8 Storytelling Starter Tips for Your Nonprofit
Is there one single narrative that can entirely define your organization, its mission and your donor experiences from both sides of the giving equation? Doubtful.
One thing I don’t doubt, though: Storytelling is important. In fact, finding and sharing an organization’s most compelling stories always is my first step when it comes to the consulting process. Stories provide a foundation to build upon. A solid narrative illuminates an organization’s mission and the good work that it does, bringing its identity to life in a compelling, relatable way.
I could go on and on about the merits of storytelling, but I’m not going to do that here. For one thing, time and space don’t permit it. For another thing, I offer a course dedicated to storytelling where I elaborate on stories and the role that they play as a functional, vital tool. A lifeline, really.
Surprisingly, though, many view the process of compiling their stories as a time-waster. Yeah, seriously.
Their focuses are misguided because they’re distracted. They’re lured by bright, shiny, brand new objects and castles in the sky. They want that next big grant that will put them on the path to solvency. They think the answers to their prayers lie somewhere within the vast realm of social media: “Could we get donations through Facebook and/or Twitter?” Or that having an event will put them on the path to right, rather than recognizing it as the Band-Aid it is. Temporary solutions won’t fix long-term problems.
So never forget this: Emotionally compelling storytelling is the foundation of every successful fundraising program.
It’s not magic. If anything, it’s a science. What stories tug at your heartstrings or resonate with you for one reason or another? Rather than fearing emotion, learn to seek it out every day.
Here are eight tips to get you started:
- Schedule some one-on-one time with each of your board members to find out what motivated them to become involved with your organization. Rather than approaching it as an interview, which can be overly stiff, keep things comfortable and conversational, like you would with a friend, but keep the focus on your supporter. When I sat down with a board president for an organization I once worked with, I learned the story of how spending a summer teaching with our program completely turned her daughter’s life around. This mother was so grateful that she learned more about the program—and became an impassioned advocate within the community.
- Step away from your desk and turn off your technology! The best fundraisers aren’t spending their days glued to their computers—they’re out in the field learning their organization’s stories and figuring out how to effectively communicate these narratives.
- Schedule a minimum of 30 minutes to an hour a week to call donors so that you can tell them “thank you.” Gratitude will get you far, especially when it’s communicated in such a personal way. Engage with these donors to learn their inspirations and motivations behind their involvements with your organization. You’ll learn what resonates with your donors.
- Program staff will be your greatest resource. Create warm, inviting staff meetings. Get the ball rolling by sharing your own stories at staff meetings. I don’t doubt that your passion and enthusiasm will be contagious, encouraging your colleagues to share their stories, too.
- While video is great, never underestimate the power of a photograph. Pictures can be just as effective as video, especially in the age of Facebook and the meme. Keep this in mind and take pictures—lots of them—often. Pictures provide an element of authenticity to your stories, giving them an additional dimension of real life. Feel free to include them in video form if there are a lot of photos, or on your website if you want to focus on a single image and correspond it to a particular story.
- Open up your ears and listen. Sounds like a no-brainer, right? But when you resist the urge to talk and, instead, focus on paying attention, you’ll be amazed at the gems that land in your lap. As I mentioned before, you want to focus on your supporters, and that means listening carefully. That way, when something they say is particularly impactful, you can frame a question around getting them to open up more about it.
- Like gratitude, storytelling is essential to your organizational culture. What lessons can you learn from the Cara Program and its regular “Motivations” program?
- Wondering if you should polish the real-world language in your stories? Wonder no longer, because the answer, in no uncertain terms, is “no.” Authenticity should be a primary goal in storytelling. Outside of basic spelling and punctuation corrections, let your subject’s voice ring true and distinct, because real voices contribute to the strength of stories.
Hopefully these tips, collectively and on their own, shed some light on a very important truth, and that’s this: You don’t need to look toward the latest trends, the biggest and best events, social media or a thousand other distractions for your fundraising answers, because you’ll end up, well, distracted.
Instead, look within your organization, and closely examine everything you have right in front of you, from your board, to your program staff, to the supporters who enthusiastically champion your mission. You’ve got acres of diamonds to mine right before your very eyes—especially when it comes to finding stories. Chances are, you won’t need to travel very far at all.
Pamela Grow is the publisher of The Grow Report, the author of Simple Development Systems and the founder of Simple Development Systems: The Membership Program and Basics & More fundraising fundamentals e-courses. She has been helping small nonprofits raise dramatically more money for over 15 years, and was named one of the 50 Most Influential Fundraisers by Civil Society magazine, and one of the 40 Most Effective Fundraising Consultants by The Michael Chatman Giving Show.