When you can’t read, or for this matter, listen, how can you write and structure your support case in fundraising? In this episode, Febe Voth, the Author of The Case for Your Cause, offers advice on messaging, storytelling, and writing a support case. She shares some examples to walk us through the framework she presents from her book. This episode is for individuals who use the case as a tool to move donors and create a bigger impact on those who benefit from the work of the organization. So give your full attention to this conversation to receive the value of Febe Voth’s guidance in writing a case for your cause.
Listen to the podcast here
The Case For Your Cause With Author Febe Voth
On this Teach You To Do Anything episode, we have the author Febe Voth talking about her new book, The Case for Your Cause. Febe goes deep into the tactics, skills, and questions you need to develop a compelling case statement and tells a little bit about the love affair that she has with the process of developing a case and what it can mean for your organization. If you’re interested in storytelling and the social profit sector, you’re going to want to tune into this conversation with Febe Voth.
Thank you very much.
We are so excited to have you on to talk about your book, The Case for Your Cause, but before we dive into it, can you share with our audience who you are? Tell us a little bit about your background and when you decided to make the transition from being a case writer to being an author.
I would be happy to. Who am I? My background initially is in corporate communications where I probably spent less than half of my career. I fell into the fundraising world when I worked for TransCanada Pipelines in Calgary. I left TransCanada Pipelines on a contract to do their Y2K communications. I worked three days a week for them doing Y2K preparation. I spent New Year’s Eve 1999 in a bunker that is not marked on any map in Canada for national security reasons. That was a non-event, which we’re all very happy for.
It was in that runway to going out on my own that I happened into a contract with the University of Calgary Faculty of Law for a case for support. I loved the document. I loved how strategic it was. I loved how focused it was. I loved how creative you could be. You build up this case you had. You could be motivational. You could try to inspire people to do things. That was a freedom that as a person writing I never had before. It’s very corporate.
In your book, you described the experience of falling in love with the case. What was it that drew you in so deeply? You had been writing words for other people. A case is writing words for other people as well. What were the differences between the work you had been doing in corporate communications and what you ended up doing with the Faculty of Law?
It was the focus. I also liked how you came in and did a slice of the program or what was needed, and then you were done. I like the completeness of it. I like how creative, strategic, and focused a person could be and how you could take the liberty to try to inspire, which is something that could not have been done in a corporate setting like TransCanada Pipelines. It’s not supposed to inspire anybody in the government of Alberta. I worked for the Public Affairs Bureau before. You needed to be very business-focused in what you wrote. I like the creative freedom of trying to encourage. I also loved the social sector. It was doing some good in the world.
I want to ask you an old–school or new–school question because I developed communications at the beginning of my career. It was when cases for support arrived in big boxes and smelled wonderfully of ink in the printing house. I’ll never forget the feeling when you open the box and the smell of the ink. It was probably not very good for you but it is so wonderful. You hold it in your hand for the first time. Now, it arrives as a PDF. It’s still beautiful and exciting but which do you prefer, the rush of probably poisonous ink or getting it in your inbox?
Poisonous ink is difficult to mistake. You hold your breath, read the document, and think, “Am I going to find something here?” The reprint then is awful. I do like the PDF. The case for support or the leave-behind piece is a piece of the case but the internal source document is where the magic resides.
For our audiences who aren’t familiar, explain what the distinction is you’re making there.
The internal source document is the foundation. It is the song sheet that an organization has figured out through the development of this internal case. They have figured out how to speak about their organization, not only their organization but their costs in a way that’s relevant to donors. From that source document comes the shiny leap behind the condensed piece that goes to the donor.
The source document is where you figure out how you’re going to talk about yourself. That’s the messy part. There are many ways to make a case. How do you make the best case for your organization? That’s where the practice is. That involves listening to people and doing interviews. It’s quite an investment in time but for organizations, if they don’t have the in-house expertise, then it’s also an investment of time or money.
It is the way organizations tell their story. In your book, you talk a lot about the importance of narrative and storytelling and the elements of storytelling that are particularly helpful for persuasive writing in a case in complicated places. You started in the Faculty of Law. You’ve written more than 100 cases now. You’ve got a lot of examples to pick from. Often, organizations assume that everyone is on the same page. You start doing those interviews and listening. You realize they’re not on the same page. I’m curious how as the outside voice and writer for the case you approach those situations when an organization may think they’re all in alignment but your interviews turn up something slightly different.
That’s part of the beauty of case development. It creates your vision, going in with the posture of listening, not having the answers, and condensing that. The writing process is such a beautiful one because, through the writing process, you understand what you don’t understand. It’s also the process through which you figure things out. I can hardly think of a case where a draft has gone out, and they have come back and said, “That’s wrong. Do it the other way. We don’t like this vision that’s coming out.” It is a unifying tool.Through the writing process, you understand what you don't understand. It’s also the process through which you figure things out. Click To Tweet
You’ve put your finger right on the idea of using it as a unifying tool. Particularly larger organizations will invest lots of money and time in examining their data to see what their donors have been telling them over a period of time. There’s some value in that. In our work at The Discovery Group, we see a lot more or equal value in the conversations organizations have within themselves about what makes them important and how they talk about the change that they seek to make in the world.
Getting the alignment around that can be a magic wand for organizations to get everyone motivated and inspired by similar storytelling and messaging, which doesn’t happen in the day-to-day world. One of the things that come through in your book is that in a campaign or a case, it reflects a moment in time with ambition looking forward. They’re special opportunities in the life of an organization.
The process involves speaking with outside voices. I find a lot of clients want me to speak with a lot of inside voices. In a hospital campaign, for example, talk to the doctors, the nurses, the frontline workers, and the volunteers. I want to talk to the donors. You have a supportive mayor. This is a beautiful opportunity to get in front of people who are outside the organization as well and then bring those voices back to the folks inside.
There are a lot of a-ha moments for the folks on the inside to hear, “So-and-so thinks this of us. Did the editor of the newspaper or this organization say that? Is that how we’re viewed?” We do 10 to 12 external interviews. By the time you’re done, a lot of the information that’s coming back at you is very consistent with the fairly set form of questions that you posed to these folks. You can be reasonably confident that most people are saying A, B, or C. This is how you’re viewed, good or bad.
For most of the external interviews and some internal, if they’re not internal to the foundation office, for example, the questions put the interviewee in a place of informing you, the writer. They are defending the organization. They’re telling you why it’s of value, how it’s important in the community, or how it has affected their lives. That’s powerful. It’s eye-opening for the people you interview as well. You want to choose your interviewees carefully.
I remember one fellow I spoke with. It was for a hospital campaign. It was for an emergency. He was against the initiative. He didn’t think that we should be raising money for the foundation. It was a doctor. I said, “I would like to speak to him.” He has quite a loud voice in the community, especially among other medical people. I thought, “For no other reason, I want to hear his objections so that I can address those objections in the document.” By the end of the interview, he said to me, “I don’t know if you know. I was not for this initiative but you’ve changed my mind.” All I’ve done is ask questions. Hopefully, these long-levered questions can get a person thinking and seeing things differently.
That’s something you talk about in the book as well. I’ll skip ahead in my questions here. What is a long-levered question?
It is a question that requires a dynamic answer. We know not to ask yes or no questions when we do things like this but to take time and think through, “If I ask a question in a certain way, what kind of answer might I get? Can I restructure that question so that I can dig a little bit deeper and get a slightly deeper answer from that person?” I quote in the book Fran Peavey. She talks about levers. She said, “If you’re trying to pry open a paint can if you have a short lever, you can only pry it open so far but if your question is dynamic and long-levered, then you have a long lever. You can pry off the lid of that paint can and stir things up.”
I like that analogy.
Pay attention to the questions you ask, think about what kind of answers you might get back from a question, and ask yourself if you can phrase it slightly differently to get a good answer. For example, instead of saying, “Tell me about your vision,” you can say, “What would you like me to find if I come back in ten years? What’s going to be different? What’s going to be the same?” That might get the hearer on the other end thinking a little differently rather than reciting out, “Our vision is this.”
One of the things in that answer, and it comes through several times in the book, is the discipline of putting yourself in the seat of the external audience or the target market for your case from the beginning of the process of writing it right through the final delivery and then using it to support fundraising. You don’t need to name names but I’m sure your experience has included organizations that struggled to look externally or to look through how the external world was viewing their work. How can this case discovery process or case writing process help organizations look beyond their navel and out into the world?
That’s a good question because that’s the number one error or mistake I see. We all want to tell the world how good we are, how wonderful our programs are, and how good our results are. You need to weave that into your narrative but it’s not about you. It’s about the hearer. A quote that I love from John Steinbeck is, “If the story is not about the hearer, he will not listen.” It can’t be about you. You know how good you are. This has to be meaningful to the person who comes in contact with the information. That’s why you need to take the time to think about what you’re doing.
A lot of the cases you’ve written probably don’t start with, “Founded in 1935. For nearly 50 years.” You don’t start with those phrases.
History is an interesting part of a case. It’s often a must-include piece but you need to know why you are including it. Why is it relevant? How is it going to be of any meaning to a donor? If you are celebrating a certain anniversary doesn’t mean that’s going to make people want to give to your organization. That’s for the family and the people who are close to the organization to celebrate but if your history involves how you got started and responding to a need in the community, that could be relevant. You’ve earned some trust because of your longevity. Think about why history is important. If it is important, don’t linger on it too much.
When I was spending time in the cancer fundraising world, the organization that I was the CEO of celebrated its 70th anniversary. We wanted to celebrate our 70th anniversary. I was relatively new in my role. I asked a couple of board members what they thought, “What do you think of this? There’s some momentum to celebrate our anniversary. It seems weird.”
One of the board members goes, “What we want to do is tell people that we have been raising money for 70 years. We still haven’t cured it but please give us more time.” I said, “That’s what I’m afraid it sounds like.” We levered on the work that had been happening and the good work that happened over the last couple of years and didn’t use the history of the organization because it didn’t tell the story that we were trying to tell about the dynamic future that was coming as a result of research.
You need to think about the space on your page, even if it’s an internal document, as real estate. I was thinking as you were speaking. Maybe that would become a tagline or something if the organization thought strongly that it needed to include the 70-year mark somewhere but has it earned its real estate? Would you be better off using that real estate to provide an inspiring message as a tagline, for example? You have to think through all of these. I’ll be able to provide a good rationale for why you’re saying what you’re saying and why you’re placing the information.
One of the things I like about the book is how it speaks to fundraising and campaign theory. It’s right there. It’s clear you are deeply immersed in and an expert in what it takes to be successful in campaigns. You drill quickly down to tangible tactics like, “This is what you can do in your organization,” which is so valuable in any writing in our sector. You’ve got the perfect balance between blue–sky ideas and actionable steps. Let’s do actionable steps now. I want the Febe Voth strategy for this balanced case writing. Could you walk us through an example that you’ve spent some time on?
As in how do you make it?
You’ve not always taken on the easiest challenges. You spent some time working in senior care and developing a case there. I’m hoping you can share the strategy for how you developed that using the framework that’s in the book.
The first part when I get an assignment is I ask, “Clarify what the assignment is so that I know and the client knows what the expected deliverables are,” but beyond that, I get into it. I ask for materials that they might have, annual reports, planning studies, or whatever pieces of information exist to have those sent to me. I do a whole bunch of background reading, and then I begin to think, “Where can we take this? Can we go this way or that way?”
I do a little bit of my research but the magic is in the interviews. That’s the case with seniors care. That was for an organization on Vancouver Island. I went out there and toured the facility. It was for residential care, acute care, restorative care, and home care. Those were the pillars. I went out there, talked to a lot of people, and did some phone interviews. The long-term care facility, to be honest, was not a place where I would be eager to bring my mom.The magic is in the interviews. Click To Tweet
We don’t celebrate aging. We’re living longer now. Things need to be done and things are being done for very senior seniors but how do you build a case around the things that we don’t aspire to? That was the crux of this. You begin to chew on how you frame up an argument that is going to be palatable, accepted, and embraced by the people who can fund this, which are probably the people who may be fifteen years away from long-term care.
That’s what we landed on after talking about my client, “How do we frame this? How do we market this? How do we position it?” We’re realizing that ours is a society that values youth, vitality, and independence. The cases that we’re marketing are so much not that. We landed on aging well and growing old in your community by placing the focus on aging well. I remember sitting with my client, and she said, “All of a sudden, this makes sense to me. I want to live in my home. I want to age well.” In working to find that angle, I probably spent 60% to 70% of my case writing time figuring out how to position the lead in the cover lines or the direction.
How do you know when you’ve got it?
There’s a person who has read my book and reached out. She’s wondering if I can poach her a little bit about a project. She said, “Can I send you my draft?” I said, “Send me three lead paragraphs. That’s what I want to see because that’s where you set it all up.” How do you know when you get it? You slip your brain into neutral and think, “Who’s the donor here? Who am I writing to? Which argument is going to resonate with me? Which one is stronger than the other?”
Sometimes I am up in the middle of the night, “How do I position this? How do I say this in a way that is going to be meaningful?” I can write that lead. I don’t know how many times. I’m a little bit of a slow processor as you saw with my form for the discovery group on this show. I sent off my form first and then sent in a different one. Sometimes the brain needs to gestate and think about something for a good long time. You know when you brought it.
It was not a surprise to us at all that someone who wrote a book on writing cases for support needed a couple of drafts. That’s very true to form. It was perfect. The first one was good. The second one was excellent. One of the joys of being that external person doing these interviews and reflecting on what you hear is that a–ha moment when the client goes, “That is us. That’s what I meant.” Your client is saying, “Now it appeals to me or applies to me.” That’s what we’re always aiming for. Have there been opportunities or situations where you think you’ve got it and it lands flat, “That’s not quite us?”
It is often very nice a-ha moments for the clients to read about themselves in a case. I’m going to take that question in a slightly different direction. A campaign that I worked on was for a maternity ward. I wish I could have a redo. The campaign was in the end successful but it was a lot of work. It didn’t come easily. It was challenging because the people who are going to fund a maternity campaign are probably not the ones who can fund the campaign. It’s the generation above. We went to the middle of the road and tried to add some cuteness and babyness to the case.
We missed an opportunity where we could have amalgamated beautiful fundraising strategies with the case more closely than, “Here’s what we’re raising money for. Can you please write a case for it?” If we had sat down with fundraising team writers and worked through a little bit more of the strategy together, we could have had a beautiful campaign around mothers and daughters or pods in the community of people raising funds in their homes and championing these maternity generational things. We could have fathers and sons around family and generations. I would have written it differently but in hindsight, you see what you could have done. That would have been a beautiful campaign. That mingled with strategies there as well.
That example touches on the need for the fundraising strategy and the case to be closely intertwined, and not one begins one ends. I’ve never seen that work.
That’s the case for a lot of people. It’s mentioned in all fundraising books that you need a case for support. In some respect, that is this thing you check off, “We need a case. We’ve got a case,” as opposed to blending it more. It’s not a siloed thing. To be optimal or to be its best, it moves out of the silo. It becomes blended with the strategy.
Part of that blending comes with the storytelling that the fundraisers, the volunteers, and the organization are doing. All of it is supported by the case. In your book, you talk about case stories falling into one of four categories of impact stories, donor stories, vision stories, and mission stories. Can you expand on what those categories are and what they bring to each case?
Mission stories are stories about who you can be. Those are impactful, useful, and needed in a capital campaign because the capital campaign is on what can be tomorrow. If you’re fundraising for now or if you’re more mission-based, then you need to angle your stories so that they support the goal of the case.
If you’re running a food bank and looking for support for your food bank, not because you’re envisioning it to be something different in the future, then you tell stories about your important mission and the impact of that mission. The impact is very closely related to all of those campaigns but maybe a little bit more personal. The impact also is in the community. What difference is the work that you’re doing going to make in the community and the individual? It’s a slightly different focus on the impact. What did you say the fourth one was?
You wrote donor stories.
Donors have to be the heroes of the case, not the organization. People share why they give. Why are they excited about this? What makes them choose this sector or this organization? Why give now? The donor and the people benefiting from the work have to be the heroes of the case.Donors and the people benefitting from the work have to be the heroes of the case, not the organization. Click To Tweet
In our work, we see so often the organizations needing to build credibility and the role of credibility to have the social permission to be in someone’s office, their home, or their Zoom room and ask for a significant gift. The case is a way of demonstrating that credibility. It supports and builds that credibility and shows the organization as a place where, however the organization defines it, significant philanthropy happens. When organizations don’t have a deep track record or a long track record for giving or large giving, how does that factor into your approach to writing the case for support?
You don’t talk much about history than you talk about the need. Why do you exist? What needs are you meeting? Why is that important? What’s the impact going to be of this work? Who’s going to benefit? If the organization is up and running, then talk to people who are already benefiting. I mentioned one organization. It was at the time called HIPPY Canada when I was involved. It’s now Mothers Matter Centre. When they first started, we did a case. It was almost all story-based.
They were new. They weren’t known but they had history elsewhere. They had a history internationally, not only in Canada. We could leverage that but you can also leverage the history of people who are behind the organization. Who are they in the community? Are they credible? Who are your friends? Always find an angle that lends credibility to your organization. You have to look for it.
It is such an important piece for organizations to know where their credibility comes from. One of the age-old tensions in case writing is how much education versus persuasion, and that tension between needing to educate about an organization or a purpose and the persuasion and the call to action. How do you approach finding the right balance between those two?
The entire case for support resides in the realm of persuasion or the realm of rhetoric because you’re building a case, and part of building a credible case is to inform. You can’t persuade without informing. You need to consider each case. You have to know who your audience is and what they value. The profession that is probably best skilled at building a case is the legal profession.
If you think of a courtroom defense lawyer, carefully they build that case. They layer facts, emotions, and witnesses that are credible and are experts and who are impacted. They look at the person’s history that they’re defending. It’s useful to think of yourself as a courtroom lawyer when you’re building a case for support. We only have a little bit of time left here. It saddens me when I hear and see that people look for quick and easy formulas for case development.
AI will do it. Right, Febe?
Yes, but it saddens me because if you personally were in a situation where you needed a defense, you wouldn’t hire a lawyer who would go out and look for a formula to plug in a few sentences, and then there it is. You would give care and attention. You would hire the best people. I would argue that in our sector, so many rides on the case for support or the quality of the case that you can put in front of the donor. We should pursue this with gusto and the focus of a defense lawyer.
It’s the case of our life.
If you’re in court and a lawyer is defending somebody, they’re defending one person usually or maybe a company. Here, we’ve got communities that depend on the work that we’re doing. We have to understand the gravity of the work of a case, pursue it, and give it that weight.
You make a great case for cases in your book. Where can people find out more about your work and learn more about your process?
They can read the book. It’s available on Amazon. Either Google my name or The Case for Your Cause. I have a website, FebeVoth.com.
I encourage people to get out and read this book. It is excellent. As someone who has spent a lot of time looking at a flashing cursor and case writing over my career, it was the book that I wish I had many years ago. It would have saved me a lot of sleepless nights and a lot of stress. Febe, you’ve done an excellent job here. Thank you very much for your contribution to our sector.
About Febe Voth
Febe Voth has spent more than 20 years working in the realm of the Case for Support. Her work has helped advance funding goals of up to $100 million. She has a Master of Arts in Applied Communications, for which her thesis was on the Case for Support—the first master’s thesis on this topic to be written in Canada. Through Humber School for Writers, Febe studied storytelling under the tutelage of Canadian novelist Sandra Birdsell and has served on the AFP (Association of Fundraising Professionals) Board of Directors for the Greater Vancouver Chapter.