From Snoring to Soaring
Most nonprofit newsletters are boring. I subscribe to about 20 of them, and only one or two are interesting enough to regularly skim. Most are full of cookie-cutter human-interest stories that elicit little more than a yawn.
This got me thinking, is this sample representative? If so, yikes!
Newsletters are an important way that we cultivate relationships with donors. If we’re generally dull and needy in those communications, our audience will lose interest. And that ultimately spells financial heartbreak for us.
So what’s a nonprofit to do? How do we take our newsletters from snoring to soaring?
Looking for an easy answer to this question, I decided to punt. I picked up the phone and called an expert who focuses on this very problem. Why not let her do the work? And here’s what trainer, writer and newsletter guru Kivi Leroux Miller of Nonprofit Marketing Guide.com had to say.
Katya: Why are there no stories, or only milquetoast stories, in so many newsletters? What gives?
Kivi: Two reasons, I think. First, people are afraid that they can’t pull it off. When you say “storytelling,” most people envision either someone like Mark Twain or Toni Morrison or a wild-haired grandpa on a stage at some mountain storytelling festival spinning some yarn — someone with way more creative juices flowing. Or they simply don’t think they are good writers, and the thought of writing something that qualifies as a “story” is just too daunting. It doesn’t have to be that way. Nonprofits have tons of great stories. Finding material … is never a problem.
Katya: So fix this problem for us!
Kivi: You just need to learn some basic storytelling patterns. In the book “Made to Stick,” which I highly recommend, Chip and Dan Heath identify three different types of inspirational stories: the Challenge Plot, the Creativity Plot and the Connection Plot. All three have very basic elements, and once you know what to listen for, you’ll start hearing bits and pieces of these stories all around you, every day. At that point, you simply have to ask a few questions to fill in the gaps and you’ve got great stories for your newsletters and other donor communications.
Katya: Errr … what’s a challenge plot?
Kivi: The challenge plot is your basic, three–act structure that practically every Hollywood movie is based on. These are your classic underdog, against-all-odds stories. You start out by introducing the character and his situation and goals. Then in Act 2, he faces obstacles, and the tension mounts. Things might start to work out, but then it usually gets worse. Then in Act 3, the action peaks, and the character finally triumphs over the obstacles.
Katya: Who’s the underdog? The nonprofit?
Kivi: No! Many nonprofits throw themselves into the middle of the story, but that’s not where they really belong. The nonprofit doesn’t come in until Act 3 and then just as a supporting actor in helping the main character overcome the obstacles. Many nonprofits want to make the story all about them or their staff, but with a few exceptions, the main character really needs to be a client, volunteer, donor or someone else involved in or affected by your work. You want the reader to relate to the story, and that’s easier to do if it is about someone who is not on your staff.
Katya: OK, got it. And the creativity plot? That sounds juicy.
Kivi: Creativity stories are those with the “aha!” moments and those “what if we … ” stories that work out in the end. For a good creativity plot, you need a well-understood problem and a standard response that just doesn’t work. Again, use the people around you — clients, volunteers, donors — to explain the problem and inadequate solution. Then you talk about the new approach that your nonprofit or someone affiliated with your nonprofit is trying — and test runs and theories are OK here. It doesn’t need to be a completely well-thought-out and fully tested solution. Then you close with a vision of a new reality and how the original problem would be solved.
Katya: Who in the nonprofit world has aced a creativity plot?
Kivi: I love the Heifer International founder’s story. The founder, Dan West, was ladling out milk rations to hungry children when he thought, “These children don’t need a cup — they need a cow.” From there, the whole idea of providing livestock to poor families was born. The families not only get livestock to provide food and income for themselves, but when their cows or goats have babies, they pass them on to other families in need, continuing the cycle of lifting families out of hunger and poverty.
Katya: And last, the connection plot?
Kivi: This one is a little harder to pull off without sounding sappy or forced, but once again, with the right elements, it’s easy. These are the bridging-the-gap stories and “big meaning in small events” stories. Start with a small, specific situation or event, and then look for the larger connection to the greater human experience. These stories usually have a little surprise or epiphany in them that really drives the point home. You’ll see connections between the people in the stories and also between the storyteller and the reader. Interplast’s blog (www.interplast.org/action/blog.html) has some great connection stories about the doctors who are correcting birth defects in developing nations. FS
- Heifer International