The Truth About Nonprofit Storytelling

I’ve been working as a fundraiser long enough to see some “next great things” come and go.  Others stuck around for several years, or even became a mainstay of fundraising.

So forgive me, but I just don’t get this “new” idea being proclaimed from the rooftops about storytelling.

Don’t misunderstand—I believestorytelling is absolutely critical for fundraising success. Donors (translation: people) are generally not as moved by statistics as by a good story, a connection with another human, or an animal or object that is the underdog. But that’s not a new idea; in my lifetime, fundraisers have always been storytellers.

One of my favorite stories from childhood (and beyond) begins, “Once there was a tree . . . and she loved a little boy.”  Maybe you, too, have read and appreciated The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein.  This is a simple story—just 624 words.  Its message isn’t complicated.  It repeats itself.  But it is powerful, visual and memorable.

This post isn’t a tribute to The Giving Tree, even though this book has stood the test of time (it was published back when Lyndon Johnson was president).  Instead, it is a passionate plea to stop treating storytelling like the latest fad in fundraising, and understand that telling stories is a long-standing, proven means to connect with people and help them relate an abstract concept or one they have never experienced to their own lives.

And storytelling is not rocket science—it’s something any one of us can do.  But it requires us to slow down and look at the work we do and the needs we address with a new set of eyes—the eyes of our donors.

What is going to excite them about the work?  For the most part, donors want passion and vivid word pictures to help them visualize what you are doing.

What isn’t going to excite them?  Most donors don’t have the inclination to read  a long report full of statistics and key performance indicators.  (There are exceptions, but let’s stay focused on the mass market.)  so why do we force-feed them dense pages of statistics, using language that only shows how smart we all must be, and jargon that makes little sense to the donor.

The first several lines of The Giving Tree go like this:

“Once there was a tree…and she loved a little boy.

And every day the boy would come and he would gather her leaves

and make them into crowns and play king of the forest.”

(Harper & Row, ©1964)

Run this through the typical fundraising editing machine and it will probably read like this:

Once there was a tree that was a common species in our region …

And this tree, were it aware of its emotions, could potentially have strong feelings for a young individual who was a recipient of the outcomes that made this tree one of the more prolific producers of the various other trees in the region.

Yes, I’m being a curmudgeon. But instead of spending time stressing over how to “learn” to tell a story, start listening to yourself talk when you’re with a friend; isn’t that mostly storytelling?  Ask yourself what you read or saw at work today that made you want to cry or cheer, or just smile with pride because you had a role in making it come true; that could be your next story.

And take a few minutes and read The Giving Tree; you can find the entire text here.  In the few minutes it will take to read it, you’ll be reminded of that “once upon a time” when you couldn’t close your eyes at night without first hearing a story.

Let’s rekindle passion in our donors by telling them stories that leave them wide-eyed and asking for more.

Originally published in npEngage.

Author: PJBarden

With a professional career in strategic fundraising that spans more than 35 years, Pamela brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to working with nonprofit organizations. She specializes in writing fundraising copy, grant proposals, P.R. materials, instructional articles and blog entries, as well as developing and executing fundraising strategy for her clients. Pamela is a Certified Fundraising Executive (CFRE); an instructor for UCLA Extension School’s Fundraising Certification Program and the University of La Verne, College of Business and Public Management; a frequent webinar speaker; and author of two online courses for UCLA Extension. Pamela earned a Doctorate of Business Administration in 2015; her doctoral project (dissertation) was entitled “Nonprofit Organizations’ Awareness of and Preparation for Legislation, Regulation, and Increasing Scrutiny.” She is a past winner of a Gold Award for Fundraising Excellence and an ECHO Award from DMA; recipient of a Distinguished Instructors Award from UCLA Extension; a weekly columnist for NonprofitPRO (formerly Fundraising Success); and a monthly contributor to Blackbaud’s blog, npEngage.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s