One of the first things I talk about with clients is the stories they have to tell. I ask them to think about who their best storytellers are, and the variety of stories that speak to the impact of their work. With that in mind, I also suggest that they give some thought to which stories they feel would resonate best with their donors.
It’s not uncommon for an organization to struggle with these questions. I’ve heard everything from, “I’m really not sure what stories our donors want to hear”, to “How do we go about collecting stories”, or even “I just don’t think we have the kind of stories you’re looking for”.
The truth is, every charitable organization has stories to tell. But getting started can be daunting, especially if your organization doesn’t have a culture of storytelling. Establishing that culture is really the first step.
Today’s post is all about how stories will help you raise more money for your cause, creating a storytelling culture, the types of stories that resonate with donors, how to go about collecting stories, and finally, how to select themes and signatories/stories for your direct mail, email, newsletter, annual report, etc. So let’s get started!
Why stories are vital to raising more money for your cause
I’m not telling you anything you don’t know, but I will recap their importance. As humans, we’ve been sharing stories since the dawn of time. When I walk in the door from work every day, my husband always asks how my day was. I’m much more likely to tell him a story than to say, “Good, thanks” or “I got a lot of work done”. And when I call my parents every couple of days to check in, I start by asking what they’ve been up to and they will always relate that in a story or two.
A good story will stay with your donor for a long time, maybe forever, whereas a bunch of stats, facts or charts may be interesting, but they just won’t strike an emotional chord. Without the emotion, your donor is just not going to be moved to contribute to your cause. Without anger, your donor won’t feel compelled to make a donation to help prevent the starvation of a child in South Sudan. Without hope, your donor won’t be compelled to support research into new screening methods, prevention and treatment of kidney disease. And without sadness or fear, your donor wouldn’t be induced to support your shelter for abused women and their children.
If you want to learn more about the importance of stories and how they help connect your donors to your cause, check out Leah’s presentation: The Science of Story.
Creating a storytelling culture
Understanding why stories are important and being intentional about listening for them, is the starting point for every organization. If your organization has been focused on facts and figures, it can be challenging to get everyone thinking from a storytelling point of view.
The best way to go about establishing a culture of storytelling is to talk about what you do—your mission and vision—the people you serve, the people involved in your work (donors, volunteers, board members) and what stories are available to you. Once you get the ball rolling, it will become second nature to be thinking about how the stories you hear can provide rich content for your direct mail letters, newsletters, donor updates, etc.
In terms of resources, here’s a great post that talks about creating a culture of storytelling.
The types of stories that resonate with donors
Donors want to hear what you (the organization) has been up to and most importantly, how their support is making a difference. Of course, you want to share uplifting stories of progress made and lives changed, but it’s okay to tell them about mistakes you’ve made and lessons learned as well. Donors expect you (the charity) to be honest and transparent. And remember, the donor is always the hero—not you as the organization—you are simply the conduit.
If you need some inspiration to get you started, here are a few examples I hope you’ll find helpful:
- Youville Centre: Olivia’s story
- Ten Oaks: The Moment That Changed My Life
- The Perley and Rideau Veterans Health Centre: A Christmas Surprise for our Senior Veterans
- Charity: Water: Meet the Founder (apologies in advance for non-Canadian content)
The best way to collect stories is to create a story repository. This can be as easy as setting up an electronic folder and encouraging your entire team to feed into it. From your receptionist who first receives a call from a donor, your annual fund staff, major gift and legacy giving officers, to volunteers who make thank you calls and participate in events, etc., everyone can have a hand in building your bank of stories.
If you need some help to uncover and collect your best stories, check out all of the helpful resources available through the Nonprofit Storytelling Conference, including the FREE Nonprofit Storytelling Field Guide & Journal.
Selecting themes and signatories
When I consult with clients, I talk about identifying a mix of signatories and themes that you can talk about over the course of a year. It could be the voice of your executive director, a program recipient, a staff person or volunteer. For example, if you work for a hospital foundation, you’d want to balance the voice of authority (perhaps a physician, surgeon or researcher) with patient stories.
In order to ensure that you have a good balance of stories and that you’re capitalizing on opportunities to piggyback on upcoming activities or events that impact your work, it’s a good idea to create a plan of which stories you want to tell, and who best to tell them.
This post was written by Heather Brown, former Philanthropic Counsel at Good Works and fundraiser extraordinaire.