Keynote, Austrian Fundraisers’ Congress

The mea­sure of a great sto­ry is not the heights of imag­i­na­tion to which it soars, but the depth of the truth that it unearths. Gre­ta Thun­berg is telling the most impor­tant sto­ry of our time by obey­ing the three com­mand­ments of great sto­ry­telling: Tell the truth. Be inter­est­ing. Live the truth. 

I’m an intro­vert. And yet by some form of cos­mic irony, I seem to con­stant­ly find myself stand­ing up in front of a crowd of peo­ple. Speak­ing. Here’s what I said to a love­ly crowd of fundrais­ing pro­fes­sion­als gath­ered at the Aus­tri­an Fundrais­ers’ Con­gress last week in Vien­na. 

Brian Fitzgerald keynote Austrian Fundraisers Congress
Aus­tri­an Fundrais­ers’ Con­gress: the pur­ple hair is just a trick of the light. For now. 

So, a group of Cli­mate Activists walk into a bar. Which is to say, a plan­ning meet­ing. They’ve been try­ing for years to raise the alarm on glob­al warm­ing, to get peo­ple engaged, to make them pay atten­tion between the nat­ter­ing of Net­flix and the fan­fare of Face­book and the twit­ter­ing of Twit­ter that this is an emer­gen­cy. That our house is burn­ing.

So for the umpteen­th time they are brain­storm­ing new strate­gies when one of them says: WAIT, I’VE GOT IT: We’ll get a mild­ly autis­tic 15-year-old Swedish girl to skip class­es every Fri­day, and sit alone out­side the Par­lia­ment with a hand­made card­board sign that says “School Strike for Cli­mate.” Trust me, it’ll be MASSIVE.

That would have sound­ed like the worst. plan. ever.

And yet Gre­ta Thun­berg did exact­ly that and seized the imag­i­na­tion of the world with her sto­ry, and we have to ask why.

She didn’t provide us with any new stats.
There were no graphs.
She didn’t pro­duce a report.
She didn’t haul a celebri­ty in front of a press con­fer­ence to do a sound bite.
No stunts.
She didn’t craft a lis­ti­cle or a click­able sub­ject line
She didn’t care­ful­ly track her open rates and click rates

She sim­ply obeyed the three com­mand­ments of great sto­ry­telling:

Tell the truth
Be inter­est­ing
Live the truth

The sto­ry she told was one that want­ed to be told, a sto­ry whose time had come. Like Miri­am, the child prophet of Judaism who spoke out again­st her own Father’s capit­u­la­tion to the Pharaoh and so had to sum­mon the courage to chal­lenge both her Egyp­tian occu­piers and the Patri­archy of her own peo­ple. Gre­ta speaks a deeply lac­er­at­ing truth that nobody wants to hear: the house is on fire, that our gen­er­a­tion has failed her gen­er­a­tion, and that we need to wake up. It’s the most impor­tant sto­ry being told in the world today.

Four years ago, Tom­my Craw­ford and I found­ed Danc­ing Fox, an agen­cy ded­i­cat­ed to mak­ing activists and peo­ple work­ing for social change bet­ter sto­ry­tellers. The first bar­ri­er we usu­al­ly need to get over is the idea that sto­ry has no place in a strug­gle over facts. That sto­ry lives in the realm of imag­i­na­tion and fairy tale. That sto­ry is fic­tion. That sto­ries are fake. That they’re a lay­er of sug­ary frost­ing that you put on a cake baked of hard facts.

I dis­agree. I believe that the mea­sure of a great sto­ry is not the heights of imag­i­na­tion to which it soars, but the depth of the truth that it unearths.

Sto­ry is the oper­at­ing sys­tem of our brains. It’s the oper­at­ing sys­tem of soci­ety. And what Gre­ta has achieved is an astound­ing hack of that oper­at­ing sys­tem. She’s intro­duced a sto­ry as pow­er­ful as a benev­o­lent Tro­jan horse that is fun­da­men­tal­ly shift­ing our sense of what’s right, what’s nor­mal, and what’s accept­able. And those, my friends, are the age-old domin­ion of sto­ry.

Sto­ry was an evo­lu­tion­ary tool cre­at­ed to set forth the rules of what it means to be a good per­son, a good friend, a good tribe mate, a good human.

Yuval Harari tells us that the cog­ni­tive rev­o­lu­tion kick-start­ed his­to­ry about 70,000 years ago, when we began to under­stand intent. Com­pared to the majes­tic life of the savan­nah, we were not very strong, nor swift. Our claws and teeth were weak. But we con­quered the world with lan­guage. We con­quered the world with sto­ry. And when we fig­ured out how to tell a sto­ry set in the future, one in which our future selves were char­ac­ters, we learned how to make sto­ries, and dreams, come true.

Some­where far back in time one of the ances­tors of every­one in this room cre­at­ed a sto­ry set in the future, in which we were going to band togeth­er as a tribe. We’re going to move in to this cave and togeth­er we’re going share the tasks of rais­ing chil­dren and for­ag­ing for our food, and of mak­ing sure we set aside enough stores for the win­ter. And you can have some of the water that I fetch if I can have some of the berries you pick.

Jonathan Haidt, in his won­der­ful book The Right­eous Mind, says that social con­tract was the first moral matrix. But the thing that threat­ens any moral matrix, or any social con­tract, is the dan­ger that some­one cheats. So sto­ry became a way of set­ting out the rules of liv­ing togeth­er.

I might gath­er you around the fire and say

Remem­ber that time when the snows came ear­ly and Astrid wan­dered out after dark, with no moon to light her way, wolves howl­ing in the night, to find that mag­ic wood that burns for days and brought it back to the cave. And that first snow was a bliz­zard, and had she not had the brav­ery and the fore­thought to gath­er all that wood we all would have frozen to death in the cold. And Hans was so thank­ful that his infant child sur­vived that he gave Astrid all the blue­ber­ries he had gath­ered in the sum­mer.

How do you feel about Astrid and Hans right now? They’re rock­stars. They’re awe­some. They’re won­der­ful human beings. Self­less. Gen­er­ous. And that wave of approval that they feel and that you imag­ine them feel­ing is exact­ly what that sto­ry is engi­neered to cre­ate. To make you want to be like them. To behave like them. To fur­ther the goals of the tribe.

Where­as if I told the sto­ry of the time that Bri­an fell asleep and for­got to stoke the fire, and we were all freez­ing in the morn­ing, you’re inner mono­logue will tell you “I wouldn’t be like Bri­an. I’d tend that fire well.”

This is sto­ry invis­i­bly shap­ing our behav­iour to serve the needs of the many, to serve the needs of the tribe.

What I’ve just done with that sto­ry of the fire is got­ten you all a lit­tle bit high with a tiny dose of dopamine — a sto­ry with a hap­py end­ing makes us feel good. But it’s not the only chem­i­cal change a good sto­ry makes in our blood­streams.

A neu­ro­sci­en­tist named Paul Zak ran a study in which he drew blood from test sub­jects who wit­nessed two dif­fer­ent sto­ries, a sto­ry of man who goes to the zoo with his son and wan­ders around. The oth­er sto­ry is in the same set­ting, but the father tells the sto­ry of his son’s ter­mi­nal can­cer, and how hard he’s strug­gling to cope with that and give his son some enjoy­ment in his final days with things like this trip to the zoo. When they com­pared the chem­i­cal make-up of the sub­jects’ blood they found ele­vat­ed lev­els of Cor­ti­sol — a chem­i­cal that piques our atten­tion to some­thing impor­tant — in the blood of the sub­jects who wit­nessed the can­cer sto­ry. But more impor­tant­ly, Zak found ele­vat­ed lev­els of Oxy­tocin — what he calls the ‘moral mol­e­cule’ — which makes us pay atten­tion to social cues and rais­es our empa­thy lev­els.

When they then asked the sub­jects whether they want­ed to donate to a char­i­ty after the study was over, there was a cor­re­la­tion between the will­ing­ness to give, the amount given, and the lev­els of Oxy­tocin in the subject’s blood­stream.

Zak claims to have found what alchemists have sought for cen­turies: a way of turn­ing the base met­al of sto­ry into fundrais­ing gold.

Now I’m not a neu­ro­sci­en­tist — and there are chal­lenges to the­se results, among them one study that says Oxy­tocin is respon­si­ble for envy as much as empa­thy and there­fore might be called the immoral mol­e­cule. But the study repli­cates some­thing that I and most of us in this room prob­a­bly know for a fact: a com­pelling sto­ry which touch­es someone’s heart is a mag­ic spell for sum­mon­ing char­i­ta­ble behav­iour, for unlock­ing human com­pas­sion.

What’s my source for that?

I spent three years as a can­vasser for Green­peace in my youth — knock­ing on doors, telling sto­ries, and ask­ing for dona­tions. Any of you who have had per­son­al expe­ri­ence work­ing with indi­vid­u­al giv­ing or major donors or street giv­ing know that moment when you con­nect to some­one heart to heart, when your sto­ry lands, and they make the deci­sion to give. I don’t know if it’s chem­i­cal or psy­cho­log­i­cal or spir­i­tu­al, but those of us who have wit­nessed it know it by its true nature: mag­ic.

Anoth­er thing I learned as a can­vasser was that a blank peti­tion was near­ly impos­si­ble to get signed. But if the neigh­bour up the road had signed your job was five times eas­ier. And if two neigh­bours had signed it was ten times eas­ier. And this brings us to anoth­er role of sto­ry that’s essen­tial to giv­ing and to social change.

It’s the idea that sto­ry doesn’t just define what’s right, it also defines what’s nor­mal. And that is incred­i­bly pow­er­ful in dri­ving char­i­ta­ble behav­iour.

We’re sur­round­ed every day by invis­i­ble sto­ries that tell us how to behave, that reas­sure us that we’re behav­ing just like every­one else. Because that’s the most impor­tant thing for a social ani­mal: to behave social­ly.

And if you don’t believe that, try walk­ing into a crowd­ed ele­va­tor and turn­ing around to face the rear of the car instead of the doors. Watch how uncom­fort­able it makes every­one around you. For more fun, get three con­fed­er­ates and do the same thing. You’ll prob­a­bly get every­one else to turn. Because we tell and read invis­i­ble sto­ries in each other’s actions that tell us how to behave every sec­ond of every day.

But when enough peo­ple sig­nal a new behav­iour, the def­i­n­i­tion of what’s nor­mal changes.

The his­to­ry of activism and social change is noth­ing more than tak­ing a fringe behav­iour or belief and mak­ing it nor­mal. Or tak­ing a nor­mal behav­iour and mak­ing it appear weird. A few decades ago, light­ing a cig­a­ret­te on a plane was per­fect­ly nor­mal. Today it would be shock­ing­ly weird.

Our great­est ally, and our great­est ene­my in dri­ving the change we need to sur­vive is the human ten­den­cy to fol­low the herd. We under­es­ti­mate how pow­er­ful that force is, how omnipresent in our lives. And how impor­tant it is to social change. Kumi Naido talks about the strug­gle again­st Apartheid in South Africa when he was a youth, and being told that while his cause was just, it was impos­si­ble. But that changed. As he puts it, “it was only when peo­ple in suf­fi­cient­ly large num­bers began to believe that change was pos­si­ble, that change became pos­si­ble.”

It reminds me of some­thing Bob Hunter, one of the founders of Green­peace said: That big change looks impos­si­ble when you start and inevitable when you fin­ish.

And that’s both true and trag­ic. Trag­ic because it does a dis­ser­vice to those who strug­gled to make a fringe behav­iour nor­mal when it seemed tru­ly weird. When the cause seemed impos­si­ble. We look back today and say of course wom­en would even­tu­al­ly have got­ten the right to vote — that was inevitable. Or of course apartheid would end. It was inevitable. Or of course slav­ery would be banned. It was inevitable. But that inevitabil­i­ty was not a given to the peo­ple who sac­ri­ficed their time their rep­u­ta­tions and in some cas­es their lives to make those things come about.

But here’s the good news about herd men­tal­i­ty when it comes to trans­form­ing the world: it means We don’t need bil­lions of peo­ple act­ing per­fect­ly, we just need mil­lions of peo­ple act­ing bet­ter. We only need to turn the 101st deer to turn the herd. That’s the pow­er of nor­mal­iz­ing behav­iour.

So how do we accel­er­ate the process of social change to serve our sur­vival? We con­vince the herd that the herd is turn­ing. We accel­er­ate the arrival of that mag­ic tip­ping point where enough peo­ple believe that change is pos­si­ble that change becomes pos­si­ble. We need to give peo­ple agen­cy, to make that agen­cy vis­i­ble, and tell the sto­ries of that agency’s suc­cess again and again and again. And Fundrais­ers, you’re in a mag­i­cal­ly impor­tant place to be able to do that. You traf­fic in char­i­ta­ble behav­iour. In behav­iour that’s geared toward dri­ving change. But you also hold the key to a dan­ger­ous valve — the one by which peo­ple out­source their agen­cy, And give sim­ply to alle­vi­ate their guilt.

I think we’re capa­ble of so much more. I think donors are capa­ble of so much more. But I think it’s con­tin­gent on us to ask — to make it clear that writ­ing a check on its own isn’t going to change the sto­ry. Gre­ta won’t like­ly be telling her grand­chil­dren, when they ask how did we save the world, with the answer that “mil­lions of peo­ple opened their wal­lets and agreed to month­ly dona­tions and went on liv­ing their lives as they nor­mal­ly do.” We need to invite our donors to agen­cy. To using all of their pow­er — the pow­er of their wal­let, the pow­er of their vote, the pow­er of their con­sump­tion choic­es, the pow­er of the sto­ries they tell to their friends about what they believe is right and nor­mal and accept­able. We need to bring a new sto­ry to life that says human beings do not sac­ri­fice their chil­dren at the altar of their own con­ve­nience, greed, or igno­rance.

We need to help peo­ple find agen­cy. We need to set off a bil­lion acts of courage.

I want to share with you a sto­ry of how I found my agen­cy.

It’s the sto­ry of two ques­tions.

And it begins in a cab­in in the woods in New Hamp­shire in the north­east­ern Unit­ed States, far far from the near­est town on an iso­lat­ed hill top look­ing out over noth­ing but trees.

When I was fin­ish­ing up col­lege I was hav­ing that con­ver­sa­tion one has with a friend about what we were plan­ning to do after we grad­u­at­ed. I con­fessed that my dream was to go to a cab­in in the woods and write the great Amer­i­can nov­el. This was not a very orig­i­nal dream. Every Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture stu­dent who had ever read Emer­son and Thore­au prob­a­bly had the same idea.

But to my sur­prise she said “My dad has a cab­in in the woods in New Hamp­shire, and it gets bro­ken into every win­ter. May­be he’ll let you live there in exchange for watch­ing it?”

And so come Autumn I found myself in a one room sum­mer cab­in with­out elec­tric­i­ty or plumb­ing and a tiny wood­stove that had to be stoked twice in the mid­dle of the night if I didn’t want ice in my beard in the morn­ing.

Autumn turns to win­ter, and it gets cold. New Eng­land cold. The beat-up four wheel dri­ve that I used to dri­ve to town freezes solid into the mud. And it starts to snow. For days. Then a week. Pret­ty soon, I’m snow­bound. And I’m fac­ing the real pos­si­bil­i­ty that I’m going to run out of food. But some­thing far worse hap­pened: I ran out of books. Now this is 1980 — there’s no inter­net, no wifi. My only way out of that cab­in was to read. So after I’d read every­thing that I’d brought with me, I start­ed to can­ni­bal­ize the slim shelf of books that had been left behind by the own­er of the cab­in.

And among those books was one which lit­er­al­ly changed my life. It was called “The War­riors of the Rain­bow” by Bob Hunter. It was the sto­ry of the found­ing of a group I had nev­er heard of, called “Green­peace,” by a group of draft dodgers, peaceniks, and hip­pies who met in a church base­ment in Van­cou­ver try­ing to fig­ure out how to stop a nuclear weapons test that was going to be det­o­nat­ed in the Aleu­tian Islands of Alaska. What they decid­ed to do was take a boat, sail it up there, park it in the blast zone, and say “we dare you — on our lives — not to det­o­nate that bomb.” To the biggest mil­i­tary force on the plan­et.

I was enchant­ed. And I realised that what they were doing was cre­at­ing tiny sto­ries of con­fronta­tion pack­aged up for the medi­um of the day, tele­vi­sion, and sent them rip­pling around the world in what they called “mind-bombs”: sim­ple stark, black and whites sto­ries: here’s Richard Nixon’s Cold War Nuclear machine, and here’s a bunch of peo­ple who say there’s a bet­ter way to run a plan­et. Here’s a whale, here’s a har­poon, and here’s a tiny boat with a cou­ple folks who are say­ing on my life, I dare you.

And the ques­tion every one of those sto­ries asked, implic­it­ly, is the first impor­tant ques­tion in this sto­ry: “Which side are you on?”

I knew which side I was on. I was with the whale. And the hip­pies in the boat.

In answer­ing that ques­tion I stepped over an invis­i­ble line — not yet to activism, but from igno­rant bystander to some­one with an opin­ion, some­one who had made a choice. I dis­agreed with that thing being done over there. I thought it should stop. This is what Quak­ers call “Bear­ing Wit­ness” – the belief that if you wit­ness a crime or an injus­tice, you bear a moral respon­si­bil­i­ty for that injus­tice con­tin­u­ing. You can act on it or not – and the beau­ty of this phi­los­o­phy is that it rec­og­nizes we can­not and do not act on every injus­tice we wit­ness – but the moral respon­si­bil­i­ty is there. In effect you plant a sec­ond ques­tion which you may or may not answer: “What are you going to do about it?”

And the Quak­er belief is found­ed in a fun­da­men­tal­ly opti­mistic view of human integri­ty and will­ing­ness to act: that the more peo­ple whose heart you plant that ques­tion in, the more like­ly it becomes that peo­ple in suf­fi­cient num­bers will answer that ques­tion with a deci­sion to stand up and oppose that injus­tice.

So that ques­tion, what are you going to do about it, slept in my heart as I closed the book and was sad because I didn’t think this organ­i­sa­tion called Green­peace exist­ed any­more. It slept in my heart as the snow melt­ed and I didn’t run out of food, and the win­ter turned to spring. It slept in my heart as I ran out of mon­ey, and hitch­hiked down to Boston and start­ed work­ing in a book­store. Which was the PERFECT job after the cab­in — there was heat and elec­tric­i­ty, I didn’t have to chop wood or fetch water and I was nev­er, ever going to run out of books. Then one day an old friend from my home town walks in. I asked her what she was doing and she said she was vol­un­teer­ing for an organ­i­sa­tion I had prob­a­bly nev­er heard of before called Green­peace. I said real­ly, I just read the most amaz­ing book and I total­ly sup­port your cause. And then this tough as nails wom­an leans over the coun­ter and says “Yeah? And what are you doing about it?”

What Cathy want­ed me to do about it was way out­side my com­fort zone. She sug­gest­ed I join her knock­ing on doors, rais­ing aware­ness, ask­ing for dona­tions, gath­er­ing peti­tion sig­na­tures. Like a door to door sales­man.

I declined. But Cathy was per­sis­tent, and one day I final­ly walked into that Green­peace office, and it was like com­ing home. I liked the vibe, I liked the tribe, I want­ed to make it part of my dai­ly life. So I start­ed can­vass­ing one day a week, then two, then three… and when I wasn’t can­vass­ing I was vol­un­teer­ing, and pret­ty soon my vol­un­teer­ing habit was get­ting in the way of my full time job. So I did the ratio­nal thing, and quit my job.

And that launched me on a jour­ney which a year lat­er would find me secret­ly march­ing with three col­leagues across a bomb­ing range, past Area 51, and into Yuc­ca Flats in Nevada where the US mil­i­tary was prepar­ing to det­o­nate a fif­teen kilo­ton under­ground nuclear weapon and say­ing “we dare you, on our lives, not to det­o­nate that bomb.” And for four days, we hid in that desert and for four days the biggest mil­i­tary force on the plan­et blinked and didn’t det­o­nate the bomb. For what­ev­er it was worth, we delayed the nuclear arms race by four days. That became the most impor­tant lesson in the pow­er of indi­vid­u­al action that I would ever learn. It was also a lesson in how amaz­ing­ly great a cup of jail­house cof­fee can taste after six days in the desert.

My point is this. Every one of us in this room has a sto­ry to tell about how we decid­ed to do some­thing about the way the world works. We all have a sto­ry of how we found our agen­cy and the deci­sions and path that led you to be here in this room today. Those sto­ries are con­ta­gious. They are sto­ries that want to be told.

And all of us have to admit that no mat­ter how hard we’ve tried, no mat­ter how lofty our ambi­tions or how many late nights and failed mar­riages and burned out careers activists have thrown at chang­ing the world over the last six decades, Greta’s right: it hasn’t achieved what we hoped it would achieved. It hasn’t slain the mon­ster that haunts Greta’s dreams.

But that doesn’t mean the sto­ry is over. It sim­ply means a new sto­ry has to begin. It’s like we’re all in the con­trol room when Apol­lo 13 is crip­pled in space and leak­ing oxy­gen and Gene Kranz over­hears some­one say­ing that “This could be the worst dis­as­ter NASA has ever expe­ri­enced.” and that hero­ic flight direc­tor responds

With all due respect Sir, I believe this is going to be our finest hour.”

Cri­sis is oppor­tu­ni­ty. It’s when our true colours come out. It’s what gives rise to true heroes like Gre­ta Thun­berg.

So here are my part­ing thoughts to all of you. Find new ways to apply your awe­some skills to invit­ing peo­ple to agen­cy – whether it’s again­st cli­mate change, or chang­ing the sto­ry of con­sump­tion or increas­ing human empa­thy or any cause that will make more peo­ple believe that change is pos­si­ble. Share the sto­ry of how you found your agen­cy. Share the sto­ry of how you’re mak­ing a dif­fer­ence. Share the sto­ries of how oth­ers are mak­ing a dif­fer­ence. Because every time a sto­ry gets retold, it gets stronger. And every sto­ry of a con­quest over apa­thy or pes­simism or despair is poten­tial­ly a wak-up call to a ques­tion that’s sleep­ing in some­one else’s heart.

A famous con­tent mar­ket­ing thought lead­er by the name of Tyr­i­an Lan­nis­ter said some­thing at the end of Game of Thrones which is pro­found­ly impor­tant both to your work as fundrais­ers and to the com­mon chal­lenge of human sur­vival.

What unites peo­ple? Armies? Gold? Flags? Sto­ries. There’s noth­ing in the world more pow­er­ful than a good sto­ry. Noth­ing can stop it. No ene­my can defeat it.”

The sto­ry we write of how we sur­vived an extinc­tion of our own mak­ing is going to be a sto­ry unlike any that has ever been told. It’s not going to be easy. No epic quest ever is. But the stage has been set by decades of activism and one 15-year-old Swedish girl who decid­ed to

Tell the truth
Be inter­est­ing and
Live the truth

Every one of us has a role to play in con­vinc­ing peo­ple that change is pos­si­ble. And some­where out there is the one per­son some­one is going to con­vince and cre­ate a tip­ping point where sud­den­ly we hit crit­i­cal mass, and change does become pos­si­ble. The choice is between a sto­ry that ends in sur­vival and one that ends in extinc­tion.

We all know which side we’re on.

All we need to decide is what we’re going to do about it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.