The Dufresne Jolt – a fundraising lesson from the Shawshank Redemption

My favourite moment in the Shawshank Redemption is the look on the evil warden’s face when he finally discovers the tunnel that Andy Dufresne has been digging under his nose. I love it because finding the tunnel jolts my understanding of the entire plot up to this point, in which the nasty warden had seemed to be winning.
Done well, the technique of re-framing the audience’s understanding is an immensely powerful device, in fundraising as well as film-making.
It is one of the techniques I teach people to improve their story-telling, and it’s also a fantastic technique for creating impact in a presentation.
I heard a great story about St Giles Trust when they pitched to be charity of the year for a bank. If you don’t know them, they are a fantastic, fairly small charity that helps people who have served time in prison. They do amazing work, but few people would say their cause is the easiest sell to Middle England.
How did they out-pitch several better-resourced charities with cuddlier causes?
This is what happened, as I understand it. Three staff from St Giles Trust presented, and did so very professionally. A key idea they talked about was that ordinarily, the odds are stacked against former offenders. But almost all people who have served time, actually want to make good choices when they come out. Given the right support, former offenders make a valuable contribution to society.
At the very end of the pitch, one person from the pitch panel said something like ‘and the reason I know that this support is so powerful, is because just a few years ago I was serving time in prison for a serious crime. St Giles Trust enabled me to make good choices and get me to where I am today. This works.’
They won the partnership, ahead of, among others, a charity for sick children! The partnership was worth around £1m.
The thing I love about this is that most pitch teams would have followed convention by introducing themselves with a bit of background at the very start. But by holding back the story till the end, the team helped the charity of the year panel feel the re-frame, ie that it is human nature to make assumptions, to form snap judgements about people, many of which turn out to be wrong.
Two weeks ago I heard a similar story from Kieran Cornwell who is Senior Strategic Partnerships Manager at the Cystic Fibrosis Trust, and a participant on my Corporate Partnerships Mastery Programme. He said that after hearing me tell the above story, he had re-designed his own pitch.
Specifically he briefed his colleague in the pitch team who has cystic fibrosis to only reveal this truth at the very end, causing the audience to re-evaluate the meaning of everything they had already heard until this point, in particular the plight of the person with cystic fibrosis about whom they had told a powerful story. The result? The panel truly connected with the message – there were even some tears – and are now creating a partnership which will be worth over £100,000 to the Cystic Fibrosis Trust.
How could you use this?
If you were a film director, what different choices would you make when planning what to tell a supporter or pitch panel? In particular, what difference could it make to the order in which you say things, so as to increase the chances that they feel the power of your most important point?