Telling stories is a tactic that many organizations are interested in or are currently using. But just because a story is a story does not mean it’s destined to raise the big bucks. Storytelling for fundraising is different from a great testimonial quote highlighted in a direct mail piece. This article is an introduction to storytelling for fundraising. Here you’ll find all the resources you need to get started or improve your current storytelling efforts.
Non-Profit Storytelling Defined
The basic way I explain storytelling to my students and clients is that stories are a series of facts told with details and emotion.
At their very core, non-profit stories are always factual accounts of something that happened. That is a series of facts. But what makes it more than a timeline is weaving in details and emotions.
It’s the difference between saying “my child was born on May 5” versus “after two days of labour that included a drive to the hospital in traffic, I held my child for the first time in the middle of the day on May 5. Seeing them for the first time was just as everyone always says. Perfect.”
Andy Goodman also has a good take on what storytelling is. This comes from Andy’s interview, On Storytelling, in the Winter 2018 issue of Change Agent. “A story starts with a person who, in some way, shape or form, is not content with the status quo. They want to change something, get something, give something, they need to change the status quo in some way, so this sets them off on a journey. Along the way, they’re going to run into various barriers and obstacles. How they deal with those barriers or obstacles will reveal things about their character, or the character of their organization.
In the end, they will either obtain this thing that they were going for, or not, but there will be some change in them or the world as a result of this journey. That journey, hopefully, will have meaning not only for them but for us, the audience, as well. To me, that is what a story is all about.”
Reflect: How do you define storytelling? Is your definition informed by your non-profit’s work? If so, how?
Why Storytelling for Fundraising Matters
Storytelling is a tool that can enhance your fundraising work. Whether it’s a fundraising appeal or a donor stewardship piece, storytelling helps donors see their impact in action. And the more we can help donors connect to the vision of what their donations can make possible, the more likely we are to succeed in securing more gifts.
For example, in the research I did for The State of Storytelling, 61% of the surveyed nonprofits reported telling stories in direct mail, that channel that saw the second-best improvement from stories, with 17% of nonprofits reporting an improvement. One respondent reported a 20% improvement in year-end giving.
If you’re interested in more research on how storytelling is helping non-profits get fundraising results, check out a whitepaper I co-authored with Network For Good called The State of Storytelling.
Beyond asking, I also see storytelling as a tool to enhance the donor experience. For instance, you could customize your donor stewardship with stories that reflect donors’ interests or their location. Recently, I worked with a client on a geo-targeted stewardship campaign that used stories from local communities. The email campaign had on average 5% higher open rates than usual.
Best Practices for Non-Profit Storytelling
There are a lot of best practices for non-profit storytelling. In my experience, there are 4 that matter when you are telling stories to raise money.
- Have a process for finding stories – If your organization sees storytelling as a long-term tactic, having a process for finding stories is essential. This includes what you do to source stories, how you capture story leads, and what you do during story interviews. Map out the step-by-step process and put times on your calendar to get it done. Read more about creating your storytelling process here.
- Story Structure – Understanding the compelling story structure for fundraising appeals is a game-changer. This structure will give you a roadmap for writing and even help you think through better story interview questions. I have an in-depth video on the story structure here.
- Repurpose your content – If there was one thing I could help all non-profits avoid it’s only using a piece of content once. Your content has way more mileage in it than a single post on social media or an email. Give it the hype it deserves by repurposing and resharing your content regularly. Not only does this help you stay on message, but it also lessens the workload of content creation. One tip I have to help you get organized and maximize your content is to create a content bank.
- Do more of what works – When I think about storytelling, I think it’s key to look at what’s getting you results. Are there certain types of stories that your audience responds to? Is a certain medium working better than another? Constantly ask questions about your data to understand what’s working and focus more of your time and resources on that.
Examples of Non-Profit Stories
To wrap, I want to share some examples of non-profit stories that you can add to your inspiration bank.
- How to Tell Stories like charity: water
- How to Tell Stories like Best Friends Animal Society – even if you don’t work with animals, there’s a lot you can learn from how Best Friends tells stories!
- How to Tell Stories like St. Jude’s
- How Catholic Volunteer Network Curates Great Stories Online
- Learn from Furniture Bank – How Stories Make for Great Content