For the workshops and presentations that I put together for various organizations and associations, I often compile a set of examples (good and bad) on the topics I present on. This year, I’ve given a number of workshops on non-profit storytelling and it never ceases to amaze me how difficult it can be to find examples of great storytelling. In fact, I’ve started to fear that I’ve developed a reputation for only showing bad examples!
Between these experiences and conversations I have with colleagues, it’s got me thinking a lot about the barriers to telling great stories. Coming from a communications and writing background, I often find myself misled as to the challenges the average non-profit fundraiser faces when trying to tell a story. For instance, I’ve long suspected that it’s a matter of being able to package the full story – in other words weaving the story into a direct mail letter or the like. But recently, I’ve been proven wrong.
Whatever the challenge might be, the fact remains that stories are necessary for achieving and supporting your non-profit’s mission and vision. Stories are what allow people to emotionally relate to your organization’s cause, which is the most powerful connection you can forge. Yet, there are three common barriers that seem to prevent non-profits from telling inspiring stories.
Everyone’s drinking different Koolaids
As is a common issue at non-profits, it’s necessary to get everyone on the same page if you’re trying to institute organizational changes to how you do your work. This is especially true if you’re trying to do any storytelling in your communications and fundraising materials. Through my work, I’ve found that it’s imperative to develop a culture of storytelling to be truly successful at it.
Why do I recommend this? Often times, communications and fundraising staff are trying to get stories about the organization’s clients. Programs staff are the folks who will have these at their disposal. But rather than just asking, asking, asking for stories, building in storytelling to your organization’s culture will make this process a whole lot easier. It’s really about fostering good working relationships with everyone in the organization to collaborate and create.
Not telling the right story to the right audience
Whether or not you recognize this, there are numerous audiences that your non-profit can tell stories to. For instance, telling a story to a donor is a very different process than telling a story to a client and that’s a different process than telling a story to staff members. Telling a story is the process of building rapport and a relationship with the listener. Thus it’s important to understand how that audience is, how you want them to feel and what you want them to do after they’ve heard the story. I recommend taking 10 minutes before embarking on any kind of storytelling to consider these three questions.
Thinking only in the short-term
I think this is the craziest of the many things non-profits do wrong quite frequently – they don’t think too much about the long-term. In other words they create a story for a piece of collateral, send it out into the universe and wait. . . wait. . . and then move onto another project. Bad plan!
The most successful marketing and communications efforts (and fundraising for that matter) are an exercise in thinking about the audiences’ long-term journey with the organization. If you want to drive a point home, they must be exposed to a message more than once. Additionally, words alone might not be enough to bring that message full circle. My advice to fix this problem – repeat the process of storytelling often, understand how it fits into your larger strategy and take a robust approach to telling each story.
What do you think are non-profit’s biggest barriers to telling stories? I’m hosting a survey of the non-profit sector and organizations’ experiences with storytelling. If you have 5 minutes, please join in this research by participating in this survey. You’ll be entered for a $25 Amazon gift certificate.