Story Jam with Tom Ahern - Nonprofit Storytelling Conference

Story Jam with Tom Ahern

Written by Sheena Greer


Maybe I’m getting a bit carried away, but to say I’m a huge fan is an understatement. In my mind, Tom Ahern is to fundraising what Martin Atkins is to music (if you’re not sure who Martin Atkins is, the title of his book will give you a quick introduction.) Tom not only speaks (his mind), teaches (the facts) and shares (the truth), but he still does (and is very, very good at it.) He’s not just passing time on the speaking circuit – he still sits at his desk everyday, writing letters and case statements, figuring out what works and what doesn’t. He is infinitely devoted to his craft, and deeply invested in the sector.  He knows his shit.

Tom says he was a writer before he knew how to read, a detail we bonded over. I always say that I wanted to be a writer since I was old enough to hold a pen. Tom has been a writer since birth.

This gives Tom a unique insight into the field of fundraising. He’s not a fundraiser, he’s a writer, and this gives him the unique ability to approach his work. He’s an outsider and an insider. And he’s dynamite.

Though I think the thing that I admire most about Tom is his eclectic, no bullshit approach. A quick wit, a sharp intellect, a deep intuition, and a silly heart. He has the experience to know what will work, and the curiosity to discover what will work even better.

This Jam took place on Friday, September 18th.

The Double-Edged Sword

There are two common questions about storytelling for nonprofits.

The first: how do we tell stories?

That is, how do we as organisations move from litany to narrative? How do we dip our toes into the pool of storytelling?

To begin, we must break down the word storytelling itself. Strip it bare – past the layers of colourful tropes, past the sexy ideology, right down to the bones.

Beginning, middle, end.

Problem, solution.

Show, don’t tell.


Of course, it’s not exactly this easy, but if you cannot recognize this as a fundamental starting point, your stories will fall flat. If we separate the idea of telling nonprofit stories from the idea of solving a problem and making a sale, we’ve missed the point.

We all grew up with the broader idea of stories. We read them as children. As we grew, we encountered literature. We were swept away by theatre and film. And we are pummelled daily by stories in the news.

But the core of storytelling for nonprofits can’t be lumped in loosely with these kinds of stories. Not really, anyways. And this is perhaps the difference between approaching storytelling as a fundraiser and approaching it as a copywriter.  It all comes down to persuasive problem solving.

Finnegans Wake is a profound and challenging piece of literature, but it isn’t likely to solve anyone’s problems.

And it isn’t likely to make you more money.

Most nonprofits fit comfortably into the role of problem solver, and this requires a specific kind of storytelling. The kind that will make the sale.

Begin with a stark realization: nobody really cares about what you do or how you do it. That’s it. They don’t. They care about the impact, and they care about themselves.

Are you telling your donors all about what you do and how you do it?

Or are you showing them the impact that their gift could make?

Next, replace the word donor with customer. Just try it.

Because the more you see your donors as customers, the more you can focus on the customer experience. When you do this, you realize that it has nothing to do with you. And you can stop talking about yourself.

Are you making your customer happy?

Are you writing towards audience gratification, feeding their emotional appetite for entertainment in a way that sticks with them, all the while allowing them to absorb ask after ask, and convincing them to say yes.

This isn’t easy. But it’s a much easier place to begin than aspiring to turn your direct mail appeal into a Dickensian masterpiece.

But that was just the first question.

The second question is: now really, how do we tell stories?

And this problem is entirely different than the first.

This question hits a vein of a much larger problem. This question is no longer about the craft, but rather the place of storytellers in our organisations. This question is actually a much deeper problem: how do fundraisers get the autonomy they need to tell the stories they need to tell?

“How can I convince my boss that we should be telling stories?”

Fundraisers are eager. They want to change the way things are done. They want to raise more money. But they are too often told that they can’t do it the way they want to. The way they’ve been trained to.

Even when the conventional ways of fundraising aren’t working.

Organisations will continue to hope to raise more money doing the exact same things, but that’s not going to work. And until fundraisers are granted more autonomy over the work they do, this will remain a wicked problem.

There is no easy answer to the question “how do we tell stories?” It’s not magic – in developing the craft or evangelising the practice.

But the answer is close when you gather in a room with other fundraisers, other writers, other thinkers, and explore the question. The solution doesn’t reside in any one person’s head, but many.

We have much to learn from each other and our experiences, as storytellers who are all too often not allowed to tell stories.

So let us gather. In November. Next year. In person. Online. Anywhere we can. And continue to ask the double-edged sword of a question – how do we tell stories?

More about our character, Tom

What is your motto?

  • My professional motto, which I utter at the beginning of every project, is this: “What if everything I know is wrong?” Context: one of the most important couple of training hours I ever spent was with a top ad art director, Tom Monahan. He offered “creativity training.” I recommend such training for everyone, starting as young as possible. Creativity training shows you how to have 20 ideas rather than just one or two. A typical exercise: “What’s the worst idea you can think of to solve this problem?” Creativity training is meant to move you away from the predictable.

What is your most marked characteristic?

  • My family tree is blighted with depression. I’ve struggled with that all my life; it’s baked in. And yet I am a hopeless optimist. I think the world gets better all the time. Though I don’t discount that the human race may well be the first species to successfully arrange its own extinction.

What historical figure do you most identify with?

  • Right now, it’s Abraham Lincoln. Not because I feel presidential. Just, I’ve been working on a case for support for the Gettysburg Foundation; President Lincoln made his famous Address there at the battlefield, to consecrate the Union burial ground. I ended up re-meeting the man. Lincoln was deeply kind, deeply modest, and not all that tolerant of incompetent egotists. Which seems about right.

Which living person do you most admire?

  • In fundraising? Ken Burnett. I don’t know a more important pebble in our fundraising pond. In life: doctors. Personally: Simone Joyaux, my ridiculously principled wife.

What is your favorite journey?

  • Every flight to France with Simone at my side, headed to our falling-down little house there. This is the most amazing gift of all for me, thanks to her: another world to explore and enjoy and wrestle with.

What is your greatest inspiration when writing?

  • Behind my desk are bookshelves holding over 450 how-to books. I can never repay that debt. I stand on the shoulders of a thousand mentors.

Who is your favourite author?

  • No can do. I read a new book every few days. My favorite crime writers are Tana French and John Burdett.

What are you looking forward to most at the NPStorytelling Conference?

  • I look forward to the smells of sea and coffee and drive and humor.

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