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Is there room for experience fundraising?
Fundraisers should improve their storytelling skills so they can take donors effectively to where the action is.


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Ken Burnett, writer, publisher and occasional fundraising consultant.

Archived article No 8
from Professional Fundraising magazine 2002.

For once I was utterly lost for words. I couldn’t think of anything to say in that room that would have had any meaning or relevance whatsoever.
Then my guide asked me if I wanted to take a photograph. And that was too much for me.

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Alzheimer’s disease has stolen my great friend.

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‘Experience’ marketing is the fashionable new thing for today’s marketer. Apparently you don’t just sell your product, you live it. The aim is to immerse your prospect in a lifestyle that simultaneously stimulates all their senses.

An example of experience marketing is currently practiced by the manufacturers of those cunning designer ‘alco-pop’ drinks – Breezer, Schnapps and the like. Experience marketing for these products involves recruiting attractive, young, out-of-work male models – this is true – who are briefed to sit hour after hour in the most fashionable watering-holes with their Nokia mobile phone and Palm Pilot prominently in view, with the Gucci shoes, the Armani threads, the Rado wrist wear and the Trevor Sorbie hairdo – everything that successful youth might aspire to – and, of course, all the while knocking back bottle after bottle of Zippo, or Heave-up or whatever is being promoted to you, the unsuspecting punter.
Just think, that stunningly attractive bloke at the bar who you thought had been stood up and were just about to move in on, may in fact just be coming to the end of his shift.

Silly, isn’t it?

Then I thought about it. Maybe ‘experience marketing’ does have some application for fundraisers…

My most useless moment
Along with much that is routine, even dull, my role as chairman of ActionAid has some privileges. Last year I visited several African countries to see ActionAid’s work in the field of HIV/AIDS. My trip included meeting people from partner organisations, women's co-operatives and groups living with HIV/AIDS.

These included some of the poorest and sickest people on earth. I made lots of speeches and shook even more hands. Then when I was in Zimbabwe one of the people ActionAid has trained to visit and support people living with AIDS took me to the home of a young man who was in the final stages of this utterly devastating disease.

He was just 22 years old, he had been bedridden for four years and he was clearly dying. I have a son just a bit younger than him. But this young man’s home was nothing more than a shed. The floor was earth. The bare walls of his dismal room were decorated only by a single, crumpled photograph which showed the patient as a fine young man in distant, much better days. An old and dirty towel had been tacked across the window as a makeshift curtain. A dilapidated cupboard was the only furniture other than the creaking bed on which lay the young man in foul and sodden bedding. In the room with him were his father, the ActionAid worker, and me.

For once I was utterly lost for words. I couldn’t think of anything to say in that room that would have had any meaning or relevance whatsoever.
Then my guide asked me if I wanted to take a photograph. And that was too much for me.

The thing is I knew why the boy’s father was there: he was there to comfort and be with his dying son. I knew why the ActionAid worker was there. She was there to offer what was left of this family the meagre support and help that she had been trained to give. And I knew why the young man was there. He was there because he had nowhere else to go. He was there to die from this disease called AIDS.

But at that moment I couldn’t for the life of me imagine why I was there. I felt like the worst kind of tourist. So, to my eternal shame, without even a word of comfort for the others in that room, I turned and left.

Of course I was there for a reason. I was there because those people wanted me to be there. They wanted to show me what dying of AIDS in Africa is really like. They wanted me to see it in its gut-wrenching awfulness so I would tell others that we must do something to stop this. I was there because, as a fundraiser, it is my job to tell other people about situations exactly like this. If I hadn’t seen it, I don’t think I could ever have imagined it.

Our donors and supporters, mostly, can’t be there with us at times like these. But we fundraisers are nothing if we are not communicators. It’s the fundraiser’s job to take donors there in words and pictures, to help them see the reality and why and how they should help. It is the fundraiser’s job to inspire those donors, to show them that there is hope for a treatment, perhaps even for a cure. And if no cure is possible then there is a prospect for comfort, for understanding, for practical help and trained support that will make it possible for these people to bear the unbearable.

We fundraisers have the best stories in the world to tell and the best of all reasons for telling them. We should use those stories better than we do. This demands that we spread inspiration, sharing our experiences to convey the real, painful, shattering but ultimately optimistic and rewarding experience of helping other people in need.

Maybe after all we could use ‘experience’ fundraising. It might work better than free plastic pens and phoney questionnaires.

© Ken Burnett 2012

This article has been adapted from a feature that first appeared in Professional Fundraising magazine in 2002. The story about the young man in Zimbabwe also is told in The Zen of Fundraising. A video clip of Ken telling it can be seen here.

Ken Burnett is co-founder of Clayton Burnett Limited and a director of The White Lion Press Limited. He was a trustee of the international development charity ActionAid from 1995 to 2009, with just a one year break and he was chairman of the board of trustees of ActionAid from 1998 to 2003. He’s author of several books including Relationship Fundraising and The Zen of Fundraising and is managing trustee of SOFII, The Showcase of Fundraising Innovation and Inspiration. For more on Ken’s books please click here.




Be aware, that ridiculous yuppie may really be trying to sell you something...

A story that should be told. Sometimes a fundraiser just has to be a witness. But an expert witness, for a clear and specific purpose – this has to change.


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