Tue, September 27 2011

When the axe man cometh, 6 ways to save your program with story

Katya Andresen's avatar

Author, Robin Hood Marketing

Filed under:   Marketing essentials •

Once upon a time, there was a library system that was struggling to survive.  It was a dark and stormy economy, and there was very little money to keep the lights on and the books out.

The people who cared about the library had to go before their local government in Saint Marys, Ontario, to make a case for funding.  And they succeeded.  They even wrote me to tell the tale.  So I asked them how they did it.  And I also posed the question, what does this tale tell us about saving our own programs from the budget axe?  Read on for the story from the people who made this happen: Brendan Howley, Robert Brindley and Sam Coghlan (library CEO).  Thanks for the inspirational work, gentlemen!

How did you do it?

In previous years, we librarians ourselves had prepared pitches based on program descriptions and graphs presented in PowerPoint. The information made sense from a library perspective but for some reason it was not resonating with our audience.  Rob Brindley, an Acting Library CEO from our partnership was also the Chief Administrative Officer and had some experience with marketing.  He felt we needed help to communicate our message.  In order for our library partnership to be heard, we needed to translate the value proposition, the return on investment that the library was providing.  Also the story had to be told from their perspective – from their residents.  We brought in Brendan Howley, a cause marketer who lives locally.  When Brendan told us, a trio of librarians, that yes, we should use a story, who could better understand the power of story than a trio of librarians?!  We understood, though, that the story had to be told by an objective party in order to not appear self serving.  Brendan, using his skills as a seasoned investigative reported, scoured the cornfields and came up with an amazing articulate local leader who agreed to help Brendan deliver the story of the library.

What reaction did you get from the people making the decision about your funding?  How did storytelling make a difference?

Members of council were engaged, if not spellbound.  They seemed to grasp the essential truth of the message that libraries are valuable.  The tone of their questioning about the dollars involved was much less confrontational than it had been in the past.  They were now understanding the true value of the library and the role it played in building their community.

Based on this experience, what’s your advice for other libraries – and nonprofits – about making the case for funding?

First, bring in help.  You are likely too close to the situation to be able to describe it effectively to your potential funders.  You will not all be as fortunate as us – finding someone like Brendan Howley who is a marketer, an investigative reporter AND a published novelist, but there are marketers in your community who can help.  (And they likely use your library themselves, so you don’t need to sell them on your message.)

Second, stories are very powerful, but you need to have accurate, up to date, credible data to respond to the questions that funders need to ask. This was not about flash, remember to go to your roots.  Our pitch was a story from our residents, the heart of our community that was able to communicate the real human value of the situation.

Third, bring in help in delivering the stories.  A good story can seem self serving if you deliver it yourself.

How do you make sure the story delivers?

1. The investigative: We ran this task like an intelligence operation, identifying the key policy influencers and then doing an informal sit-down with each of them, to determine which issues were real and which were driven by poor communication between the parties. And, with the help of two inside “agents,” we profiled the opponents (gingerly, so as not to tip our hand) and identified their most likely counterarguments. (On the day, there were no surprises.)

2. The analytic: Which value proposition/s did the libraries not communicate well to stakeholders, which, if well-told, would open the purse-strings as politically defensible budget line-items? And then we researched like crazy to find the authoritative sources to make the individual case (“Why do we need libraries if we have Google?” “Because librarians are human search engines—they give not only a solution but context for that solution as well: priceless”)

3. The creative: How best to present the narrative? Our gut was that voices from the community itself, NOT couched as generic testimonials but rather as single-item “we need this and are passionate enough about it to take a public stand on-camera,” were the best elements. But the two librarians who did speak had unique points of view as “first responder”/therapist and as someone who’d united a community during a blizzard (selfless public service). Nothing was impersonal: every word came from a personal place.

4. The passionate: Everyone who connected with the presentation saw the value of libraries and reacted from their hearts. That shone through and cost us…nothing.

5. The interpersonal: What were the councillors actually going to debate? A deep psychological understanding of this process was paramount—-we had to provide unanswerable fact-allegations to demonstrate ROI and value-for-money unequivocally…and in voices that our advocates and fence-sitters could appropriate credibly as their own.

6. A dry run: Our first iteration was factually solid but the narrative was far less powerful than what we finally presented. The difference? Fresh eyes and ears. We did two dry runs and had multiple rehearsals in anticipation of questions. Made a world of difference.

Here’s a video that summarizes much of what they presented.  I just love the first story.




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