Our Work

A Voice and a Lesson from Appalachia



Sawdust was flying, hammers were tapping away, and insulation was being stuffed into the skeleton of a house that was being brought back to life. Volunteer work crews carried out their magic in the afternoon sun, making the dilapidated homes of families in need warmer, safer and drier.

I spent last week in the Appalachian mountains gathering stories for a favorite client. John, a retired cop from New Jersey was telling us how grateful his small volunteer crew of men, women and teens were to be here giving their time and talent to the cause. In fact, they were thankful just to be alive. A little over a year ago, they’d been involved in a 64-car pile-up on Interstate 78. As they’d done for years, they’d been on their way to Appalachia to help when disaster struck. John whipped out his iphone to share photos of the wreckage, and we both wondered aloud that anyone had survived. But all of them had, and now, just 14 months later, they were back in the mountains, spending their spring break bringing help and hope.

As we talked, I heard someone start to sing a little ways off. The voice was strong and clear and when the power saws stopped at the end of a cut they didn’t start again. Everyone wanted to take in this voice ringing across the hollows. The singer’s name was Judy, a fifty-something grandmother whose house was being worked on. I’d talked to her earlier and knew how thankful she was for the help. Her house had been collapsing and there was no running water inside. She relies on kind neighbors to get a shower. Her life has been full of hardship, but Judy has a resilience, an “attitude of gratitude” – and, it turns out, an angel’s voice – that feeds you. Earlier in our conversation, John had told me that in doing this work in poverty-stricken Appalachia, he believed he took more than he gave. I’ve heard that idea before, but standing on that mountainside hearing Judy’s Amazing Grace, I knew those weren’t empty words.

So what’s all this got to do with fundraising? Everything. It’s a reminder to go mine your stories. Get out and touch the work. Smell it. Feel it. Don’t depend on clichés or blandly restating your, yawn, mission. Talk to those on the front lines who carry out your organization’s work and spend time with the people (or animals, or whatever) you serve. Find ways to capture the lightning of your mission in a bottle. And then find ways to share it with your donors. Tapping into your donors’ hearts – not their skulls – is the way you motivate them to give.

Since you can’t bring all of them to the field, find ways to bring the field to them. Share someone like Judy  or John with them and watch how much easier your fundraising becomes.

Margaret RandallA Voice and a Lesson from Appalachia