4 Steps to Great Nonprofit Storytelling

As a nonprofit leader, you can find plenty of lists telling you what to do and what not to do for your year-end fundraising: Reinforce your message with Facebook ads. Tell donors how their gifts help. Don’t forget to say thank you. Capture email addresses!

No. 1 on my list: Take an honest, objective look at how you’re telling your story.

That word “story” can be perplexing. If your website has an About Us page, you’re telling a story, right? If a direct mail letter explains why you needs to raise funds, you’re telling a story, right?

Maybe. But neither is the right kind of storytelling for donors, because these stories are too focused on you.

Who does a potential donor want you to focus on? Them! How does your reader want to feel? Like they can create real change in the world … through your nonprofit.

OK, that last part, “through your nonprofit,” is what you want them to feel. You generate that feeling by focusing on inspiring the emotion. Hand them the power to improve the world.

Your focus in the key. In your end-of-year fundraising (or any awareness-building or fundraising campaign), you could:

  • Try to write a donor-inspiring story that focuses on what a nonprofit empowers a donor to do. Or, you can:
  • Write a donor-inspiring story that focuses on what a donor can do through your nonprofit.

There’s a subtle difference in those two statements: The focus. Keeping it in mind will help you and your staff transform your storytelling.

Here’s how I go about crafting a donor-inspiring story for a nonprofit:

1. Interview a beneficiary.

Best-case scenario is to interview someone whose life has gotten better because they experienced your nonprofit. That’s why people volunteer for and donate to any cause: to create change. So, start with a real person for whom donors made help possible.

If you’re with a homeless shelter, interview someone who got on the path toward self-sufficiency after interacting with your organization. If you’re with a community art center, find an artist who can now pursue a lifelong dream. If your agency protects the environment, talk to people who have lived in a polluted one. You get the idea.

2. Do your homework.

When you ask for names of people to interview, be clear about what type of individuals you’re looking for. (Review my 4 Ways Not to Choose a Hero for your Nonprofit Story). Then find out as much as you can about their interactions with employees and volunteers from your agency. If you don’t ask, you may never know about the heartfelt letter they wrote or the volunteer who visited them in their home. Google them for news stories, too. The insights you gain can give you valuable story background and great ideas for interview questions.

3. Make it a conversation.

In your interview, don’t stick too closely to a list of scripted questions. Treat them as a guideline rather than an itemized must-answer list. Whenever I interview a potential story subject, I get the best information and most quotable quotes from letting them talk.

Give yourself plenty of time to do this. Try not to schedule a meeting immediately following the interview to avoid being rushed and to give yourself time for final reflections after you end the call.

And listen, actively and with your full attention. People willing to share a life-changing experience with you deserve the most respect and patience you can muster. Allow them to be tentative and to talk at their own pace. If they pause, don’t jump right in with your next question.

Give them time, ask attentive questions, and they’ll get deeper into details that will speak to a donor’s emotions.

4. Write about the individual, not the organization.

You could write the individual’s story as, “See what we did for Jane Smith!” Or, you could write the story from Jane’s perspective.

How do we learn empathy? By putting ourselves in other people’s shoes. Putting your audience in Jane’s shoes – witnessing her everyday struggles, understanding why she didn’t seek help, feeling her amazement when your nonprofit stepped in and being proud of herself when you left – is hands down the best way to show a donor why their gift matters.

Your donor can be a hero. They truly can change someone’s life. And you’ve shown them how.

A word of caution to those in charge:

If you’re a board member or CEO, use your influence sparingly. If this is a big shift in your nonprofit’s messaging approach, don’t scrap an idea your staff planned strategically simply because you have another one, or the board treasurer wants to write the letter, or “what we’ve always done has worked well.” Maybe it has … and maybe a new approach will work even better. Talk through the merits of each with open minds, and consider testing each approach with a real audience.

I guarantee one thing: Your nonprofit will never have more credibility, empathy and potential for donations than when a beneficiary sings your praises for you.

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