The other day I was meeting with some really good people at the Atlantic City Rescue Mission, in the heart of Atlantic City, New Jersey. We were there to help them build a major gift program and start developing real relationships with donors.
If you ever wanted to see a city in turmoil, this is the city to visit. I won’t go into all the details, but the city is in big trouble. Businesses are closing down, and this rescue mission is bursting at the seams with an influx of people needing their services.
People who were once donors are now in line, waiting for a meal.
The rescue mission has some really faithful donors, but many of them have not been challenged to make a real investment in the mission. We were there to help the mission start building a structure for major gifts and start creating meaningful relationships with donors, just like they do with the people they serve every day.
At the end of our day, the Executive Director asked my colleague and me if we’d like a tour. It was eye-opening and amazing. This is where we met Tyre.
Tyre is the head chef of the Mission Kitchen. He met us at the door of his kitchen as we started our tour. He was young and vibrant, and he had a smile on his face. He was extremely proud of this humble kitchen. That night he was serving lamb and red potatoes – food that was donated by a nearby casino.
I asked him to tell us his story.
Tyre had grown up in the food industry, starting as a teenage dishwasher, then a line cook, then eventually a sous chef for one of the largest casinos in Atlantic City. He loves food, and he loves to cook. He’s worked under some very famous chefs.
One day, in the middle of a hectic time preparing dinners for some of Atlantic City’s wealthiest high rollers, he gets a random text from a friend of a friend who asks him if he’d consider being the head chef for the rescue mission.
In the middle of ordering around a bunch of line cooks, he sort of brushed this text off. But something drew him to respond. “Sure, I’ll talk to you.” The next day he talked to the Executive Director of the mission, and he asked what the salary was. It was about half of what he was making.
He was about ready to hang up the phone when the Executive Director said, “wait, just come in and volunteer for a couple of days, and see what you think.”
Reluctantly, Tyre went in and volunteered. He never left. Tyre went on to explain that feeding people in great need and seeing their appreciation AND being the head chef of his own kitchen was something he could not turn down.
So with the blessing of his wife and small child, he took a big pay cut – and changed his life forever.
Tyre went on about how creative he has to get with the food that is donated from area casinos and local farms. He says that he feeds between 700 and 1,000 people a day. But this is not just ordinary cafeteria food. This is pasta with homemade cream sauce, clam chowder, rack of lamb with mint jelly. This is fancy food that many of his “customers” have never had the opportunity to eat. And for some, it’s food that many of his “customers” once ate but haven’t tasted in years.
I watched as his face lit up, just talking about what they do every day in the kitchen, and how much joy he has doing this work. I teared up, listening to him describe the life he could have had (money, recognition, his own restaurant) to what he has now (joy, satisfaction and a sense that he is making a difference in someone’s life). He talked about the joy he has, watching the faces of people who come through his food line, tasting his food. A joy he would never have seen in the faces of the people at the casinos.
As I walked out of the kitchen and back to the offices of the Executive Director, I said to the team, “Your work is to bring your major donors right here to listen to Tyre’s story. Major donors give out of emotion. Facts and figures are great, but if they look into Tyre’s eyes, hear his story and feel the joy that emanates from his soul, they will be moved to invest beyond anything you’ve ever imagined.”
I’ve been in fundraising a long time; but even so, listening to Tyre’s powerful story while standing in his kitchen was incredibly moving. It made me pause and consider all the blessings in my life, and perhaps think less about my own petty worries.
This is the power of a story – it can change the hearts and minds of your major donors. If you really want to be the bridge between your donors’ desire to change the world and the need you are addressing with your organization, you have to tell a powerful story to your donor. A story like the one I just told you.
Today, think about all the stories your organization has to tell. Then think about how to bring your donors to that story so that it will break their hearts. You will be doing those donors a huge favor by helping them change their lives through their giving.