Story telling

No wonder cat and dog charities do well

By Sean Triner

Back in 1994, a little kitten was born. My friends (and mentor and brilliant fundraising copywriter) Tim and Karen gave the kitten to my partner (Stef) and me. We lived in Walthamstow, NE London.

When he was about a year old he we returned from work and couldn’t find him anywhere. Eventually someone working in the museum opposite our home found him in the museum gardens.

He had been attacked by greyhounds. Badly mauled, he had bits of insides poking out. We took him to the vet and he was given pretty low odds to survive. But the vet did a fantastic job and he pulled through.

He was a tough cat, and a tease – he used to wind up dogs and other cats all the time. He was pretty hard actually.

We got another cat, Brian, who was nowhere near as tough and also a bit soppy and needy. Stef used to say that Tetley took after her, and me after Brian.

In 1997 Stef and I broke up. I moved to Brighton for a few months before South London for a few years then on to Australia in 2002.

Stef left Walthamstow in the late nineties, and took Brian with her, but Tetley didn’t go and became quite a character. A bit like a slightly less adventurous Red Dog from Louis de Bernieres book (and new movie) on the Australian mining town dog.

Life moved on, and Tetley became a memory, like any ex-pet does. But I once got chatting to a stranger a couple of years ago in Hong Kong (or maybe Singapore) who had lived in Walthamstow. They knew Tetley, and knew he hung about the Museum still, which was kind of nice to hear.

But imagine my surprise when Stef sent me the link below to these articles. Tetley died at the end of September and had a New Orleans style community funeral. I wish I had known – I was in Europe then too.

Please take a look at the story. It brought tears to my eyes and happy memories to my heart. (Though I was one of his bully victims. Maybe Stockholm Syndrome at work here). Click the links below the photo.

284/365 - RIP Tetley

Funeral for Tetley. Nice photo and article.

By the way, Tetley was named after the beer. Then they named a beer after him. Funny old world.

Tell better stories

By Sean Triner

Thankfully, many organisations are getting the idea that they should be telling individual stories, not using statistics and mind-bogglingly technical jargon if they are going to really engage with donors.

This message appears to be getting through with direct mail appeals, but before a recent Fundraising Institute of Australia breakfast session in Brisbane on the topic of storytelling, I went to the websites of the 30 or so nonprofits that were attending. Only one had a story on its homepage. All of the others had information about the organisation, not beneficiaries.

Storytelling needs to be in your soul, and should be the driver of all communications. If you are a fundraiser, the only thing you have to sell is stories.

The best storytelling communications I have ever seen are by Cancer Research UK. It takes the stories developed from its television ads and makes much more in-depth versions available online.

Another organisation that gets this right on its homepage is Vision Australia. There is always a story slap bang in the middle of its homepage. The fundraising and communications people there are very switched on. They know that telling stories is much more powerful than using stats.

Of course, these stories need to be interesting, motivating and emotional. They also need to really bring the donor and the beneficiary together. One tactic for this is ‘witnessing’.

I went back to Vision Australia’s website and had a look at some of its copy. Could it be improved by witnessing a story?

I did a quick rewrite. For the purpose of this exercise, I have made up a couple of things – like the name of the therapist.


Vision Australia’s Children’s Services provide teams of specialists to assist families with children who are blind or have low vision from birth to 18 years of age. Your donation means we can ensure more children like Chelsea (pictured) benefit from these specialised services.

Seven-year-old Chelsea Nagle, was born with no vision at all due to a rare genetic condition known as Leber’s Congenital Amaurosis. Her parents were totally shocked and distraught after finding out that their daughter was completely blind.

Vision Australia provides free specialist help and support to children who are blind or have low vision, which is critical for families who are faced with the shocking knowledge that their child has little or no sight. Your donation today can help ensure our services are available when Australians need help the most.

When the occupational therapist started, Chelsea couldn’t even hold a toothbrush well enough to clean her teeth – with children who have no sight, there’s no impetus to reach for things or pick them up as a sighted child will and there’s no learning by observation. Everything has to be encouraged and taught. The therapist helped Chelsea to explore things by using her sense of touch and to develop more self-help skills such as eating with a spoon and fork, brushing her hair, all to build up her independence.

Learning to use a cane was something else that required physiotherapy – Chelsea had to work on her wrist, arm and shoulders so that she could learn to hold out the cane properly and be able to walk confidently.

Every single one of her achievements has taken a lot of effort. Vision Australia’s support has been a vitally important part of getting Chelsea ready and able to attend school. To prepare Chelsea for school we provided counselling, physiotherapy and occupational therapy.

“Vision Australia’s support has been extremely valuable and I don’t think we could have survived without it, and I don’t think Chelsea would have developed into the independent, active and adventurous child she is today.” Lynda Nagel (Chelsea’s mum).


“It is so hard to describe the change in our lives. From teaching Chelsea everyday things like brushing her teeth to using the cane to get around safely, Melissa has been a godsend,” she told me.

Part of my role at Vision Australia is to speak with children like Chelsea and their parents. I have just got off the phone after assuring her mum, Linda Nagle, that I will do my utmost to ensure that the service that has helped her child so much will continue.

Linda reiterated the huge impact services funded by caring and loving Australians has had.

Melissa is our trained occupational therapist – completely funded by donations.

“Every day that I wake up I wonder what it would be like without the help of Vision Australia – not just Melissa – but also the enormous support from the whole team. It also gives me a great lift to know that this is all funded by wonderful people.

“These are strangers, people across Australia that I have never even met.”

“To have so much love and generosity from strangers is truly wonderful. If I have time to sit and think about it, I can’t help myself from crying.”

“I hope that you can tell them what a huge impact they are having on the life of my little child and our whole family,”  Linda said, as she watched Chelsea cross the room to get a doll.

You can see that Linda wanted me to share her thanks, and tell you about the impact you are having. I could think of no better way to fulfil this wish than to share her words with you. Please, help me fulfil my promise to Chelsea and Linda by making a gift today.

I do hope that you can see the differences in the stories, but more importantly, I hope that you can see how to apply ‘witnessing’ to your copy.

Check out Cancer Research UK‘s brilliant TV ads and stories and, of course, Vision Australia’s homepage.

Add ‘eradicated polio’ to your CV?

By Sean Triner

Jonas Salk made it possible.  After inventing the polio vaccine, he was asked who would own the vaccine.  He replied “Well, the people I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”  A true hero responsible for providing the key tool to hammering polio.  It was quickly snuffed out in nearly all countries and is now endemic in only four countries – Afghanistan, India, Nigeria and Pakistan.

We are amazingly close to finishing the job – just $535m short of funding in early 2011.

But now an Australian student will be able to add those words to his CV, along with an inevitable “Young Australian of the Year” award.

This Australian, Michael Sheldrick, was the final speaker at the FIA WA Conference a few weeks ago.  And his talk was incredibly motivating.

Even though he says “I am not a fundraiser” I think it is fair to say he bloody well is.  He managed to convince the Australian PM to give $50m, provide a platform for Bill and Melinda Gates to chuck in $40m and a few other Commonwealth countries in the UK to pitch in too.  Combined with the brilliant efforts of the global Rotary movement millions of kids will grow up, like Michael did, to never experiencing the disease. A seriously large chunk of that $535m will be knocked out thanks to the work of Michael. He is quick to point out that it was not him alone.

Managing The End of Polio Campaign was his role with Global Poverty Project. “It was very much a team effort and would not have been possible without ‘All hands on deck’. In particular, a stand out Concert Producer.”

It is so tempting to write up his story here, but it would ruin it – it is best coming from him.  He is a gifted storyteller, and this was key to his success. Check out his video.

Following the rock concert he was involved with, a government minister asked him to introduce the minister to Bill Gates.

If you see him speaking somewhere, go see him.  For those coming along to the Pareto party in Melbourne on 1 December don’t worry about asking him to tell his story, he is happy to tell all.

The evil of communications departments

By Sean Triner

At the recent IFC Conference in the Netherlands, I did a session on story telling, and that all fundraising needs to revolve around stories.  Abstract and clever marketing, as well as stats and ‘how clever are we’ stuff just doesn’t work.

Margaux Smith from UK agency bluefrog realised she was the devil (A devil with a good wit and prose though).

And another fundraiser’s reaction on the masterclass to some of the tacky stuff that works…

Check out here what Margaux learned….

A fundraiser, fundraising

By Sean Triner

Please will you help me raise money for Amnesty International – and enjoy a good yarn too?

I am running a storytelling masterclass at the International Fundraising Congress and thought I would get it off to a good start with a story which has nothing to do with fundraising!

For just $3.99 (GBP2.49) you can buy my ‘e-book’ Haruki The Knife Maker and all the proceeds that I receive will go to Amnesty International.

Telling a good story is essential for making fundraising work. It doesn’t matter what tactics you use, what good data selections or targeting you do or what staff you employ, you have to tell a good story.

For years now, I have been writing and directing stories to raise money for fantastic charities. So I thought I would write a special story that is not in my normal forte. I have decided to dedicate this story to Amnesty International and all the staff and volunteers there as well as the people who have survived human rights abuses – or are surviving right now.

The story is just 4,500 words. It took my friend Tom Ahern about fifteen minutes to read in an airport lounge so it shouldn’t take you long.  This is what he said.

5.0 out of 5 stars

Unforgettable tale, exquisitely illustrated

By Thomas Ahern (Foster, RI USA)

This review is from: Haruki the Knife Maker (Kindle Edition)

I wasn’t prepared for Haruki to take over my life … but he did. Sean Triner is a soulful writer. His folkloristic tale is poetic, clear-eyed, and quick … a brilliant evocation of how the simple, orderly world of a masterly village knifemaker is torn to pieces by modern economics … and Haruki’s heart-wrenching journey to recover his livelihood. The surprise ending … well, I’ll leave that for readers to savor. The matching illustrations are lovely and apt. And all proceeds go to Amnesty International, a cause Sean Triner has advanced for years. Read it. Share it. Gift it to your Kindle-loving friends.

Joan Clarke at the Bedford Foundation had a glimpse of the story on my iPhone. The illustrations got her interest at first but “I started reading the story and was gripped straight away, it was thought provoking and very poignant. Without noticing, I had ignored my red wine and the rest of the group. Fifteen minutes flew by and I had finished the story, disappointed it had ended.  Thoroughly recommend it.”

The official reviews have been great so far too. I do hope that you can spare the time to read it, and the $3.99 that it costs to buy. All the proceeds will be donated to Amnesty International.

The story is published as an ebook. If you have an iPad or iPhone, you can buy it easily through iBooks. It is also available on Amazon Kindle and various other ereaders. If you haven’t an ereader, then you can buy it at Smashwords, or else donate at least $5 on my fundraising page and send me your email address and I will send you a copy.

Still not convinced? A load of reviews are below…

Thank you, and I hope that you enjoy it.

Airdre Grant, 5 stars.

“I found this to be a very elegantly written tale. It works as a fable for me as it tells an egaging story and also invites us to think about the relationship between violence and beauty, and the collision between old words and new, greed and sacrifice. I recommend it.”

Review by: Sharon Dopson, 5 stars

“What a beautiful fable, a sad very realistic view of our greedy changing world. I will recommend to all my friends.”

Review by: Alexbecky: 4 stars “This modern fable is beautifully illustrated and is a fascinating read. It really makes you think about the beauty of simplicity, and what can happen when both greedy capitalism and monolithic communism combine to destroy an ancient way of life.”

Review by: Christiana Stergiou, 5 stars

“This is a wonderful, meaningful and easy to read book. It’s simple language conveys a deep story that is a fable for our times. It is beautifully illustrated, too. It’s sad to think that there have been many Harukis whose simple and sustainable existence have been sacrificed for our modern, convenient and consumerist lifestyle. I would love a set of Haruki’s knives!”

Better Story Telling

By Sean Triner

Many charities have proven that telling individual stories is more motivating for potential donors than throwing statistics and numbers at them.

Telling people that there are 10,000 people diagnosed with x disease per annum is not as effective as telling a story about one person with that disease, and what you can do to help.

Story telling hammers fact sharing when it comes to soliciting donations.

Assuming that you have already been convinced that this is the case, then the next stage is to write those stories in a really engaging way.

I often get involved in writing copy and a trick that I have found is that stories flow better, and are more engaging if they are personal, involving, directly thank the donor, and are witnessed.

By witnessed, I mean kind of like what preachers do. Don’t just tell someone a story, make it personal. Since good direct mail letters should be written in first person singular, to a donor, the writer should be telling the story from their perspective,

In a story about someone with x disease, the writer should have met that person or their family. It is more compelling to say ‘when I met Bill, I was shocked when he told me that…’ ‘it brought me close to tears…’ than just saying something like ‘let me tell you about Bill. He was diagnosed with ….’

Take a leaf from preachers – witness change.