What can Netflix's 'New Amsterdam' teach us about fundraising (& storytelling)?
Updated: Aug 3, 2021
Max and his team don't just save lives, they challenge the way people think about fundraising.
You know you’ve worked in fundraising too long when you’re watching New Amsterdam and thinking, 'Wow. This would make a great blog post!'. Okay, so it might not be up there with The Crown (yes, I had a productive lockdown) but nonetheless, I was hooked - and when Season 2 E17 aired, it really did get me thinking. Not so much about crowdfunding and galas (the two fundraising mechanisms explored in this episode) but about the tools we use to mobilise them, to connect with donors and make ‘the ask’.
Now, those of you that have read my 'Step Change' series will know that there can be a real science to stories. They create connections between people and ideas, foster a sense of intimacy and shared experience. But perhaps most importantly, stories have been proven to inspire social action – and that includes charitable giving.
But the end does not always justify the means, and with great storytelling also comes great responsibility. Behind every campaign, every advert, every narrative, there is a personal, lived experience, and sharing that experience (no matter how perfectly it communicates your cause) is a privilege and not a right.
The secret to success?
If you haven’t tuned in to New Amsterdam yet, you’ll find the episode I’m talking about one before the Season 2 finale. It opens with a heart-warming story of a young girl, Allie, who is in desperate need of a new heart valve her insurance cannot cover (let's hear it for the NHS!!!). Fortunately, her story is picked up by The Ellen Show, and the eye-watering six-figure sum is raised in a matter of hours.
There are two things that happen after this:
1) Every patient with limited (or no) health insurance wants to get their smartphone out and create their own crowdfunding video.
2) The Hospital's board wants every patient with little or no health insurance to get their smartphone out and create their own crowdfunding video.
After all, it's basically free and empowers patients to fight bad insurance with the power of their stories (Karen's words, not mine).
But at what cost?
It is a question that haunts the son of ICU patient Zhen Huang, as he holds the camera firmly to his eye, struggling to keep himself together as he documents the final days of his father’s life - desperate to raise the funds that will save him.
“Dad, can you just look at the camera and say, I need your help. Anything you can give. Or just smile. That little girl smiled – maybe if you just smiled? Smile dad. Smile… Please. It’s fine if you can’t talk. If they see how sick he is, it works better, right? The sadder it is the better.”
In desperate search of the truth...
The truth is that charities and non-profits don’t always have the best track record when it comes to storytelling. When targets are high and the pressure is on, it can be easy to lose sight of the person behind the story, to assign a victim, fall back on stereotypes and tell someone's story as you think it should be told (it happens, check out this essay by Nel Taylor).
But good fundraising isn’t about guilt or ‘flogging misery for money’. It’s about inspiration. That doesn’t mean you have to make a shitty situation sound great, but it does mean you have a responsibility to find, tell and respect the truth.
From storytelling to story sharing
Never a show for subtlety, alongside the crowdfunding debate final preparations for the hospital's annual ‘Fight Cancer’ Gala are underway – with a group of nervous-looking teenagers getting ready to tell the room how they beat this cruel disease.
There’s just one problem. Not everyone has won.
"That party is for people who beat cancer. I lost."
There's an interesting conflict here, because whilst the words 'beat' and 'fight' drum up a sense of action, determination and urgency that could inspire donors to give - they also conjure images of war, a sense of good and bad, winners and losers (in the interest of full disclosure, I'm pretty sure I've used this phrase myself too in the past). Most of us know someone who has experienced cancer, and it just isn't that simple. Nobody 'wins' and not responding to treatment should certainly never imply a sense of loss or a failure.
The counter-argument of course, is that in choosing to use such language you create an emotive call to action - one made all the more powerful by showcasing stories of success and making 'ask' that will resonate with donors. Doesn't that trump a few awkward semantics?
“The one place people do not want to hear the truth is the paediatric oncology ward. Donors want to hear that we’re beating cancer and that we’re going to beat more cancer.”
Maybe. But good storytelling isn't always about what donors want to hear. In fact, it sometimes isn't about telling stories at all - it's about sharing them. Creating a forum for people to get their voice and their story out into the world. As Ken Burnett would say, it's about the truth - told well. Even if it's not quite the one you imagined.
All too aware of the risk the event poses to young people involved, the hospital's medical director tries to cancel the Gala. But in a heartwarming turn of events, they don't let him. Now it's time for the big reveal. Because these young people, they want to speak. They have been given the chance to share their story and they have chosen to take it. As long as they can share their truth.
Why? The answer is pretty simple.
"Because this is how we help the next kid with cancer.”
Needless to say, the event goes down well. It even inspires a new crowdfunding video - one that does away with the ‘tragedy Olympics’ and shares snapshots of patients, stories of survival and messages of thanks. I’d love to show the full clip here, but sadly I can’t find a sharable source online, so you’ll have to settle with this final quote:
“We got to tell our stories, we got to be survivors. And we want the rest to be survivors too… That’s why I’m asking you to donate. It’s not for me. It’s for them.”
Some final thoughts
So what can we take from all this? It might all be a little convenient, but the overarching point is well worth thinking about.
Here are a few of my final thoughts on the subject.
1) Storytelling is one of the most powerful tools a fundraiser has, but that doesn’t give us the right to tell every story as we think it should be heard.
2) Semantics matter. Think about the language you use and how this can influence audience perception and impact the person whose story is being shared.
3) Always remember the person whose story you are telling, and involve them in the process – because good storytelling isn’t actually about telling a story at all. It’s about sharing it.
And finally… Good fundraising isn’t about guilting someone into giving or pulling on the heartstrings so hard they break. It’s about authenticity, sharing a truth and connecting with someone on a personal level. It is about showing someone why and inspiring them to be part of the change we all want to see.
So when you source your next story, remember, don't get so swept up in the mechanics of telling it that you forget to share it.