How to Gather, Write and Publish Your Donor Stories

February 27, 2013

I just finished my CAGP Webinar Wednesday session on how to gather, write and publish your donor stories. And, like I advised the participants, I feel compelled to put a few things in writing while it’s all fresh in my mind.

Those of you who’ve heard me speak before (or who know Good Works at all), know how much I believe in non-profit storytelling. And I’m not the only one. It seems that every conference these days has a session on the topic, and the internet is full of articles about why you should tell stories.

But, what we don’t see as often is the how. How do you find stories? How do you conduct a story-gathering interview? How do you write them up?

Most organizations I talk to struggle to find stories. It’s not that the stories aren’t there (they are). It’s just that they aren’t being told or kept track of. In other words, there isn’t a culture of storytelling within the organization. The poor fundraisers, who are looking for the stories, are constantly pushing, pushing, pushing, but what we really want to do is create story pull.

The most important thing you can change is to have everyone in your organization (especially yourself) open up their ears and pay attention:

  • Listen to what’s being said around the water cooler;
  • Ask someone who’s been with your organization a long time to talk about the early days;
  • Find out what your founder’s story is;
  • Talk to the people on the front lines; and
  • Think about your own story.

At the end of every day, ask yourself “what happened today that would make a good story?”

Now let’s focus in on the story-teller’s tool box. This is your essential equipment:

  • A digital recorder;
  • A telerecorder (this is a device that connects your digital recorder to your phone);
  • A notepad; and
  • A box of tissue.

Why a box of tissue? Because many interviews you conduct will make you cry. Seriously.

Preparing a Donor for an Interview

Set up a time that’s convenient for them, and then stick to that time (you’ll need about 45 minutes). My preference is to do interviews by phone (for some reason, people open up more readily when they can’t see you).

Tell them exactly why you want their story and how you’ll use it. Even better, send them samples of the kind of story you’ll be writing (particularly if it’s for an appeal).

Let them know what the approval process is, and that they will have final sign off.

Finally, always let them know you’re recording the conversation!

Preparing Yourself for an Interview

The most important question to ask yourself is whether you’re the right person to conduct the interview: if you’re a pretty closed person — you have trouble expressing emotions and are uncomfortable when people share intimate details about their lives with you – then it’s best if someone else conducts the interview.

Find out and read everything you can about the person before the interview, but don’t hesitate to ask them to tell their stories again: it’s important that you hear the story in their own words.

Always write your questions down in advance. This will help if there’s a lull in the conversation, and it will remind you to touch on all the things you need to touch on.

Make sure you’re in a place where you won’t be disturbed: close your door; shut down your email; and put your phone on the ‘do not disturb’ setting.

A Few Tips

Warm your donor up by sharing a bit of yourself, even if that means talking about the weather or what you did on the weekend. Break the ice.

After you ask a question (always an open ended question), pause. Wait for the answer. Don’t fill the silence with chatter.

Don’t ignore the uncomfortable and, if the person begins to show vulnerability, don’t back up. Go forward.

Don’t let the donor get away with generalities: ask probing questions and get specifics.

You can download a full set of sample interview questions here. Sample Interview Questions

Putting the Story in Writing

If you can, start writing right away, while you’re emotional. You’ll write your best stuff this way. Just keep your door closed, your phone turned off and start typing. Don’t worry about typos or finding the perfect opening sentence. Just write

Katya Andresen wrote a great post last week on storytelling. You can find it here.  If you don’t subscribe to Katya’s blog, you should.

Always write stories in the first person and at a grade eight level. To turn on the readability stats in MS Word, just follow these instructions. (And I have a whole article on this topic in the March 15th issue of Hilborn eNews).

You want to paint a picture in your readers’ minds so that they pay closer attention, understand more easily and respond emotionally.

Remember: one good story can be used many ways and many times.

For a few examples of great legacy stories, visit our portfolio.

See all the slides from my webinar below or download the presentation over here.


This post was written by Leah Eustace, ACFRE, former Principal and Chief Idea Goddess at Good Works. 

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