In the non-profit sector there is a ton of talk and chatter about storytelling. “We should be telling more stories!” “People need to know our stories.” “If we told more stories, we’d raise more money.”
While all of these statements hold a grain of truth, there is an essential part of storytelling that we are overlooking. Amidst the focus on donors and marketing, we are forgetting that storytelling starts with us.
That’s right – you.
If we want our organizations to be better storytelling non-profits, then we have to start at a more foundational level. Each of us has to know and be connected with our personal narrative. This is the story about why we do the work we do. It’s a story you tell others and a story you tell yourself each day. I believe that these stories have the power to transform each of us as well as our sector.
The effects of no story
A couple of years ago now I was working at a social service organization in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. The organization had a homeless shelter, a recovery program, community meals and a myriad of other needed services in the neighborhood. When I first started working there I thought, “This is important work and I’m happy to be a part of it.” I felt good about myself and my fundraising role.
But that slowly started to change as I heard more personal stories from clients and started to intimately get to know the work.
The story I told myself shift to, “I couldn’t possibly understand what it’s like to be homeless or have an addiction. I’ve never experienced either of those things, nor do I personally know anyone who has. I have no right to talk about these experiences with donors because I haven’t experienced them.” This was a terrible story to have floating around in my mind.
But it was there. Day in and day out for the better part of 6 months, when I struggled to feel like I was in the right place. In the process of on-boarding into this organization, no one ever thought to talk to me more about why I was there or helped mentor me to find my story. This was huge pitfall and one that I imagine many other non-profit professionals have experienced. Thinking about this experience specifically as a fundraiser though, I realize now that not connecting with a personal narrative about my work and the organization deeply impacted my ability to connect with donors.
Stories make us human. Not technology.
Over the last decade or so, there have been so many shifts in fundraising like new technology and changing demographics. These are factors that will certainly change how we fundraise in the coming years. But one of misconceptions about technology in particular is that many organizations hope it will make them more likeable and that donors will come knocking on the door.
Having a better Facebook page. Being present on every social media channel. Reaching out to Millennials. Going viral. Sound familiar?
This is a spiral of technology gimmicks that are shifting our focus from what’s really needed in fundraising
In our increasingly complex and busy lives, it’s the little things that count. The little things that remind us that there are other people like us out there who care about and value similar things.
It’s receiving the random phone call from someone thanking you for a gift. It’s opening up your mailbox to find a picture and a note about someone your gift helped. It’s these little things, stories that we tell, that help us feel connected. This feeling of connection and community is what will make an organization memorable.
Your organization doesn’t have stories. People do.
It’s been interesting doing the work that I do over the last couple of years. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve talked to fundraisers, Executive Directors or communications folks who say something like, “But our organization doesn’t have good stories to share. How are we supposed to tell stories?!”
There is a lot of emphasis in this concern on the organization. But really it’s not our organization that is telling stories. Our organization exists because of people – clients, staff members, donors, and so on – and all of those people have stories. It’s their stories that matter. Those are the stories we need to tell.
But in the midst of all of the work we are doing, we are not making enough time to reflect on or tell our personal stories.
I think an essential part of an organization’s role is to facilitate and cultivate connection for its community. This happens through storytelling.
It starts with a simple act – asking yourself why you do your job 5 days a week. Why does the work matter to you and why do you want to be a part of it?
As I shared earlier in the post, this was something that I struggled with at a particular fundraising job. But there was a moment, now a story that changed everything.
Finding your story and success
After what seemed like endless weeks of struggle, frustration and my own version of a personal hell, there was a moment on a gloomy December afternoon that changed everything for me.
I was walking along Powell Street between our warehouse and our office. We were in the midst of the big Christmas hampers program and I had just finished a shift at the warehouse packing hampers for some of the families we worked with. As I walked down the street, I was thinking about all the work that was waiting for me when I got back to my desk and was mentally making lists of what I complete that day.
As I was about to cross the intersection, I saw a woman standing on the street corner on the other side. She was rail thin and not wearing warm enough clothes for the chilly outside temperatures that afternoon. I knew that the building on that corner, just next to where she was standing, was a well-known establishment for some of the sex trade workers in the neighborhood. There were always these two men that sat on the porch watching the women the corner. It was chilling sight.
When I cross the street the woman asked me if I had any change to spare. I told her that I didn’t, my purse was back at the office. “Please, anything would help,” she persisted. “Honestly, I don’t have anything on me. But I work around the corner and if you need help you can come with me and I can find an outreach worker who can talk to you,” I replied. She shook her head and I started to take a step forward, but she grabbed my forearm. “Please, I will do anything for money.”
It was in the moment my heart broke in a million pieces. I saw such hopelessness and desperation in her eyes and heard it through her voice. But there was nothing that I could do for her in the moment. I wanted to help her so much. I wanted to help all of the other women in the neighborhood who also felt like she did. Who don’t feel like they have a future to look forward to. Who don’t have enough money to care for themselves, let alone children. Women who are living in extreme poverty or worse, victims of sex trafficking.
It was this chance encounter that helped me find my story for fundraising for that organization. This story changed everything.
I finally felt passion – a deep, fiery passion – about asking donors to contribute to our work. I finally felt fulfilled. I finally knew why I was there. This story, my story, was the missing piece of the puzzle. Although it took several months and a particular experience to discover it, it made a world of difference to my work as a fundraiser.
So, non-profit friend, what is your story?