story telling

The importance of our stories and why we should share them

Stories are powerful. The best ones can freeze-frame time and steal our breath. They can stop us from feeling alone, remind us that we’re part of something bigger, give us a sense of our shared humanity. They can build bridges and expand horizons, deepen empathy and dissolve division.

They have been shared since prehistory. We’re told them from birth. They surround us - not just in books, films and plays - but at the heart of the messaging we absorb each day from a thousand different sources. 

Stories build identity and a sense of belonging. In my family we still talk about my grandfather’s childhood adventures, long since he left us. How he launched a makeshift aeroplane off a warehouse roof, how he blew his eyebrows off with a home-made chemistry experiment, how he learned to drive a lorry at the age of 13. The stuntman genes have not necessarily been passed down in my direction, but my children hear these stories, just as I did, and they know what they are part of and where they belong.

The stories you lean towards reveal what defines you. They say something about who you are and they shape and reinforce the deeper narrative through which you see the world. I have always sought out stories of redemption, of rescue and the power of hope over all that hurts and breaks us. I grew up hearing about a father who watched and waited for years for his long-lost, dissolute son, and hitched up his clothes to run at the sight of him, to welcome him home with arms open wide, despite the shame and smell and grime of the life to which his boy had sunk.

I love novels; my shelves are groaning under the weight of them stacked two deep and several high. I love the inventiveness involved in a talented person’s creation of a brand new story. But in their shadow, often overlooked, is the quiet, true story from your own life, or your family or community, now or mined from the past. There is richness close to you. You don’t have to go far. You just have to notice.

I have a story to share that stands up to any tale of high heroism I could find in a book.

It starts when I met a fellow parent at the school gates when my children were little. I liked her immediately and we became friends over a shared love of good books and funny stories. She was an A & E nurse at the local hospital. We were part of the same book group, and later prayer group. I remember the day a couple of years later that she told us of her diagnosis with breast cancer. All the people who knew her and loved her (same thing) were winded, blindsided.

But over the next few years we watched her walk her journey.

Despite what she was going through, her house was open and her laugh was loud and her friends were countless.

She made caramel shortbread once, and put it in the freezer to cool down. Carrying the tray out from the kitchen she suddenly bent double as she realised that the chocolate and caramel had frozen into the drawer above, and all she’d brought out was the shortbread. I can still hear her laughter.

She was honest about the grimness of what she was going through. She would share her heart and her thoughts and then turn the conversation towards the other person, to hear all that was happening in their life.

A few weeks before she died she took her children to the seaside with a friend, and despite lungs that were ceasing to work, she jumped in the waves with her son and he turned to her and said,

‘This is heaven’.

Before reading prayers at her funeral I had to stare at my feet and empty my mind to keep my tears at bay. Once I’d finished, I returned to my seat and looked up for the first time to see the flowers and the card her son had written that said, ‘Didn’t we have a lot of fun, Mummy?’

It would have been her 50th birthday tomorrow, and we would have been dancing and raising a glass, probably in some pretty preposterous fancy dress. 

So I tell her story, which is one of courage and laughter and love. She will not be forgotten.


[She was a galvaniser of people and a raiser of funds, and her daughter is just like her. In honour of them both, I’m sharing the link to Sarah’s fundraising page for Cancer Research UK, in case you would like to make a gift: ]





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Ten ways to ensure your thank you letters connect with your charity's supporters

More than once in my professional life I have had the slightly surreal experience of drafting a thank you to a supporter who has written to thank me for a thank you I sent them.

I realise there are far too many ‘thanks’ in that sentence.

While I did have a dilemma each time about how to respond, I believe it’s evidence of the power of the humble thank you to make a real connection, to build genuine relationship and therefore ultimately further your charity’s aims.

Thank you letters can often be overlooked. Sometimes thanking is seen as a basic administrative task, like filing. But there’s a reason thanking is called ‘fulfilment’ in the business, and we forget this at our peril.

Charities invest considerably in multi-channel appeals, PR, social media, websites and analytics. But the thank you is one of the very few true human bridges between charity and supporter, and at its best it can be authentic, warm and memorable. This kind of experience gives a significant boost to a donor’s loyalty, in a way that few appeals, magazines or email campaigns can. 

Creating raving fans is the fundraiser’s holy grail. We ultimately seek to inspire people to the point that they become vocal advocates, and choose our charity as the beneficiary of their time and money throughout - and even beyond - their lifetime.

Feeling genuinely noticed and appreciated as an individual is increasingly rare in the busy-ness of 24/7 modern life with its constant demands and superficial interactions. A heartfelt, personal thank you can really stand out, and help turn a one-off supporter into a long term fan of your organisation.

Here’s how to ensure your thank yous create a meaningful connection:

1.     Change your organisational attitude. Give thanking the time, value and status it deserves. It’s not admin; it’s kindness, courtesy and warmth in letter form.

2.     Prioritise it. There’s no need for delay. A donor who receives a letter just a few days after giving will feel much more appreciated than the one who can’t quite remember donating. Set and stick to short turnaround times for thanking.

3.     Be accurate. Allocate the time to check all the details. Make sure the supporter’s name and address are correct. Double-check the amount, fund and Gift Aid status. If you send out a letter full of inaccuracies you’ll only succeed in alienating the recipient, making them feel even less valued than if they had received no response.

4.     Personalise it. No one really likes those impersonal printed thank yous with a ‘delete as appropriate’ line. Model your letter around the person you’re writing to. They did something great for you. Make the thank you fit them. Keep good records and use the information to tailor your letter. If your donor volunteers for you add a reference to this. If they’ve told you that they have a particular area of interest include a relevant update in the body of your text.

5.     Make it feel human. Hand-write the salutation, write ‘best wishes’ at the end, and sign your name. Add a note or a Post-It where relevant. Don’t use a digitised signature. Make sure your reader feels they’ve had an interaction with a real person, and not with mailmerge.

6.     Capture your reader’s imagination. Most of the pieces a charity sends out are essentially impersonal, but the thank you is a one-to-one communication. It’s therefore a great place to add a human story that will touch someone and stay with them. I once read about a boy from the Dominican Republic who grew up on a rubbish dump and had never been given a name. The charity I supported worked with him and helped him find a name – David. I’ve never forgotten his story, and have re-told it to friends and family.

7.     Don’t just focus on money – thank people for their time or engagement, for hosting an event or being an advocate.

8.     Use purple ink! Maybe another colour will work for you, but purple certainly works for my friend Liz, whose readers know that she is a real person, that she’s quite quirky and a lot of fun. Her purple ink-signed letters get a significantly higher response rate than those signed in black. It’s scientific and official. Sort of.

9.     Make it short. The point of the letter is the thanks, not passing on lots of statistics or messaging or making more asks. A good thank you should be short and sweet.

10.  Thank people for regular gifts as well as one-offs. Sometimes people can be quietly doing something heroic – giving every month, year-in, year-out, through times of plenty and times of hardship - and they are only thanked when they start giving, and then chased up when they stop. Make sure that’s not the case for your regular donors.

You might think this is a time-consuming approach, but if you’re a small charity it’s worth doing this for the impact you’ll have on the supporters you’re attracting. It’s hard and expensive to recruit new supporters, and it makes sense to give the ones you have the best possible treatment. If you’re a bigger charity, you’ll have resources to invest in growing your funding base, and building loyalty, goodwill and real connection is a strategic and effective way to do this.

By following these suggestions you will help make your reader smile. If their post is anything like mine it will be full of pizza delivery flyers, garden maintenance cards and charity collection plastic bags. Let your thank you letter stand out, and give the gift of gratitude to a person who’s done something great. 

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