On The Money Part 2: How To Tell Great Money Stories

Financial CrisisAnything about charities and financial wrongdoing catches my eye these days. Here’s an example, which I spotted in an article about the financial crisis by the ferociously energetic James Meek:

When, in 2007, Northern Rock had to be rescued by the Labour government… it turned out that the bank’s management had bundled together much of its future income stream from people making monthly mortgage repayments and used it as collateral to borrow £49 billion from around the world, with which it created more mortgages. It did this via a so-called charitable trust called Granite, based in the offshore tax haven of Jersey, which used, as its nominal charity, a tiny organisation from the North-East that helps those with Down’s Syndrome. Northern Rock never bothered to tell the charity its name was being exploited in this way. It didn’t occur to the bank or the regulators that there was any problem with what they were doing. Why would it? There were pages on the Treasury’s own website explaining how it should be done.

They did that to a charity? And people think we’re the bad guys?

Meek’s a writer we can learn from. He uses verbs that tell a story all by themselves: rescue, bundle together, bother, exploit. He slips in the word “people”, because that’s what his story is really about: people, not money. He asks a short question, making us feel his indignation, and he saves his most heated accusation – that the Treasury was enabling this behaviour – for the end. We feel that he’s talking to us in person.

The best money stories are like Meek’s: they’re not so much about money as about the constant tension between good and bad that exists within all of us. What if we too want to tell a gripping money story that’s about that tension?

Take a look at your charity’s recent financial history. There’s probably been a year in which income fell. Why? It might have been bad press, a stumbling economy, or a chief executive who loathed asking for money.

When income fell, which programmes if any had to be cut? Who suffered on the front lines?

Even if income’s been steady, you might have had to raise money for a less than sexy cause (your overheads, say, or basic research). Maybe you’ve met donors who want to fund work you can’t or won’t do – and you’ve had to tell them no. Maybe you even said yes, and then lived to regret it.

Maybe you have too much money. Your charity might have inherited huge reserves, and now you struggle to explain why you have to raise programme funds. Maybe, even today, you get a big public subsidy, or your charity did so well for a couple of years it couldn’t spend it all right away.

I’ve seen all these things happen to charities, and they make for great stories. Because the big question is: then what happened?

Even if we don’t know what happened next to Northern Rock, there’s an implied lesson in Meek’s paragraph. There are good guys and bad guys, and eventually the truth will out. It’s a morality tale.

We too can tell morality tales about money. Yet we tend to hide our best money stories even when they have good endings. We don’t want to air our dirty laundry (the chief executive had to go) or look less than perfect (the charity had to change its strategy).

That’s a shame, because real-life money stories, when handled right, are compelling. They’re not saccharine tales of angelic perfection. They show that people are hurt when we raise less money, raise it in the wrong way, or raise it for the wrong ideas.

Another reason we shouldn’t avoid our own morality tales about money is because it’s bad for us as writers. The second worst fundraising copy I see is when writers get to the “asking for money” bit. Suddenly, people who can write beautiful, clear prose fall back into muddy euphemisms. And the worst? When writers try to hide something they think is financially embarrassing. The classic symptoms are jargon, passive verbs, and long sentences.

THE BIG CHALLENGE

So here’s my February challenge to you, while it’s still too cold to eat lunch outside. Write your very own “Big Short” story about the toughest money challenge you’ve seen at your charity. Pick a subject that makes you squirm a bit – the one you hope people won’t ask you about.

You might, for example, write about how you had to slog extra hard to raise money for a new programme. Who set the financial goal, and how? What happened when the money didn’t roll in? How did it feel when week after week you got nothing but rejections? Were you saved by a single kind donor (and if so, why?), or did your campaign suddenly go viral? Did the CFO at your charity find some extra money in reserves after all, or was the new programme quietly axed?

You can burn this story when you’re done. But before you do, set it aside for a day or two. Then take another look.

You might have ranted a bit, but you probably told a story with twists and turns. You described the bad guys, even if they didn’t mean to be bad, and you showed how hard it can be to do the right thing – and how important. You told a people story, even though you were writing about money.

You’ll move mountains if you can harness that kind of passion when you’re writing more “standard” fundraising copy. Maybe you could tell a story about a shy person who once plucked up the courage to ask for a big gift, and lo, your charity was born. Or about a brave donor who took a risk in funding something untested. Your story might remind us that when critics say something can’t be done, it can be people who have the courage to ask for money and other people who have the decency to give it who prove the critics wrong.

That may be one story you don’t want to burn.

Stay tuned, and if you want to read the whole of James Meek’s article, it was the lead story in the February 18th 2016 London Review of Books and is available online here.