A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about an experience I had at the Nonprofit Storytelling Conference in San Diego back in November. I met some really wonderful people (shout out to A.J Steinberg from Queen Bee fundraising – great lady!). But there’s one person, one story, that has really stayed with me. If you missed that post, you can read about it here.

Today, just over a month post-conference, there are a few topics that keep swirling around in my mind so I thought I’d take the opportunity to tell you about them. These ideas ignited some really interesting conversation around the Good Works table about our role as storytellers. I hope you’ll find them useful, too!

1. Embrace conflict in storytelling

Conflict is “the “problem” your organization is trying to solve – so why do we tend to shy away from it?

My former colleague, Leah Eustace, from Blue Canoe Philanthropy, presented a great session aptly titled ‘Finding the Most Compelling Conflict for your Story’. Leah talked about the fact that conflict is where the emotion is. If you steer clear of conflict, you’re also steering clear of the emotion, which we all know is what compels a donor to give.

So bring on the anger and injustice, the fear, or the sadness. If you feel you’re struggling to tell the story, or maybe you feel there isn’t a story, stop and think about why your organization exists. What is the problem you’re trying to solve (i.e. your mission)? Maybe it’s providing a safe and loving home for sick or endangered animals, helping adolescent mothers move past trauma and abuse and earn their high school diplomas, or engaging and connecting children and youth from LGBTQ+ families and communities. When you’re clear on the problem, think about how best to illustrate that problem using emotion to engage your donors.

2. Finding a story where there is no story

I attended a great session by Rachelle Nesta-Goff from New Beginnings (Seattle, WA) where she talked about finding the difficult stories. Working with an organization supporting women fleeing domestic violence, her goal is providing a safe and secure home for women. By the same token, she has to be able to tell some of those stories to illustrate the problem and the solution.

This is a great example of how protecting someone’s identity and the details surrounding their story might make it challenging for you, as a fundraiser, to relay those stories to donors, board members, and the community. In addition, many women are reluctant to share their story. They may fear their abuser will track them down or they’re ashamed of their life circumstances.

As a consultant working with a similar organization, hearing from Rachelle was a good reminder that organizations have to get creative with their storytelling. They need to speak with those inside the organization who are doing the real work – program managers, intake workers, counsellors – to draw out those stories and perhaps find new and creative ways to tell them.

Credit goes to Rachelle for these thought-provoking questions:

  • What was the last thing that inspired you at work?
  • What disappointed you last week?
  • Is there something that surprised you this month?
  • What went wrong? Conversely, what has gone right?
  • What small win sticks out in your mind?
  • Did something happen recently that you didn’t fully understand?
  • What do you say most often to your clients? I want to relay an anecdote Rachelle shared with us because it really resonated with me and I hope it will with you, too. One of the counselors at New Beginnings often tells clients, “I’ll hold your hope until you’re ready to take it back.” How empowering is that?

I’ll throw in a few bonus questions that I often use when speaking with clients and donors.

  • Tell me how you first became involved with charity ABC?
  • What do you enjoy most about your work and what do you find most challenging?
  • What could you do with more money?
  • How does it make you feel to know that you’re helping …?

3. Telling stories that will raise more money

Most of us have heard of Jeff Brooks from Moceanic and Future Fundraising Now. I’ve been reading his books and blog posts for years, but I’d not yet had the pleasure to hear from Steven Screen of Better Fundraising.

Their presentation really seemed to resonate with the audience. Many of us in the room burst out laughing more than once, but I also felt myself (and others) cringe at the mention of how we, as storytellers, can often overthink things or water down the real story because it makes us uncomfortable or we’re afraid of making our donors uncomfortable. I’m coming clean here because I’m guilty of this myself. 

What I heard wasn’t new, but it was the reminder I needed to get “unstuck”. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of using corporate-speak. Of moving away from some of the real emotion because it’s raw, or ugly, or just plain uncomfortable.

As a consultant, it’s disheartening – not to mention frustrating – to see organizations allowing up to 7-8 different staff the opportunity to read and make edits to letter copy! What can start out as a really authentic, powerful letter can oftentimes end up a sad, watered-down version of the original. I know that it can be equally frustrating for the client who’s trying to keep staff and board members happy. But as the old saying goes, “Too many cooks in the kitchen will spoil the broth.”

Credit goes to Jeff and Steven for offering up a challenge to fundraisers with these reminders to make yourself uncomfortable.

  • Try and start every letter with “I’m writing to you because…”
  • Challenge yourself with the word “you”’. Does your first draft include the word you in every sentence? Start there and then peel it back if you absolutely have to.
  • Avoid saying the name of your organization…at all. Your organization’s name is on the outer envelope, it’s on the letterhead, and it’s on the reply coupon. Your donors know who’s writing to them! We know this but we all fall into this trap.
  • Ask every second or third paragraph. I’m super comfortable with this one, but it’s a conversation I have with clients all the time. If your executive director or board member finds your fundraising letter repetitive, feels you’ve asked too many times, or that the story is incomplete or nonlinear, chances are you’ve probably done a good job!
  • Make yourself uncomfortable. This one gave me pause. I loved when they suggested telling an incomplete story and giving the donor a choice (Will she give or not?). Keep letters simple. Make sure there’s some urgency. Explain how the donor will have an impact. See above.

If you need help with your storytelling or you just want to commiserate over any of the above topics because you’re guilty of them as well, please send me an email. I’d love to hear from you!

This post was written by Heather Brown, former Philanthropic Counsel at Good Works and fundraiser extraordinaire.