I made eye contact with an armadillo the other day. Well, I was staring at it, and I admit it might have been folly to think it was doing anything more than looking past me and thinking about whatever it is armadillos think about. Despite living in the deep south here in the US, I’d never seen one alive before. Taxidermied, yes. Carved from wood with the Texas star painted on its side … replicated as a cuddly toy … flattened on the side of the road … yes, yes, and yes. But never alive, and just, well, standing there. Brazen little bugger, it was.
It reminded me of a conversation that I had quite a while ago, a conversation that has stayed with me and that I have written about before. It was at a dinner during a nonprofit conference in New York, with the then-director of development at an organization dedicated to eradicating leprosy. He was entertaining, quietly charming, and clearly passionate about his cause. At one point during pre-dinner cocktails with a few dozen other fundraisers, he shared that at any given time, there are about 5,000 known cases of leprosy in the United States.
“Most of them are caused by armadillos,” he said.
The holding area of the trendy NYC restaurant where we were sitting was packed to the point of being uncomfortable. A throng of fundraisers huddled together chatting, laughing, on somewhat silly, low-sitting chairs near the front door as harried servers maneuvered their way through the maze of bodies, serving drinks and ushering people to tables. But at the point when my dinner-mate made his armadillo proclamation (as matter-of-factly, I might add, as if he were announcing his entrée selection or wine preference) it seemed that all conversation faded out, the wine glasses stopped clinking, and even the traffic outside was temporarily silenced. I was riveted.
Apparently, armadillos are the only animals besides humans that can carry leprosy. Then he continued to amaze (and, frankly, somewhat sicken) me further by explaining that folks, particularly in the southern US states where armadillos hang out, eat the weird, thick-skinned critters and expose themselves to the disease. Who knew? (Doing a little post-conference research, I found out that while the risk is low, humans also can be exposed to the leprosy bacteria by touching or killing armadillos or even by gardening in soil where they burrow.)
True, leprosy (aka Hansen’s Disease) is still relatively rare in the United States, is very treatable, not highly transmissible from human to human, and with early diagnosis and treatment is neither disabling nor life-threatening. Problem is, of course, that many people in developing countries where leprosy is more prevalent don’t have access to the care that can keep it from becoming devastating.
My point is that this guy had a story that he knew would grab people. I made him tell it to everyone who gravitated to our little group. I posted it on Facebook, and I told almost literally everyone I talked to for months following the conference. And I’m still talking about it. Sometimes I wait for a break in an already-going armadillo conversation (I live in Texas; it happens more than you might think) to tell it, but mostly I work it into everyday conversations (“Oh, yes, I can see where that proposal would be a tough sell, and speaking of tough shells …”).
And more importantly, the story intrigued me so much that I did further research on the disease, which on some level I guess I considered to be biblical — a long-ago plague that had gone the way of the Pharisees and the Sadducees. (And, yes, I did make a donation.)
What about your stories? Are you telling them? And telling them in such a way that they grab people and don’t let go? The power of storytelling in fundraising is undeniable. You know that, but it bears repeating.