Your nonprofit’s story is the whole ball of wax.
Without it, you’ve got nothing.
So let’s really talk about this for a minute.
A story is not “Give us money because we’re good guys and do good work.”
Nor are “Sustain humanitarian aid,” “Support the arts,” or “Save our rivers” stories.
Sure, there may be some implicit narratives hiding within these phrases, but they’re really tag lines or calls to action. Useful, sure. But not until you’ve laid the groundwork of telling a compelling story.
You never start a story with “And they lived happily ever after.”
Similarly, you should never start a fundraising appeal with “We saved the whales.” Where’s the emotion and drama here?
You know donors are moved to give through emotion, right?
The best way to get inside a donor’s head and heart is by telling a dramatic, emotional story. Something that taps into their core and arouses their curiosity, or some deeper feeling like sadness, fear or anger.
You see, human brains are wired for story. There’s a wonderful book by Lisa Cron to this effect, and I commend it to you. People are naturally receptive when you write in story form. Even if folks thought they’d just scan your message, they can’t help but be drawn in. That’s what you want!
“When you tell the right story to donors, they’re more likely to make a gift…and give you more.”[
–– Steven Screen, Nonprofit Storytelling Conference Community
5 Steps to Project Manage Your Story
Remember, you’ll generally be telling one story at a time. There’s a story for your fundraising appeal… maybe a different story for your follow-up appeal… maybe several complementary stories, in video form, on your website. For each story, you need to take the following steps.
1. Develop a Project Brief
Begin by getting all your stakeholders on board with your goal. Discuss why you’re looking for stories, come to agreement this is an organization-wide priority, and have everyone sign off on the plan.
ACTION TIP: Within this brief, issues you’ll want to address include:
- Who’s the target audience?
- How might you want to segment them?
- What are key messages?
- What creative do you want to include?
- What channels will you use?
2. Source Story Leads
Next you have to come up with some ideas for stories your constituents will find compelling. If you know what your constituents care most about based on recent surveys or focus groups, begin there. Or look at the programs receiving the most earmarked funding. This will give you some hints. Once you’ve given some thought to your likely best stories, delve a little deeper.
- Interview or survey donors, volunteers and users of your service. What would they like to know about what brings folks to your mission, and what you do to achieve impact?
- Brainstorm what your most resonant stories may be with a team of stakeholders tasked with creating awareness, building interest and engagement and generating philanthropy (e.g., fundraising, marketing and volunteer staff).
- Consider where to look to find these stories. Your best bet is to begin with staff who provide direct services. Or, if you have a lot of in-the-trenches staff, begin with their managers or supervisors to narrow down the list of folks most likely to be able to share the types of resonant stories you’re seeking,
3. Interview Story Characters
When you have the genuine voice, heart and soul of your protagonist, the story will come across as much more compelling. Have a conversation by asking open-ended “what” and “how” questions. You may want to record the conversation using Zoom (if you do a virtual interview) or your smart phone (if you’re in person)
ACTION TIP: You can also take notes, especially with folks uncomfortable with being recorded. Always ask for permission.
- What brought you here?
- What were your challenges?
- Can you describe how you were feeling?
- How were you able to accomplish this?
- What else would you like people to know?
- Is there anything I haven’t asked that I should have? (You’d be amazed how much information this one question can yield).
4. Tell the Story
Begin right away by at least creating a written outline.
Let momentum be your friend. If you let time elapse you’ll forget the important emotions you felt during the interview, and these are important in coloring your work and making the story compelling and resonant to others. Besides, it’s human nature to immediately want to relate a good story to someone else. So go with the natural flow!
ACTION TIP: Schedule enough time on your calendar that you’ll have a quiet 30 – 60 minutes to reflect and capture what you learned. You don’t have to write the entire story right now, but get a head start. You can come back to it tomorrow and the next day to edit and fine tune.
- Begin by writing a lead sentence that introduces the character or conflict. This might be something like “Mary’s husband told her she needed to gather up everything she needed, take the two kids, and get out of the house in 15 minutes.”
- Next write the sentence that will show the happy ending – achieved with the donor’s help. This might be something like “When we crossed the border, people helped us.”
- Now connect the dots using sentences that demonstrate the path from the lead to the closing sentence. This might include sentences describing Mary’s journey, the obstacles she encountered along the way, and how she felt during her difficult and terrifying journey.
“Think of real drama as the internal struggle that the plot catapults your protagonist into, forcing her to take action whether she wants to or not. If taking that action doesn’t cost your protagonist dearly on a deep emotional level, then it’s not a problem. Nor is it a story. Even if, on the surface, something big happens”.
— Lisa Cron
If you’re prone to writer’s block, talk the story through out loud.
Sometimes it’s easier to simply spill out what you learned, and how it made you feel, without putting pen to paper. Yet. If you simply “spill,” you’ll tend to talk in chronological order. This happened… then this… then that… and… A story broken down to its simplest form is a series of cause and effect
ACTION TIP: While you spill, record yourself. Listen; then begin to write. It’s okay to wait until tomorrow to start writing in earnest. As you write, think about the ultimate cause needed to give the story the happy ending. What does the client/protagonist need to push them over the edge from despair to hope? From sickness to healing? Show the donor how they can be this causal vector.
Relate the story to something in your constituent’s experience.
This requires you to know who you’re writing to. Generally, one size does not fit all. Just as kids relate to different stories than do their parents, cat lovers relate to different stories than do dog lovers. And donors to children’s services relate differently than donors to seniors’ services.
ACTION TIP: Segment your appeal by audience, creating slightly different variations of the story. For example, if you’re writing to parents of children with life-threatening diagnoses, you may want to make the hospital experience the relatable part of the story. ‘Mary and Jeff’s eyes welled with tears when the doctor told them the hospital could help their baby – and it wouldn’t cost them a dime.” For donors who’ve never been patients, you may want to tap into the fact they are parents, and can imagine what it would be like to have their own child similarly diagnosed. “Mary and Jeff’s hearts seemed to stop; they never imagined they would hear the words the doctor uttered that day.”
According to Uri Hasson from Princeton, “a story is the only way to activate parts in the brain so that a listener turns the story into their own idea and experience.” If you want the listener or reader to empathize with the story character’s dilemma, try to match your storytelling to what you know of their personal experiences.
5. Revise the Story So it’s More Feelings than Facts
Bosses and boards love statistics; donors not so much. Unlike stories, which humans are wired to accept, facts are something we’re wired to reject. Upon being faced with numbers, humans tend to put up their dukes to try to refute those numbers. Where do they come from? What do they really mean? This fighting mindset is death for fundraising, because it vaults people into the thinking part of their brain, rather than the feeling part.
Get rid of anything that might trigger the analytical part of the brain. Why? You don’t want people thinking about money. You want them thinking about emotions and impact — enough so they really don’t much care what it costs to create a beneficial outcome.
By the way, there are not “data people” and “story people.” We’re all story people. Melanie Green and Tom Brock, in Persuasion: Psychological Insights and Perspectives, found when we enter into a story world our thinking is altered. We’re more receptive. We’re not reading looking for faults. When we read factual accounts, we’ve got our guard up.
ACTION TIP: The biggest mistake you can make is thinking your organization is the story. That’s not who donors care about. People aren’t buying your organization. When someone asks: “What do you do?” they’re not interested in your organization so much as what your organization accomplishes. Get rid of anything that smacks of you, rather than who you, and the donor, help. In other words, no “We need to reach our budget goal.” This is decidedly non-compelling.
Endeavor to reach the part of your readers/listeners that empathizes with other humans. It is a little-known fact that Darwin’s work, erroneously labelled as “survival of the fittest,” was really about survival of the most empathic. What he found was those communities that took care of one another were those that survived. Those communities were the most “fit.”
As you tell your story, steer towards the open and cooperative part of people’s brains. Humans are a profoundly social and caring species, with sympathy being a stronger instinct than self-interest (see Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life by Dacher Keltner.)Think of your favorite book or movie. One where you became totally engrossed in the story.
Presumably the central role empathy plays within our society was codified numerous times in different variations of “The Golden Rule.” Why? Because people throughout time and space recognized our survival depends on the capacity to mentally trade places with another fellow human being.
What if we wanted to help all our neighbors, because we identified with each and every one? That would be a community that would survive. Big time.
Can you imagine it? Can you tell that story?
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