the people telling me to pack in. And I was like, “Get lost, Rob Woods, sat there, eating your cereal at nine o’clock in the morning, telling me to pack in. You don’t know what it’s like, carry on.” Don’t quite know how that relates, but it was a fun time.

Rob:

Well, it seems to me that we’re not always aware of who our strongest motivators are, and sometimes, we all need people in our camp, and we all need supportive people, and we need to know that people care about us. But the style with which they give us encouragement or advice could vary. For some of us, the thing that gets you going is not always the equivalent of a warm hug. Sometimes, the thing that helps you find your inner drive is more challenge than, “Oh, there, there.” Maybe that’s one element of it. And I guess the more one knows oneself, the more you know what it is for you that helps you do your best and find a way to access your inner strength, and what works for one person isn’t going to be the same that works for others.

Max:

Yeah.

Rob:

I guess maybe the most interesting thing about that is as a leader, you have to pay attention to your team and get a sense of what their motivational preferences are. And you know that what successful sports managers know that what works for one player is not the thing that works for another player.

Max:

Yeah. And I guess also, there’s a way of taking ownership of that yourself. So again, me and Kerry used to chat a lot about things, and we’d often go, at the start of the conversation, “What do you need from me right now? Do you need me to commiserate and say, ‘Yeah, yeah. That’s rubbish. That’s really bad’? Or do you need to just listen? Or do you need me to give you a kick up the backside and tell you you’re wrong, and challenge you?” And I guess a thing we can all do is probably to know in which situations we might need which types of advice or thoughts, and who to go to for them.

Rob:

Yes. And in particular, I think we do know ourselves relatively well, but to be more explicit in signalling to the person you’re talking to, what kind of help you’re looking for in today’s conversation.

Max:

Yeah.

Rob:

Is it just you want a good listener? Or is it critique, or whatever it might be? But rather than get frustrated when they give us what they thought we needed, for us to be explicit in saying what we need, I think that that is a thing I’ve noticed in some high achievers I’ve studied over the years, is they’re more clear in explaining that stuff to others and therefore, others are more likely and better able to meet those needs.

Max:

Yeah. And it might be then who you choose to go to. So is it one of the bright spots that you’ve identified? Is there another ultrarunner, or somebody that’s doing more? Or is it another charity that you know is doing more and better and more things? And you get different advice from that person, as opposed to maybe a colleague in the department, in my team, or from my partner and so on. So I think you’re right. I think being explicit in what you need and who you need it from.

Rob:

Hi, it’s Rob, and I wanted to jump into the middle of this episode really quickly to tell you about something I’m so excited about, which is the way that our Bright Spot Members Club has been helping fundraisers to not only survive, but also to do really well to raise funds so effectively during the pandemic. Through the club, our 300 members get access to a whole library of my best training films, as well as regular live coaching sessions to help you handle whatever challenges are coming at you each week. And we’ve also found that handling these challenges has not just been about getting the right advice or strategy, it’s also been about morale. And we found that the encouragement and help that our members get from each other has really helped them to stay positive.

If you’re not yet a member, but you’d like to find out more, go to brightspotmembersclub.co.uk/join, that’s brightspotmembersclub.co.uk/join. I would love to welcome you to the club and do my utmost to help you succeed in your fundraising. For now though, back to the interview, as I ask Max for another valuable lesson that he’s learned from his hobby.

Max:

One of the things that I needed when doing the running was definitely a real practical example of things to take from one to the other, I guess it was, you can’t do everything and needing to delegate, but perhaps more than delegate of hand something over to somebody else, an important part of something that you just can’t deal with, but feels like something that’s really precious, that you don’t want to handover, which is always a challenge in the workplace and with leading teams.

And in my running world, it was handing over my Twitter and my Facebook to my good friend, Kerry, and that’s obviously under strict instructions not to post anything, that I love Derby County or anything like that, but I think she threatened to do that if enough people sponsored me before a certain time. But actually, it was amazing, but in a real practical sense that I didn’t have that to worry about, I knew that I would raise, personally and from those events, a lot more money, if I could tweet and Facebook and update with things, how they were going along the way, because people wouldn’t just be watching the dots, they could see pictures and my updates and things like that.

But it was just too much to fit into my head with all the other stuff to do, and especially if and when things were to get tough, which I knew they would. But obviously, it’s my personal Twitter and my personal Facebook and that’s the thing. But we did and actually, it was brilliant because she did all the updates, she got some brilliant pictures. Instead of raising £3000, we raised five, six, £8,000 in consequent events. She told the story of what was happening with the human emotion, and pictures and her thoughts about how I was doing, and the fact that she was working during the day, with the phone sat next to her desk, waiting for updates or calling me saying, “I’m lost, can you have a look at the track and see which way I need to go?”

So I guess, all bound up in that is that bit of the surrendering and the giving up, that cognitive parking of stuff, so to take a big bit of something that is actually a big part of the project, out of your mind and to somebody else, and actually how liberating and empowering that is. But then also, the power of the storytelling just had a huge impact there, and had a huge impact on my teams and the way we’ve been able to raise money as well.

Rob:

Yes. So I said at the beginning of this conversation that myself and my family, when confronted with the story of this amazing 200-mile run you were doing, it was the story that gripped us, and lots of other people have probably ended up sponsoring you, not once, but twice as well. So that’s clearly one of the benefits that came from you better delegating, and so that enough resource and time and energy could be given to the telling of that story.

Max:

Yeah.

Rob:

Also, I do remember you saying, because you think more deeply and in a more focused way on the importance of finding good real examples, relevant to the cause, as a fundraiser and as a leader of fundraisers, when you were in that role at the British Red Cross, your team got wonderful results, partly because of this quite deliberate focus on storytelling.

Max:

Yeah.

Rob:

And just finding and sharing of more content, more real stories than most fundraisers actually do. Could you tell us a couple of the things about how you did that?

Max:

Yeah. We had professional storytellers come in to a team meeting. So I tried to introduce the concept and importance of storytelling from conversations we’d had, and corporate mastery courses that I’ve been on with you guys. But also, I needed somebody else to tell that as well. So we had some really great sessions with a professional storyteller, and we practiced storytelling at every meeting. So every subsequent meeting, we did some exercises where we gathered case studies from the websites, which definitely weren’t stories. We turned them into stories, using some techniques, and then told them to each other in a safe space, which was great practice to saying it out loud, great practice, and constructing them was great. The team got to know each other better, because sometimes the stories are something that they’ve been personally affected by, and also about the organization better.

And a parallel part of that was to gather our own stories so that we’re not taking something from the internet and trying to reword it and put it in our own thing. So for the department, we set up KPIs to spend, I think there was two or three days throughout the year, doing some frontline service volunteering, with the idea that you find your own story then, you find your own specific story and the things about it, which resonate with you and you get particularly excited or emotional about, and then can tell them in your own words. And find out more about what we do, get some actual authority with our service colleagues. But in our team, we made it the KPI to do three or four times more frontline service volunteering. And it was so, so valuable because the team did get their own stories and did get their own way of telling them. So we went way above and beyond what was expected.

Rob:

Just so that I’ve understood this, the rest of the organization introduced a key performance indicator that two or three times a year, fundraisers would do some frontline volunteering. And in your team, you decided to do it how often?

Max:

It was a bit of time ago now, so I think we were like three or four times a quarter. That sort of regularity.

Rob:

So radically more?

Max:

Yeah.

Rob:

You went absolutely extreme about, and what I’m imagining is various conversations where your colleagues in other teams were saying, “But Max, there’s not time. We can’t do more than two or three times a year. Look at all this money we’ve got to raise.”

Max:

Yeah.

Rob:

Whereas, I sensed you understood the wisdom of it, that more time spent at the coalface, absolutely connecting to why we are here, it will require investment of time, but it will pay us back many folds. And that was it.

Max:

Yeah. So the first thing was that I did that myself. So I did that myself, actually to help out our emergency response teams over winter, with taking people from a hospital to home and getting them settled in at home, which has a huge increase on resource at wintertime. So I did it and I took it off as annual leave, once a week for two or three months. And my manager said to me, “Why are taking this as annual leave?” From our conversations, the value that you’re getting from that in terms of learning about what we do and the bit about how to talk to people about what we do much more viscerally and clearly. We’d spent thousands of pounds sending teams on courses to learn how to do that and to get that sort of stuff.

So we did it and we had really quick results. We had one really clear one, and once we got the really good results, we could share them with the rest of the team, and it wasn’t just me saying, “This is really good.” So one of my fundraisers was due to give a talk to, I think 100 heads of schools in our region, and she phoned me up to say, “I’ve written my speech for them. This is what I’m going to say. Can I read it out to you?”

And I say, “Yeah, cool.” So she read out the speech, great speech, nothing wrong with that at all. But then we sat in work, it was on the phone and we said, because it was the days before everybody was on Zoom and said, “It’s good. There’s nothing wrong with it, but how about we just do all of it, but just in stories? So just every bit of it where you’re explaining about what we do, who you are, why you’re here, let’s do it in a story.”

And we had a bit of chat around the stories she could use, she took it away, didn’t actually come back to me and do it to me, as it were, but did the talk to all these people, the stories, and got 25 of the schools signed up to take part in a project, where there could be up to 20 cohorts of young people in each school raising between £300 and £1,000. And it absolutely was down to turning that into stories. And they were stories that she’d got from that frontline service volunteering with different services, and then wards, she was that bright spot, I guess, to then go back to the rest of the team and other teams and say, “Look how successful this was and how great this was.”

And that was the biggest, most high profile example, but we had lots of others, and obviously we celebrate those and shout about those, and really also trying to just pick apart the great bits of the storytelling that really worked with that. And we brought that along here. You did a great Zoom session with our team here at Shelter, and really, there were several great things that came out as a result of that within the next two or three weeks. And one was one member of the team being able to change her story to be incredibly more effective, which she tried out that night with a hairdresser. It was her first post-lockdown haircut, and said the hairdresser had goosebumps, listening to it.

Another one went down incredibly well at a virtual rotary talk, and got much more support than they would usually get as a result of that. And that partnership we talked about earlier, there were several bits of it. There was a submission, then there was a pitch, and then there was a further submission afterwards. And in each of those stages, we sat and went, “What’s that big, fat claim? And actually, instead of listing all the things that we do, how can we tell that in the form of a story that people can relate to? And let’s get all that upfront and at the start.” And we started with a story, we started with a really personal story from someone in the team. We had a future story of how this partnership might affect the life of one of our clients looking for help in the future, and how that would pan out, and a story about how we help people recently. We almost cut out loads of stuff, and they were the bits that won the deal.

Rob:

Thank you so much, Max, for all your ideas, your stories, your advice. I need to finish the interview very soon, but I really appreciate the time you’ve given to this, and I look forward to hearing about your next run in due course and your next fundraising exploits. But until the next time, Max Newton, thank you ever so much.

Max:

It’s been an absolute pleasure. Thank you.

Rob:

Thanks Max. Bye.

Max:

Bye.

Rob:

So there you go. I hope you enjoyed the interview. And if so, please do remember to subscribe to the podcast today. To see a full transcript and a summary of today’s episode, you can find those on the blog and podcast section of our website. Today’s episode was the first part of a longer session that Max and I created for our Bright Spot Members Club. If you want to find out more about this training and inspiration site for fundraisers, the address is brightspotmembersclub.co.uk/join.

And if you’re listening to this in the week before Christmas, and you’re trying to decide on a good cause to make a donation to, please do check out what Max is up to right now. This is his latest, crazy feat to raise money for Shelter to prevent homelessness. It’s called Running Home for Christmas, and basically, he’s running 410 miles up the length of the A1, between the 1st and the 25th of December. If you want to get involved, if you want to follow his progress or send him a message to help get him over the line, his Twitter name is @MaximoNewton, and you can sponsor him at www.justgiving.com/410. And just to add, last time I spoke to Max, he said because of where his run rate is at, he’s likely to be running around 40 miles a day in the week before Christmas, and through some pretty grim weather at that.

And I’d like to thank everybody who’s been in touch and shared the podcast this year, or left a kind review to help it grow and reach so many charities so quickly. And if you do want to get in touch about this one, we would love to hear from you. I mentioned Max’s Twitter name earlier, and on Twitter, I am @woods_rob, and we’re both on LinkedIn. Lastly, thank you so much for listening today. I hope you have a wonderful break for Christmas, and I look forward to sharing more fundraising Bright Spot stories in 2021.