Story Jams – Tammy Zonker



Thinking loudly and quietly doing. I aspire to this, and seek to surround myself with people who live this.

I have always admired Tammy Zonker from afar – I mean, in a digital world, how else does one admire their heroes? Tammy has always been a cool and confident fundraiser, whose words are beacons of inspiration and sense-making.

You know in karate movies, when there’s a giant fight scene going on and the room is in pandemonium? There’s always that one guy in the white suit, sitting to the side, sipping a drink and smoking a cigarette while the room is in chaos. And with a single movement, the man in the white suit commands the room.

In a world overflowing with advice and thoughts and how-tos and must dos, a conversation with Tammy stills the room with her sense-making.

And then she laughs – her infectious laugh! – and you know that not only is she incredibly intelligent, but superbly sweet, too.

And I get to meet her in person in just a few days!

This Jam took place on Tuesday, September 22.

Curiouser & Curiouser

“Curiouser and curiouser!” cried Alice (she was so much surprised, that for the moment she quite forgot how to speak good English). – Lewis Carol

Our sector is a very special place. It is filled with people who have connected with their own idea of a higher calling.

No one’s here for the money, are we?

We’re here because we are compelled. We’re here because we care.

We’re here for our own legacy. Because it is important that our story be woven into something that means more. It is important for us to do something important.

But what we find when we get here stands at odds with what we are seeking.

In our search to do what is important, we find ourselves only able to focus on what is urgent.

We find ourselves running a million miles a minute. There is far too much to do and far too little time to do it. And even if we had the time, we simply do not have the resources to make it happen.

We learn to thrive in the urgent, not the important.

We learn to survive in scarcity, not abundance.

And here is the crux of it: the environment of urgency and scarcity is not the environment where stories thrive.

So before we even begin to tell stories we must come to a very important realization: we need to stop giving in to the urgent so we can begin to create real value in the important.

Otherwise, we are missing the moments. The purpose.

We didn’t come here to constantly be putting out fires. We came here to set fires – in the hearts of donors, in the hearts of those we serve, and in ourselves.

Once you’ve come to the realization that it is next to impossible to do both, you can get to the true core of telling stories that matter.

How do we begin to find this core once we’ve committed to finding it?

Presence. We need to learn to listen.

We live in a world where we learn to not listen. We’re bombarded with messages all day, every day, and in the process we’ve learned to tune things out simply out of necessity. And in a climate of constant urgency, active listening is next to impossible.

How do you actually pay attention to what your kid is trying to tell you when you really have to pee?

Vulnerability. The act of opening ourselves.

If we are to connect with anyone, it cannot be under the heavy armor we have built around our hearts. This requires a kind of courage that is difficult to cultivate in an environment where we are constantly under siege.

Vulnerability is prone to being wounded. Wounds, quite literally, are an opening. We need to find ourselves in a place where we can be open if we are to find the stories that matter.

Empathy. We need to learn to feel.

This is more than sympathy. This is not only experiencing emotion, but asking ourselves why and how, and partaking in this in a deeper way. It is immersing ourselves in the feeling. Sympathy literally means “feeling with” – empathy means “feeling in.” This takes a kind of investment that a climate of urgency does not allow.

Empathy moves emotion from the external to the internal – it is no longer just someone else’s battle, but a profound experience in our own story.

Presence, vulnerability and empathy.

At the heart of all three is something even more difficult to hone.


And this is perhaps the most important attribute of someone longing to tell stories.

Being a present, vulnerable and empathetic fundraiser is a wonderful thing. But what will set you apart as a powerful storyteller is when you add curiosity to the mix.

Because those who ask questions of themselves, others, and the world about the things they allow themselves to experience are the ones who can translate mere storytelling into story living – inviting others to experience a story that is so meaningful, so life-changing, that it becomes part of who they are. It invites them to be present. It encourages them to be vulnerable. It allows them to have empathy. And it harvests a curiosity that ignites them.

Be curious about the work you do. Be present. Be vulnerable. And deeply feel.

Because at the centre of it is a story that will make your voice quiver.

And that is the story worth telling.

More About Our Character, Tammy

What is your motto?

  • It’s an Emily Dickinson quotation – I dwell in possibility.

What is your most marked characteristic?

  • My empathy.

What historical figure do you most identify with?

  • Golda Meir – her life, her strength, her determination against all odds

What is your favorite journey?

  • Motherhood

What is your greatest inspiration when writing?

  • The work. I see things every day that light me up, and break my heart, and give me joy.

What is your favourite book?

  • The Diary of Ann Frank

Who are your favourite heroes/heroines in fiction?

  • The Rainbow Fish!

What are you looking forward to most at the NPStorytelling Conference?

  • Each of the speakers has a lot to share. I am confident that the participants have a lot to share, too. And the connectedness of people who are committed to telling powerful stories is going to be incredible.