Unconventional Look at Fundraising

From Spongebob to Bobbe Meisses

In Cultivation, Donor Cultivation, Donor Development, Fundraising, Philanthropy on August 1, 2010 at 7:00 am

A few years ago, I was traveling with a representative of the JDC (The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee) on field trip in Crimea Ukraine looking for the next site for a Hesed on behalf of a Pittsburgh family and the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.  I had a plan to visit a local person to assess the need, one on one, through a home visit.  The gentleman I was visiting shared with me a story which took place towards the end of World War II.  Throughout his lifelong career, he was a professor of languages at the regional university, specializing in the German language.  One day, (he shared with me), he received an unusual call to the Dean’s office, who proceeded to show him a telegram ordering him to report immediately to Moscow at the headquarters of the Red Army.  Our Jewish Professor asked himself—as did I and as do you—what does philology have to do with the Red Army?!   When he reported to Moscow two days later, he was told that he was assigned to be under the command of Marshal Zhukuv, the head of the Red Army in Berlin. He was put on an army plane and flown to Berlin, while the war was still taking place.  When he personally reported to Marshal Zhukov, our Jewish Professor (who when I met with him for the first time in 2002 was a Jewish Home/JDC Hesed client) was told Marshal Zhukov wanted him to be his formal translator from German to Russian and vice versa in the surrendering negotiations with the Nazis.  His plan was that a Jewish translator would be the best way to thrust into the face of the Nazis that they had lost the war!

So there I was, sitting in this man’s home, swallowing every word of his unbelievable story and feeding him Grandma Goldie’s Mandelbrot from Pittsburgh which I had carried with me all this way and felt I should share with him.  He continued to share with me details about the negotiations with the Nazis and I continued to share with him the Mandelbrot which had been baked with so much love and had so many stories around it that Grandma Goldie had shared with me, one story weaved into another creating a quilt.

This story about the Jewish translator causes me to remember every detail of the home visit. The person I met, his attire, his smile, his beautiful second-to-none personality, everything about him and his home, even the scents at his home.

There is something about the story that he shared which makes it much more memorable for so long, and I believe that this is a key point to pay attention to.

Maybe one conclusion we can draw right here and now is that stories are an important part of our life because they act as magnets. They attract things such as sounds, images, and emotions, which turn “dry facts” into vivid and multi-dimensional ones, rich and engaging, and as we already noted, develop into a long-term memorable collection of information.

If you feel you need any proof that stories do sell, think of a sponge, and if you are an American a specific one: Spongebob Squarepants.  This one is nothing like a sponge; it’s almost greater than anything else in our understanding of what toys are.  It’s even bigger than Thomas the Tank. 🙂  In fact, I am almost sure that if I organized a quiz on this unbelievable phenomenon, which began in July 1999, most children (and adults!) would likely score more facts right about Pineapple Husk in Bikini Bottom than about the Congress and the Senate in Washington D.C.

I was not born in the US, so when I was preparing for the citizenship exam, I invested my time in learning about the House on the Hill, not the one in the central Pacific Ocean (I apologize to the child spirit in all of my readers…), and found material which helped me prepare…through stories!  Before we leave the world of children and children’s stories, I want to make note of the work of Sally Hogshead in her (fascinating!) book: “Fascinate”.  Sally delves broadly and in-depth into understanding how fascination works.  First, she walks us through the purposeful world of selling toys to children such as The Little Engine That Could, Bob the Builder, Thomas the Tank Engine, Buzz Lightyear and many others.  Hogshead’s book is a great opportunity to truly understand how essential the role of stories is in the matrix of fascinating people.  I am allowing myself to use one small quote of this remarkable book which I found a must-read: “Stories, not facts, are more powerful messages than facts. They allow others to participate, and draw their own conclusion”.  A beautiful statement…read it more than once…

Allow me to add to the wise quote from Sally Hogshead’s book a suggestion that I would like you to consider.  A conclusion could be that your organization is most worthy of the donation you have already received, but a story you will share with the donor and with others about what the donation enabled will facilitate the participation of others with your organization.  And if you truly understand Hogshead’s wise approach, it’s this talent that would turn the participants—the ones who read the story—into your next significant donors.  And if this is all you take from this blog, this would be a good conclusion point.  But this blog about Spongebob and Bobbe Meisses is not done yet– the story is not over yet…

I did not yet touch on the topic of grandmother’s stories, or as the title of this blog calls them, Bobbe Meisses (Yiddish for “Grandmother’s Stories”, which could also be understood as “Fairy Tales”).  What are these Grandmother’s Stories/Bobbe Meisses? We typically think of such stories containing elements of morals & values, history, religion and sometimes things that have to do with feeling better, health, family background and whatnot.  In preparation for this blog, I asked my friend (and also a donor I work with), who is a librarian at our community Synagogue, to obtain for me the book “My Grandmother’s Stories: A Collection of Jewish Folk Tales” by Adele Geras, beautifully illustrated by Jael Jordan.  Reading the book while visiting my mother in Warsaw Poland, I found myself enjoying the book more than I ever expected.  Every grandma’s story in this book turned out to be a gem.  Every story felt as if it was told personally to me. I found myself laughing and smiling so very often throughout the book, and even hiding a few tears.  After all, they were “just” grandmother’s stories :-)) and the funny thing was that this was not even MY grandmother.  So maybe the power of well-told stories is that they make us feel as if they are told especially and personally to us, enabling us to remember them well.

And so Adele tells the Bobbe Meisse about the very poor Dvora and Chaim, who promised each other to save a penny right before the Sabbath so that at the end of a year’s time they can buy one cake and enjoy it.  What happens to them and what happens to the cake…you will have to find out for yourself when you get the book and read this beautiful story yourself!  Thank you, Adele Geras.

Why am I telling you so much about stories, so much Bobbe Meisses about….Bobbe Meisses?  WELL…all so that I can quote yet another donor I’ve work with for almost a decade.  He says it almost every time he and his wife (a brilliant marketing and media mogul) speak about the work they do with organizations like the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and other organizations both in Pittsburgh and overseas.  It’s all about stories!  Stories, Stories, Stories!!!

I have had the experience of working now for over 20 years with not-for-profits in 3 different countries, in more than 3 languages and in certainly a wide variety of cultures. Here is the punch-line conclusion (like it or not!):  If you want to raise money from donors, philanthropists, communities etc., you have to be a storyteller.

Tell the stories of those you serve, tell the story of those who serve your recipients, and keep searching for the best ways to tell your story.  Don’t just share facts, as they are the real Bobbe Meisses (the Fairy Tales) in the ears and eyes of your prospective donors.

Facts don’t last in the memory of those you want to make an impression with, they don’t engage and mostly they don’t affect the behavior you want to achieve.  I have to assume that in most cases financial support, or in other words donation to your organization, is the behavioral change you are looking for.  Stories on the other hand, do just that!   That is why I wrote this blog about stories and not only about Bobbe Meisses and Spongebob.  Get it?  Not sure?

Here is a short story to help you remember the punch-line…

Remember the story we started with about the Ukrainian Jewish professor who translated the surrendering terms between the Nazis and the Red Army?  Once the Americans heard about this, they decided that this was a “bloody good idea” and they brought in their own Jewish translator to facilitate the translation on behalf of General Dwight Eisenhower. And so our story ends with the two victorious army leaders, Marshal Zhukov and General Eisenhower, finalizing the terms of the end World War II with the two translators on both sides being Jewish.  Now this…this is a good and memorable story!


Michael Steiner

  1. Your actions AND your stories are an inspiration. And Grandma Goldie is too!

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