Session Notes: Storytelling 101


We kicked off The Storytelling Non-Profit Virtual Conference this morning and what a way to get the week started! Over 400 people attended the two sessions this morning to learn about the basics of storytelling and how to work better with your Board on fundraising.

I taught Storytelling 101: What Your Non-Profit Needs to Know to Become a Storytelling Non-Profit. Here are the slides from the presentation.

Highlights and Key Takeaways

> We all know that storytelling is a great tool. We want to be telling more stories. But we haven’t managed get to a place of successful implementation (yet).
> A story is a narrative account of something that has happened. This doesn’t necessarily have to be a person’s story, nor do we have to tell things chronologically.
> Storytelling is how we naturally communicate in our daily lives so good news. . . you are already a storyteller!
> It’s important to distinguish facts versus stories.
> Don’t just tell a story for the sake of telling a story. Storytelling is a means to an end. Have a goal and a message in mind first.
> The more you understand the audience, the more frequently you’ll be able to tell stories that resonate with them.
> Focus on 1 or 2 key emotions that you want your audience to feel.
> End with a strong call to action!

A Few Resources I Mentioned

Free Wheelchair Mission – Friday Stories
Engineers Without Borders – Annual Failure Report
South Hill Community – Inside Stories
Canadian Women’s Foundation – Annual Report

FAQs from the Session

How can you tell stories if you provide an anonymous service?

Your non-profit doesn’t just have to tell client stories. There are many others that you can share that will be just as inspiring to donors and the broader community. For instance, if you have a dedicated team of volunteers or a few passionate Board members their stories and tales from the field can be just as interesting to donors. Ultimately, people are interested at getting an “inside look” at your organization so volunteers and Board members fit the bill.
If you do collect a client’s story, but they wish to be anonymous you can always change their name. I would recommend being transparent with donors and telling them that you’ve changed the name, too.

Would it be unethical to pair a stock photo with a real story and change the name to protect a client?

The short answer – this is not unethical in the least.
In fact, I would argue that as organizations we are obligated to do what is in the best interest of our clients. Especially if we are asking them to be involved as an ambassador for our organization in the community. If you want to change the name, just be straightforward with your donors and let them know. More importantly make it clear to them that you are doing your duty as an organization to treat everyone well. Same goes for photos. Just let people know that due to the nature of your work you are unable to take photographs.

How do you tell a story that sounds genuine (for major donors) rather than the mass market?

It’s no secret that many major donors like to feel special and important through their giving. Any why shouldn’t they? They are making a wonderful philanthropic investment in your organization’s work and they should feel good about that choice. If you are thinking about telling them a story prior to the ask, think about sharing a client story that doesn’t yet have a happy ending. Show them exactly how they can make a difference in the life of one or more individual. After they have made a gift, see if it’s possible for them to meet one or two people who have benefited from the gift. Again, it’s all about finding those opportunities to tangibly connect donors with their impact.

How do you select a story when you have so many different programs?

This is truly a great problem to have! It means that you’ll never be short of content to share with donors. In terms of selection, I would recommend planning 6 or 12 months at a time. Think about what appeals you might be sending out or what communications arcs you are planning. Then select the stories that best complement your other efforts. You can also make your selection based on what your donors most enjoy hearing.
You can even create a story editorial calendar.

How often should you be sharing stories with donors?

Unfortunately, there is not rule of thumb that I can reference to answer this question. I would venture to say that there is no such thing as too many stories, but I know that there are limits!
The answer to this question lies in your fundraising and communications calendar. What are you sending out to donors and how often? Then think about creating a healthy mix of different types of communications so that it doesn’t feel repetitive or stale to donors. This is where you can add in stories.

When is it okay to tell a story about an organizational challenge leading to a switch in mission? (ie a failure)

It would be totally unreasonable to us to expect that there will never be bumps in the road on the way to realizing our vision and mission. In fact, it’s even a good thing when we run into these challenges because there’s a good chance that we will find better ways of doing our work.
In terms of communicating this to donors, I think using a story is a very smart strategy. Plus, if you take ownership of it, it means that you have control over how other hear the information (PR 101). An annual report is a good place to include this kind of story.

As someone who is not in the trenches, how can I work with programs staff to collect stories?

Focus on creating a culture of storytelling. I really believe that we have to tell each other stories first before we can successfully tell stories to others.

Do you have question about storytelling? Please leave a comment below and I’d be happy to answer it!

- Vanessa