This is the first post in a special 12-part monthly series contributed by our guest expert, Jennifer Miller — Powerful Nonprofit Stories: Finding, Framing, and Finishing.
I’ve never built a house. But if I did, my mind would immediately advance beyond the hammer and nails to the fun stuff: paint swatches, flooring, and lighting. It’s not that simple, though. Building a house — or anything — starts with plans and blueprints. How big is the house? What size is the lot? Where are the entryways?
Your storytelling blueprint is similar. You need a plan to point you to the stories before you can start. You need good leads. And you need to keep your hackles raised to spot story gold.
So where do you find the stories?
People who received help. Some of the most powerful nonprofit stories come from people who have been directly helped in some way. Often, a caseworker or someone on the front lines may have an idea of who that is. In my experience, people who have been directly helped are already looking for a way to give back. Sharing their story is a natural and easy way to do so.
What happens when you approach someone with a willingness to share, only to hear this objection: “I don’t really have a great story to tell.” (Cue game show buzzer: Wrong!) Everyone has a story to share. It’s your job to not only find it, but to shape it. Never turn down a lead simply because someone feels their story isn’t ready-made for prime time. Remember — this is about telling stories that motivate. Even the simplest stories, told powerfully, can make a strong case for support and engagement.
What if you’re a nonprofit specializing in social services, domestic abuse prevention, or another area where privacy is a concern?
First, remind staff and clients of all of the good that will come from sharing a story — the funds and awareness raised. Then, promise to protect their privacy. Nonprofit storytelling is much less about the factual names and dates and more about the feelings and emotion. Jane Smith doesn’t have to be identified as Jane Smith at all. In fact, it’s quite common to change a first name to protect privacy. The heart-tugging details of the story are much more important to readers than whether the person being profiled is Sally or Jane or Joan.
Here’s one example:
I was chatting with a woman who had come to a nonprofit for food, rent help, and job skills. But the real story turned out to be one she didn’t want to initially discuss: domestic violence. She was brave enough to take her children and leave her husband before she lost her life. Now, she was on her own — single, scared, and penniless. She was understandably fearful of sharing her story and making it public. But she wanted to. And that was key. She wanted to share her story without revealing who she was — which was entirely possible to do.
After we spoke about how courageous she was for escaping her abuser, she sat up a little straighter. Fear turned into resolve.
“You’re right,” she told me. “I need to share this to help other women.” In the published story, I changed her first name to protect her privacy and left out details that might be too revealing. Because we could not use a photo of her, I took two shots that made it into the final piece: one of her hands clasped together, and another of her looking out the window, with her face completely hidden. Both photos beautifully cement the tone of the story without revealing her identity.
Volunteers. Volunteers are a wonderful source. They often see and hear good stories that they’ve stored in their mental Rolodex. You just need to coax those out of them. Ask: “What was the most memorable day you volunteered? What happened?” Let them share, in their own words, a memory of helping or of someone being helped that moved them to tears. You can frame that as a story told through a volunteer’s eyes.
Donors. Supporters and donors are often connected to a mission or cause they love in some personal way. Those are some powerful stories to share. It not only shows a history of helping and support, but it creates a legacy. That can inspire other supporters to do the same. In psychological terms, this is known as mirroring. We subconsciously start assuming patterns similar to what we see and approve of. If one donor reads a story of another donor’s long-term commitment to a cause, they might be inspired to do the same.
You. Finally, think about your own perspective. What have you heard, seen, observed, or felt while working at a nonprofit? Capture that in a story! Your perspective gives supporters an insider’s view of how their gifts are being used. The insider view is a very valuable one. You’re sharing knowledge that the supporter doesn’t have. This can create an emotional bond between nonprofit and supporter in the way that we know matters most: through their hearts.
Next month in part two of this series: Interview techniques that work!