Creating Compelling Success Stories for Your Nonprofit
The Need for Compelling Stories
If your organization is like most nonprofits, you have the need for a steady stream of client success stories to support your marketing and fundraising efforts. But how easy is it get those stories? And when you do get them, how good are they?
Generating compelling success stories won’t happen by magic. In order to get the stories, you need to help your staff understand the importance of stories in the organization’s marketing and fundraising efforts and to feel comfortable asking clients for their stories. Show your staff how stories are used in marketing and fundraising, such as your website and newsletters, so they can see how the stories help other clients and donors connect with your organization.
You can help your staff collect stories by providing an easy way for them to gather the information needed. Many nonprofits, particularly social service agencies, already collect information about their clients as a standard part of working with them. Getting stories is really a part of the way staff already interact with clients—asking questions to understand their needs.
To the extent possible, gather the information for effective stories as part of your intake process. This may require you to revisit some of your protocols, for example, to see how you can add questions to your application or intake forms. Make story collection part of serving clients, and get the details as part of closing the case.
Structure for an Effective Story
A successful story will show how a person has overcome some kind of obstacle. You’ll want to talk about the situation the person was facing, how they overcame the challenge with the organization’s help and the positive outcome they achieved. The more you can dramatize this, the better.
1. The Subject: Who is the story about? Describe their age, characteristics and other details relevant to the story.
• How did they find out about your organization?
2. The Conflict: What are challenges they are facing?
• How did the person get into this situation?
• How does the person feel in this state?
• What did they try to do about it?
3. The Resolution: What did you do to address the issue? What did the person do? What constitutes a resolution?
• How was the client empowered through this process?
• What steps were presented to the client for them to take on their own?
• How was the person’s perspective on life changed as a result?
• What else changed for the person?
4. The Result: How was your service received and acknowledged by the person you helped?
• What did you do that went above and beyond the job description or expectations?
• How is the client now empowered to advocate for themselves or otherwise changed?
You want your story to captivate your readers by engrossing them in the challenge inherent in the story. There needs to be a clear sense of progress and contrast from the “before” state to the “after” state. And don’t neglect your organization’s role in this transformation—after all, you are selling your organization’s ability to make a difference.
Stories told in the first person can be very powerful, but often difficult to elicit or not as coherent as needed for marketing purposes. If you choose to tell the story in third person, try to incorporate quotes from the client in the story.
Nonprofits walk a delicate balance—they must capture the most heartbreaking stories of people rising from dire circumstances in order to motive people to support their organization. Yet, they must preserve the dignity of the people they serve.
It goes without saying that you should get permission from people before making their stories public. Privacy can be maintained in the way you attribute the story. At the most public level, the person may agree to a full disclose, allowing you to use their full name and photo. Other options are using first name only or initials, with a generic attribution, such as “social services client” or “Wakefield resident.”
Regardless of attribution, thank the person for allowing you to use their story, show them the finished story in your newsletter, website or wherever it is being used, and explain how it is helping people like them find services or is raising money for those services.
Creating a Culture of Storytelling
As an organization, you can reinforce the value of stories by having staff members or department heads tell client success stories at the start of staff meetings. Everyone will be inspired, learn more about the impact other departments are having and see success stories as an integral part of your nonprofit’s culture.
Howard Adam Levy is the president of Red Rooster Group, a brand strategy firm that promotes nonprofits, governments, and foundations. For the past 20 years, Howard has assisted countless organizations to launch new brands, clarify their messages, gain visibility and raise hundreds of millions of dollars.