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5-Step Approach to Nonprofit Storytelling and a Compelling Reason


When stories connect to donor experiences they shine a light on the organizations telling the most compelling stories. Here is why those stories are important to tell.

This past summer was a difficult time for many around the world. Devastating hurricanes, wildfires, terrible flooding in Bangladesh, India, and Nepal killing thousands, hundreds of thousands displaced from ethic violence in Myanmar. Recently, I heard the complaint of someone wanting to donate money to help these causes but couldn’t figure out who to give to. Usually when money was donated, he said, “it felt like it disappeared into a nonprofit void.”

This is a common feeling to donors. Too many nonprofits make the mistake of assuming their donors are getting something useful just by the act of donating. I found this compelling recently while hearing the juxtaposition in practice working for a client in Nepal. I was training staff on how to appeal to US audiences for donations. They were struggling to find a clear message and a scene from earlier that day became a guide to understanding the donor/nonprofit disconnect.

Impoverished people lined a path around a Buddhist religious temple in Kathmandu on a hot and humid day. Many were there because of extra challenges in a country that offers little accommodation; missing hands, arms, or legs, some blind and guided to their seats by family members, and most sitting on the stone pavement. The tradition is to walk clockwise around the circular path of the temple giving away small donations of money to those in need.

I asked one of the staff members why they give money to people in need. His answer was, we are supposed to give, “it’s about our karma.” The lesson then became: rather than seeing potential US donors as giving because they should, see them as having to make a choice between many organizations. Each of the people observed on that warm day in Nepal presented a story for donors to choose who to help. While you may go to the event because you “should” give, unfortunately, when you get there choices must be made.

There are many reasons to give money to one organization instead of another but individual attitudes, values, and social pressure determine the importance of those reasons. Faced with many choices that appear nearly identical, people decide to donate money based on other factors. In the scene above, poverty was the common denominator, but observing the specific hardship that contributes to poverty brings out other emotions that guide the decision. When donors face many choices, a connection can be made by conveying your passion through your stories.

Storytelling to Attract and Keep Donors

People want to give to organizations truly making an impact. One of the common critiques of large nonprofits is the lower percentage of donations that reach their programs. The ability to acquire and maintain donor relationships takes resources that are rarely available to small organizations. Consequently, few donors engage well with small organizations that have limited resources keep donors satisfied. One of my most successful clients on this approach had volunteers coordinate individual stories and letters of children to their education sponsors. Relationships grew between the sponsors and the children talking about their lives.

Children can provide an ideal base of donor engagement, but when your organization works with adults on less emotionally appealing but important work, that one-to-one relationship is challenging. Selecting individuals that can tell their story to inform your audience can be a powerful approach. One method I use comes from a publication by Georgetown University Center for Social Impact Communication and the Meyer Foundation offering Stories Worth Telling. This guide to storytelling is an empirical approach to creating a clear connection to donors, including five “building blocks of compelling stories:

  • A hook – capture the audience’s attention quickly and tell them whose story you are talking about and what’s at stake.

  • Effective Character – a single character that is relatable to the audience that can relay specific details, memories and experiences.

  • Trajectory – a chronicle of an experience, journey, transformation, or discovery.

  • Authenticity – show the audience using detail that features the character’s voice.

  • Action-oriented emotions – Convey emotions that move people to take action and a path to achieve those actions.

A story is an appeal for new donors to understand how you plan to use their donations, as well as a comforting reminder of how that money was used. Beyond this approach there is still a need to keep audiences engaged more personally. For small organizations, using short storytelling through personal messaging to new donors through email and letters builds a connection to the organization and its leadership. For irregular donors, events in the world that align with your mission become a beacon to their generosity when a connection has been established. When stories connect to donor experiences they shine a light on the organizations telling the most compelling stories.

Maberrone Solutions, LLC offers nonprofits freelance and contract strategic planning, grant writing, storytelling, and various financial consulting. If there are any topics you would like explored for future articles, please comment on Facebook or click my email above.

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