You’re sitting on the runway, squashed between two strangers. “Folks, we’re number 32 in queue for takeoff.” Collective groan. May as well get cozy with your neighbors. And that’s okay, because your neighbors probably have a story to share. In fact, everyone has a story. You, as the Story Sleuth, have a job to find out what that is.
Stories form connections. They paint pictures, create memories, and — when written or told correctly — motivate action. That’s especially important in fundraising. It’s key, actually, because stories show donors the impact of their gifts in ways that statistics and facts can’t.
If you’re reading this blog, you already know how important fundraising stories are. But here’s what many people don’t know: Good nonprofit stories can be incredibly difficult to get. Great nonprofit stories often require fieldwork — going out into shelters, soup kitchens, hospitals, or wherever a nonprofit does good work.
Here are five practical tips to keep in mind when you get there:
- Look for people who actually want to share their story. That might sound obvious, but you’d be surprised at how much more authentic your stories will be when you’re able to capture the gut-wrenching, heart-tugging details that come from someone with a willingness to share. Keep your eyes peeled, too. You might find people whose own eyes follow you with interest as you talk to others. They could be your next great story!
- Ask open-ended questions. Wrong question: “Were you hungry?” “Yes.” (Not much information there.) Right question: “What did it feel like at night, when you were woken from sleep by hunger?” Guaranteed you’ll get a better, more thoughtful answer from a question that requires a longer response.
- Conduct a conversation more than an interview. You know those interview questions you prepare? They’re okay to have … as a back-up. A better way to approach interviews is thinking of them as simply having conversations. First, look for common ground. Remember being stuck on the runway together? That’s your icebreaker. Once you have that, conversations flow. And when they flow, people talk more freely. They open up, share details that naturally make your stories more powerful, and give you insight that donors need to know about.
- Keep blank paper and crayons or markers on hand. If your nonprofit story involves children, ask them to draw a picture of something that makes them happy. Then, discuss the drawing. Children are often reticent about answering a direct question, but they love to talk about something they drew. That can engage them and unearth details that might never have come up.
- Ask the unexpected. While it’s important to get the story chronology and facts correct, unusual details are what help make a story stick. And don’t forget to look for, and take careful note of, nonverbal cues. Did a mother well up with tears as she talked about the help her family received? Did the veteran sit up a little straighter as he recalled serving his country? Find the proverbial gold nuggets — and mine them to make your story memorable and powerful.
- Remember the donor. The hero in your story is always going to be the donor. In fact, why not don your Donor Hat and try to capture the story from a donor’s perspective? Ask questions as if YOU were the donor. What details would grab you? What would surprise you about what your gifts do? What would make you realize the full impact of your gift? That’s what you really want to learn.
Final tip: Going out into the field isn’t just good for getting the right resource or content you need to tell powerful stories. It can actually make your writing stronger. You’ll be better able to share what you saw, felt, heard, and experienced — because you were there.
Your readers or audience may not remember every detail or quote you provided in your story. But they’ll remember how they felt. They’ll remember being moved. They’ll be reminded of why they gave — and should keep giving.
And that’s why stories matter so much.