Episode 98: More fundraising confidence through Story Power, with Ben Swart


Episode Notes

When you hear real examples of your charities’ work, that connection to an important ‘why’ has a powerful effect on your fundraising mojo.

But in most charities this doesn’t come naturally. It takes a deliberate decision to search out and share these stories. In this episode Rob is joined by Bright Spot trainer Ben Swart, to share ways that some fundraisers and leaders have improved the way they consistently find and share stories, and enjoyed improved results. And they include practical tips you can try.

If you’d like to get in touch or share this episode with other charities, THANK YOU VERY MUCH! You can find us both on Linked In and on twitter Ben is @benswart and Rob is @woods_rob.

Further Resources

Rob’s book, The Fundraiser Who Wanted More, goes into more depth on the ideas we share in this episode.

If you found these ideas helpful, you might also enjoy these podcast episodes:

Episode 90 Using stories and contrast to inspire, with Ben Swart and Rob Woods

Episode 83 How to find opportunities for fundraising success in tough times, with Ben Swart and Rob Woods

Want to go deeper and get 24/7 access to LOTS more inspiring and live training content?

Our training and inspiration club for fundraisers, the Bright Spot Members Club, has an extensive library of Rob’s best training films, a supportive community, and access to live masterclasses and problem-solving sessions with Rob and other experienced fundraising / leadership trainers EVERY WEEK. To find out more about how to get access to all these resources, go to www.brightspotmembersclub.co.uk/join/

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‘Regularly finding time to hear real examples of your charity’s impact has a powerful effect on a fundraising team’s mojo. But this rarely happens by chance! It requires a deliberate decision to solve the challenges to find and share these stories…If you find a way to do this, it boosts both morale and results.’

Rob Woods

Transcript for Episode 98


Hey there, brave fundraisers. Welcome to Episode 98 of the Fundraising Bright Spots podcast. This is the show for anyone who works in fundraising and who wants some ideas and maybe a little dose of inspiration to help you raise more money and really enjoy your job.

And in today’s session, I’m talking again to my colleague, Ben Swart. Ben, how are you?


I’m very good on this beautifully sunny day, Rob.


Yes. Hurray that it’s spring, and thank you for making time in spite of the sunshine to stay indoors and do this conversation. Listeners might remember quite a few episodes Ben has kindly recorded with me. Sometimes I interview him. Sometimes he interviews me. This time, I’ve asked Ben to come along to talk about storytelling, to give us some examples, some ideas, some tips for how to solve some things that can be genuinely quite difficult about finding and re-sharing stories, but in my book and in lots of blogs ever since, I have argued that a key way you can be more interesting and potentially more persuasive, more inspirational to your audience, to your donors is if you can find more real examples to share onto those audiences, but also it starts with, if your team can get access to those, it’ll anyway, have an effect on their motivation levels. So that’s why I really wanted to do a session on this. It’s such an important topic to solve, but like I say, it’s not all easy.

Ben, I know that for Bright Spot, you do various training days, and one of the most popular ones is our influence and storytelling day that you do in-house for fundraising teams. And also, you do sometimes sessions to help organizations get access to their great content, to hear from the frontline, so to speak, of amazing things are happening. And the other day you were mentioning one of those organizations you worked with had just some really amazing examples they were sharing. Could you just share with our listeners, what one of those was that moved you?

Yeah, absolutely. So that was with an organization called Light For The World who are based in Austria, but they work internationally. And about once a month, we have an hour together where we just try and dive deep on these sorts of real examples and stories of their work. And last week I was patched in directly to a refugee camp in South Sudan, talking to clown doctors. If you don’t know them, they’re from a partnership they’ve got with a charity called RED NOSES in Austria. I talked to two people who three weeks earlier had flown into Juba, South Sudan, and they’re there to try and help all the children and families who have been in these camps now for years and years, and you can imagine what they’ve had to go through to get there and to survive. Their whole job is to help these children laugh and smile and play.

They use art therapy, play therapy. They showed us video after video of them playing and singing and doing music with these kids. And they said, “It’s not fair that the childhood they had shouldn’t be the same as every other,” and it’s fascinating. And anyway, I spent 25 minutes talking to them with the most incredible stories coming from what they had done that day and that week in South Sudan, and what they wanted to do in the future and where they’d come from, and how they were now actually working in camps near Ukraine.

And then immediately after that, I spoke to one of their colleagues who in April, 2020 suffered bleeding on her brain. And it actually meant that she ended up being rushed hospital, was put into a coma. And one of the main things that charity does is it helps people in different countries who’ve suffered from life-altering incidences or have disabilities. It helps them to recover, and she in 25 minutes, Rob, told us the story of what it was like to wake up in that hospital bed and to not be able to move any part of her body because the bleeding on the brain had affected, fundamentally altered the way her… killed various bits of her brain, to be told that she might not ever move again, walk again, and to spend week after week dragging herself up into her bed because she couldn’t move any of her left side.

And then eventually what it felt like to dive for the pole, to try and lift herself up and to fall, and to fear that she wouldn’t be able to do that. But then a few weeks later, proudly be able to grasp this pole, and then to eventually be able to put one’s foot in front of another foot, all the while being told that she might never be able to do that again. And she said for her, the realization that for 16 years she’d worked there, and as an individual giving acquisitions manager, had to write to people to help them understand the impact of their work, she said the number of times she’d written about how on the frontline, they had helped a child stand for the first time, walk for the first time, hold those balancing poles for the first time, she said to be in that situation and realized just what it’s like, she said it really brought home to her how A, lucky she wants to work live in her country, but B, the amazing work that they did.

And when I interviewed her, she could move everything. She could move around, she could She told us this story, and as you can imagine, we had 60 people from across the organization, from across Austria. Some of them are in South Sudan. Some of them are in Mozambique. Some of them are in the UK, and half an hour with the frontline clown doctors, half an hour with this person telling her story, everyone’s state at the end of it was totally different. It was unbelievable.

And for me, I think I was reflecting with you that they found this hour, which is done once a month, is being mentioned in staff surveys as one of the top two things as to why people are engaged there. It’s changed people’s states. They’ve used stories in speaking to donors and it’s just fascinated me that it’s not just this hour. The power of these stories, just tapping into them for an hour a month has changed everyone’s states and in many cases, their results too.


Thank you Ben for sharing those examples, and it puts me in mind of some conversations I’ve had with fundraising directors in the past where they say, “Yeah, I totally get it Rob. On the one hand, of course it makes absolute sense. We need to help our fundraisers get access to the mission, but I think you can only do so much. There’s an extent to which people need to take responsibility, don’t you think?”

And initially I agreed, but over the years, I’ve found the more you can put in place and make it unbelievably easy for your fundraising team to access this kind of content, the better it is because if you don’t proactively arrange a monthly thing or proactively send around a blog, or in-team meetings, do a little story sharing slot or whatever it might be, if you don’t proactively put these things into your system and your culture, my experience is nine fundraisers out of 10 intend to get round to reading those blogs or watching those films and looking on your website, but in practice because they feel the pressure to get money in, they rarely get round to following through on those good intentions as often as they could.


So my first idea is maybe counterintuitive. If you’re a leader of a fundraising team, go the extra mile to make this unbelievably easy and offer really strong encouragement. Even if you don’t make attendance at these things mandatory, do whatever you can to make it encouraged and expected that you attend this kind of session where you hear this content if you’re in a charity where such things are possible to set up, and just to help you get an extra justification for doing those things which are not necessarily easy in lots of charities.

One of the studies I really remember is from a book called The Small Big by Professor Robert Cialdini and a couple of other psychologists who wrote it with him, and the gist of one of the studies was of some telephone fundraisers working for an American university, and there were two different teams. In the study I read about, one team for 10 minutes a day, they got access to real accounts, stories, examples written by people who the scholarship or hardship fund had helped. This is what they were raising money for.

So 10 minutes a day, you can read real examples of just one amazing difference that made. And in the control group, they got 10 minutes a day getting other, just, I guess, more cerebral or strategic information about the work of the charity and how those scholarships work. And in that study, the team that were every day, just for 10 minutes, reading real stories, they ended up raising twice as much money as the team that weren’t getting access to the specific real examples. So that’s the first study that sticked in my mind.

The other one, I remember a conversation when I interviewed Max Newton, who you may remember from one of these other episodes of this show. He was talking about when he worked for an international aid agency, he’s a community fundraiser in the UK or manager. And that organization decided that volunteering was an important thing to encourage in the whole fundraising department. And as they remember it, they decided that everyone in the fundraising team should do one day per quarter, that’s four days a year. And Max had long felt that volunteering for that cause was such a powerful way to help people get connected to the work and the difference it made to people’s lives, that in his team only, he didn’t make it just once a quarter. He doubled it to at least two days per quarter.

The bigger picture is I interviewed Max about why it was that his team was so high achieving for three years running? And basically for three years running his community team on his patch had raised pretty much double what the average was on the other patches. And one of his clear answers to me was, “It’s that access to the front line.” And what’s interesting about this is on the one hand, you may be listening thinking. “Who’s got time to do whole extra days volunteering rather than raising money?” And I would say, who’s got time not to?

And Max said… I think this was three or four years ago, there were floods in Yorkshire. Was it Hebden Bridge and surrounding areas? There were stating floods that really caused loads of damage to people’s lives. And Max said to me that, “Which community fundraiser is going to raise more money if they have to go and do a talk to a rotary club, or if they push to try and get a meeting with some other group or association, or try and get a meeting with an independent school?”

The one that was out there volunteering, helping with their bucket, clean up someone’s home after floods, or the one that didn’t volunteer for that in any given month or two, when you think about just the difference it makes to people’s fuel to push to get things done and do things well, and the kinds of authentic, real examples they can share in that talk to the rotary club or to the church or whatever, I totally get why his team was so high achieving, and they got massive reward for the investment of their time connecting to the frontline. And it also helps me understand that the results achieved in the study that Cialdini mentioned.

Hi, it’s Rob. And if you’re listening to this in mid-May, I wanted to jump in quickly to let you know about a special offer we’re running for our training and inspiration site, the Bright Spot Members Club, between Monday the 23rd and Thursday the 26th of May 2022. To give you a sense of how this package of learning resources, community, and live weekly sessions combines to help fundraisers, here’s what one member, Audrey, said about why she’s been a member for the last four-and-a-half years.


I think it’s incredible value for money because you get access to so many resources, and you just have to be disciplined to access them. It’s all very well than being there, but you need to read them or listen to them, and go to the events. But if you do that, there’s no doubt about it, you benefit from it. A one day conference is all very well, but actually having something which you can drip feed through the year, you can dip in and out of it, just keeps your skills up, and it’s things that you can talk to colleagues about.

I’ve got a colleague that I’ve met on one of your courses, and we meet up on Zoom every six weeks, and we check in with each other about how things are going for us, and I never would’ve had that otherwise. So yeah, I would highly recommend it. It’s a no brainer to me. It’s such good value for money and I just recommend it to everybody.


And if you’re listening to this in mid-May, do check out our special promotion whereby if you join the club between the Monday the 23rd and Thursday the 26th of May 2022, you will get 15% off your individual membership if you’re paying monthly. And that saving will apply for as long as you want to keep access. Or for an even bigger saving if you’d like access for a year, you get 12 months membership for the price of nine. Or finally, if you’re the leader of a team, then there are also valuable discount if you’d like for three or more people from the same charity to get access.

To find out more about team discounts, do drop me a line through the Bright Spot fundraising website. If you’d like to find out more about how the club works and to claim this special saving, then between Monday the 23rd and Thursday the 26th of May 2022, go to brightspotmembersclub.co.uk/join.

I wonder, the listeners may well be thinking, “Of course, if only there were volunteering opportunities in my charity, of course, I would do those if I could, to help me experience more of the frontline or more of the why of our charity, but the truth is in my charity, it doesn’t exist. It’s not practical.” So what have you found in terms of other means we can follow through on this idea, either as a leader setting more things up for our team, or as a fundraiser on their own, who wants to build this into their working week or month?


We don’t always have volunteering opportunities available to us, and if you can do anything you can, to try and get closer to that frontline. Some things that work really well, it’s just increasing the number of meetings and excuses you have to create a setting to share more real examples and stories. The training that I did the other week was midway through our mastery course, and one of the charities was now six or eight weeks on from our storytelling content.

And she actually arrived late to the meeting, excited and full of energy because she’d just come from a storytelling, story sharing meeting, because following our course, she said, “We used to have two internal meetings every week, heavily based on strategy, on team priorities. And after the course, we realized we got so much more energy. It changed our state and we had more convincing examples when we found stories. What if we changed the second one to an external meeting only meeting? And I don’t mean we’re meeting donors. What I mean is we have to share something that we heard externally from our team. We have to share a donor meeting that we had. We have to share the impact that we had on a particular beneficiary.”

And she said, “And so instantly,” she said overnight, “Now this session is just us sharing something interesting new, where we know we’ve made an impact. They helped the restaurant industry to be more sustainable, to help the environment.” She said, “Suddenly we’re getting examples of quotes of where people met a restaurant, and now they’re redistributing more food to local charities and local families than they ever have done before. Now they’re throwing away 20 times less fat into the system, in the ecosystem.” She said, “We just weren’t getting these stories before.” And I loved it, Rob. She was literally late for the training, but knocking barn doors down with her energy.

And so one thing is just reframing the current meeting you’ve got to say, “Let’s calmly, informally share real examples that we have heard, could be anything, from a donor, from a practitioner, from someone on the front line, real examples of where something has changed. We’ve made someone’s life better. Let’s just use some time to share some of those.” And that’s one thing that’s made a massive difference to her, which I’ve really quite liked.

That’s brilliant, Ben. And what I’ve noticed is some charities that have been on our courses have really made quite a big radical shift like that, and others with time being precious, they haven’t been able to go the whole hog with that. But all they’ve done is said, “Right. Once a week, as a team or as a department, we anyway sit down to share some different things each of us is doing, but so much of that chat is just the driest stuff that needs to get discussed.

What we’re going to do is just have one item on the weekly team meeting agenda, just five or 10 minutes, that is about the sharing of any story, anyone has heard this week about the difference our charity has made. And the simple act of changing that process, changing what that agenda looks like as a default has… again, there might be some weeks when there is no story, or we are just too busy, so you might have to bump it, but the act of deciding to put it there does change your culture because you’re saying if, and when we can, we are keen to hear about these amazing examples that are going on.


And then of course, people are that bit more likely to remember something when prompted and share it on.


Absolutely. And I guess the thing is that if the only time you’re thinking about it is in that meeting, you might struggle. The tumbleweed will fly after you’ve asked the question. What we are noticing is you’re helping yourself get into the habit that you’ll notice these real examples are everywhere. The next time you speak to a donor, you’ll realize there’s one there. The next time you walk to the water cooler and hear a practitioner, you’ll see there’s ones that… and it’s interesting, on the one hand, it’s actively choosing to visit to get time in with the practitioner, and that is a second tip I’ll talk about in a second.

On the other, it’s noticing these stories are all around you, that your Chief Executive said it once when they were in a speech, when you were an event, it was there. You noticed a parent talking about it outside the school gates. You saw it in your supermarket. These examples are everywhere and it’s about… and realizing when you hear it, “Oh, next week, two o’clock, I’ll get a chance to share that a bit.” And that is this self-fulfilling prophecy where everyone hears more stories, you get into the habit of it and away we go.


Yes. And that reminds me of something I know that you’ve done for years, which is in addition to whatever might be appropriate for your team of fundraisers to have on the J drive a place where case studies are stored. I remember years ago when I worked with you, Ben, I saw you had a hard backed book, which is Ben’s story book.




And whilst other people might get their stories from wherever, you knew that if you were responsible for going to a meeting with a donor or a company, and you wanted to be as interesting and persuasive as you could be in that meeting, you couldn’t afford for those ideas and stories to be languishing in a J drive somewhere. You needed to have them at your fingertips. Not that you would get out the book in the meeting and say, “Look, let me turn the pages here,” but to have that book in your bag made it more likely that when you heard a good example on the radio or in the newspaper, or in a team meeting, you might jot it down because you were taking responsibility for the kinds of stories and content that would be useful in the type of meeting you had with your donors.

And sometimes on courses when I look at this topic, I remember an old film. I think it was a Kevin Costner film called Field of Dreams. And one of the key phrases in the film was this notion of if you build it, they will come. And I’ve adopted that notion that as long as you haven’t got a home for stories personally and/or as a team, you’ll hear something and you’ll intend to write it down, or you’ll put it on a wretched sticky note somewhere and that’ll blow away off your computer screen in the breeze.

Things will pass you by, but once you’ve decided, actually stories are to an extent, a kind of rocket fuel that can help us all feel an extra oomph, a boost to our mojo in how we do our work and potentially when appropriate sharing examples on, once you’ve decided that they are genuinely as important as Ben and I are making, and you decide, “Actually, I’m going to capture my own ones in this notebook and/or as a team, actually, there are a couple of things we could do to streamline our process by which we might capture and share content.” If you haven’t made that decision, my expectation is that in the next two weeks, you won’t notice or remember stories.


If you do give it to home, I expect in the next two weeks that just like for Ben, you’ll hear something and you’ll find five minutes to jot it down.


Definitely Rob, and my story book changed everything for me as a fundraiser to the point that today, people who meet me think I have an outstanding memory or I was a born storyteller. You just always were like this, and I can definitely tell you it changed because I deliberately started hunting out the stories, writing them into the pad, and then sharing them as often as I could.

The next tactic Rob, I’m finding fascinating is people choosing to go back to the source of that story after our training and trying to find out a bit more. We do a bit on the training where we talk about the structure of a story, which we’re not going to do now, but nearly always someone says, “I don’t think I dived into enough about the problem or what life was like before we got involved.” I think I should call back the person who shared the story with me and understand it a bit more.

So I got an excited message Rob, a few weeks ago, which I told you about, a direct message from someone saying, “Ben, if you got 15 minutes for me to speak to you today, I’ve got something to share with you.” I didn’t know what it was and he called me. It was someone who I trained in storytelling and he was telling me that one of the stories that he shared on the day was with a particular woman, and it was a really powerful story. And he knew he had a pitch coming up and actually, because of our content, he’d reframed the pitch Rob. So it had more stories in it than before, but he wanted to make sure he got her story right, and had thought through what life was like beforehand. So he dropped her a note and said, “Can I have a chat to you just to check the story again?”

Now, this is over a year since he last spoke to her, and he said he thought he’d have an eight minute chat with her. He was on the phone for 40, 50 minutes. She told him more about what life had been like for her before than he’d ever thought of before. Unbelievable detail in the story, which the very next day, 12 hours later, he reframed this pitch. He put it into there and he called me so excited because he’d presented this to about 40 people, and nine people from nine different companies signed up there and then on the day.

He said, “And I know it was because of things she told me the day before that she put into that story,” and that isn’t the first time that someone has excitedly got in touch with me from hunting out someone who shared with them a story earlier, and trying to get back to the source of the story and say, “Can you just tell me a bit more about it? What happened?” I’ve got people who’ve excited… They’ve literally based on the storytelling pad situation, Rob, they’ve sent me photos of their pad after making those phone calls because they’ve been so excited about the dynamite that’s been in those stories.

And so for me, tactic number two is maybe you did hear a story once. Maybe someone has told you something somewhere, “Be brave and get back in touch with them, and don’t just email them, call them and try and get to the heart… Can you tell me that story again and understand a bit…?” And no one’s ever regretted it when they’ve done that.


That’s fantastic Ben, and related to that is what we’ve found, whereby not in every organization, but in the majority of organizations, if the means of finding examples or case studies is dry and remote, and too much of a bureaucratic process, the chances of your colleague who’s out there on the frontline or doing the research, genuinely understanding what you really mean by these real examples or stories is slim. They’ll just probably when busy, in a dry way either say, “No, I haven’t got any,” or in a really less interesting way, fill in a couple of top line details that misses out the heart of the amazing transformation that took place because of what your charity does.

Whereas we found when people have looked at this more and they’ve practiced story more and they’ve understood actually just how powerful they can be, they don’t just send an email and they don’t just rely on a remote process. They’re so much more likely to just try and get into a conversation at all. And when you get into a conversation, you have a less high expectation that the other person already knows what you mean.




The truth is they’re an expert at therapy or they’re an expert as an architect, or an academic. It doesn’t mean they get what we mean by story. It doesn’t mean they’re an expert storyteller. Whereas if you can chat to them and just ask them about what the problem is for our potential beneficiaries, a bit about what you do to make it better and what’s interesting about the result, if through conversation, you can hear these examples, that’s how you can find and curate.

It’s still all got to be obviously accurate and true and real, but it’s through a conversation you find the content rather than expecting the other person to know exactly what you mean.


That’s exactly it, Rob. And what I’ve even found is that if I share a story first, an example that I’m really looking for, the type of example I’m looking for, that sets the frame for what I’m expecting from them. If I just ask them, “Do you have any stories or real examples?” It’s just so broad. The answers I get back are either a no or they’re kind of off. If I really share an example that another colleague had given me once that hit the brief perfectly, they see what I’m looking for and they match it. Without that extra bit, without an actual conversation, it is just harder to get these stories.


Yeah, absolutely. Thanks for sharing that advice, Ben. We need to finish very soon. As always, thank you ever so much for sharing your advice on all of these areas for how we might get closer to real examples, A, for our own motivation and B, for potentially content that we might be able to use to help our donors connect as well. So as always Ben, thank you very much and I look forward to catching up with you very soon.


Thanks Rob.


Well, I hope you found hearing these ideas was helpful. If so, please do subscribe today so that you don’t miss out on all the other episodes we’ve got coming up. If you’d like a full transcript of today’s episode, go to the podcast section of our website, which is brightspotfundraising.co.uk.

Now, if you’re listening to this in mid-May and you’re interested in taking advantage of the discount I mentioned during that four-day flash sale for the Bright Spot Members Club, then between the 23rd of May and the 26th of May 2022, go to brightspotmembersclub.co.uk/join. If you enjoyed today’s episode, then we’d be incredibly grateful if you take a moment to share it on with your colleagues or on social media, so that we can help as many people as possible. And we’d love to hear what you think about today’s episode. Ben and I are both on LinkedIn, and on Twitter Ben is @benswart, and I am @woods_rob.


Lastly, thank you for listening today. Best of luck with your fundraising and all your ongoing efforts to stay connected to the cause that you serve. I look forward to sharing more Bright Spot ideas and examples with you soon.