Advancing Philanthropy

Engagement: The Secrets of Storytelling

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Tell more stories. It’s a fundraising mantra. By why should you tell those stories? Does a crisis, like the current pandemic, change which stories are told and how?

The short answer, no.

Putting a face on donor impact is always important—before, during and after a crisis.

As Lisa Cron tells us in her book “Wired for Story,” our brains are wired to think in story. Every decision we make is based on a story we tell ourselves. Where we live, where we give our time and money, what car we drive, or why we don’t own a car—these decisions are based on a feeling and an internal story.

As fundraisers, our job is to modify the internal narrative others have about our organization. To do that, we have to make people feel differently. The very best way to get people to feel something is by connecting them to one person’s life.

five essential story telling secrets

 

The outcome of sharing a well-told story is a meaningful, emotional connection that evokes feelings of empathy.

It’s important to remember empathy is a connecting emotion. Empathy allows us to see ourselves or someone we care about in the story being told. Sympathy, on the other hand, can be a distancing emotion. Feeling sorry for someone separates us.

Stories that create empathy build connections and allow healing. Those are the stories to tell before, during and after a crisis.

Beware of lazy, uninspiring messages. Powerful stories are not a list of facts about a person. Powerful stories are conversational and feel personal. They pull the curtain back on the courage someone has and the choices they’ve made. Powerful stories evoke feelings of hope, joy, anger or frustration. The emotion itself doesn’t matter as much as evoking that feeling.

It’s the feeling from hearing a well-told story that ignites people to action.

These five essential storytelling secrets will make your stories stand out.

1. Make your story about one person.

Organizations that rise above the nonprofit messaging noise create personal connections with their supporters. Or it feels like a personal connection to a single person in an appeal or at a fundraising event. They learn the name, age and the conflict that’s been an issue for the person highlighted. Whether it’s a client, staff member, volunteer, donor or someone else—keep your story about just one person.

It’s important to remember empathy is a connecting emotion. Empathy allows us to see ourselves or someone
we care about in the story being told.

Rather than droning on about professional staff and outstanding program results, talk about how that one person has a different life because they came into contact with your organization.

What works best is to talk about your amazing staff and life-changing mission through the eyes of one person. The connection to a single person allows supporters to feel empathy and may deepen their engagement. Empathy is the key. Listeners and readers must see themselves or someone they care about in your story.

Donors give to help solve a problem. Whether that problem is to feed the hungry, make education accessible, save the environment, get more pets rescued or eliminate systemic racism, the job of a story is to stir feelings within your supporters’ hearts and minds.

2. When telling a story, shorter is better. This is especially true if you are telling the story out loud.

Keeping the story short is the key to getting listeners or readers to want to know more, which allows you to share multiple aspects of a story over time.

Last year, the use of shorter, bite-sized story snippets was effective. It became a year of distractions at epic levels as parents and children worked side-by-side at home, and uncertainty was rampant.

To prepare donors to give before, during and after a crisis, keep in close communication with them using smaller bits of information. Consider this example:

The Center for Victims of Torture (CVT), based in St. Paul, Minnesota, provides healing, training, research and advocacy for men, women and children who are survivors of torture and war. With the reach of global programs, in reach, making donor impact clear can become mind-numbing if too much is shared at one time.

In preparation for their annual fall fundraising event, CVT created a six-month messaging campaign. They shared short videos on a YouTube channel to highlight the story of a man named Blaise. Each 90-second to two-minute video highlighted a different part of Blaise’s journey out of torture.

CVT shared the short video messages via email. Written copy included what it costs financially to support Blaise and others like him, as well as an update about the status of fully funding the CVT mission for the year. The virtual event CVT held in early October 2020 was only 30-minutes long. It generated contributions totaling in the high six figures—nearly the same amount their large one-hour ballroom event raised in 2019.

The key to their success? The focus was on allowing event attendees to get to know Blaise before the event and giving them an opportunity to clearly understand the CVT money story (more on this later). When Blaise was live on camera sharing his testimonial speech, event attendees already felt a connection to him. They cared about him and his family. Event attendees generously gave to support others like him.

3. Share exact results and transformations about the person in your story.

Most good storytelling fundraisers know to share specific details about the person in their story, such as the person got a job, received a scholarship, adopted a rescued animal, trained a guide-dog, got sober, or built an urban garden. These are the measurable, exact results. They are easy to talk about but not overly inspiring.

The missing component to many stories is the depiction of how the person felt and the transformation their life has undergone. Since you can’t easily measure transformations, the best way to talk about them is by using powerfully descriptive adjectives. (See item No. 5 for some examples.)

What works best is to talk about your amazing staff and life-changing mission through the eyes of one person. The connection to a single person allows supporters to feel empathy and may deepen their engagement. Empathy is the key. Listeners and readers must see themselves or someone they care about in your story.

4. Clearly define the conflict. The conflict is the oxygen in your story.

Conflict is part of any good movie, book or story. As nonprofit storytellers, our stories must also include a clear description of the conflict.

Donors give to help solve a problem. Whether that problem is to feed the hungry, make education accessible, save the environment, get more pets rescued or eliminate systemic racism, the job of a story is to stir feelings within your supporters’ hearts and minds. Living in a suburb of Minneapolis, I saw first-hand the impact the tragic death of George Floyd ignited across the country. It was shocking and painful.

What also happened was an avalanche of financial support for Minneapolis and national nonprofit organizations of all sizes who were on the ground dealing with racism issues. Millions of people gave millions of dollars because the image of one man clearly defined the conflict.

5. Include emotionally engaging words.

Stories that include inspiring, inviting words rather than utilitarian words make it possible for donors to feel a connection that might otherwise be missed. Here are some examples:

  • Use “unleashed their energy” instead of “excited.”
  • Use “felt safe for the first time in a long time” instead of “is now safe.”
  • Use “gnarled hands” when describing someone with arthritis.
  • Use “precious” or “vulnerable” when describing a child or adult in your story.

Finally, there is one additional story to include before, during and after a crisis: your organization’s money story. How you answer these two questions will give prospective and current donors all the information they need about your money story: What does it take to fully fund your mission and how much have you raised to date? When your supporters know there is more work to do—in addition to feeling a connection to a specific person—they give more.

It’s important to remember that before, during and after a crisis, we’re all still humans looking for a connection.

Fundraising is fulfilling the aspirations of your supporters. Our job, then, is to connect people who want to make a bigger impact in your life-changing mission. We do that one powerful story at a time.

lori l. jacobwithLori L. Jacobwith is a nationally recognized fundraising culture change expert and master storyteller who has been named one of America’s Top 25 Fundraising Experts. She has delivered more than 10,000 coaching and training sessions to more than 500,000 people. Lori has helped nonprofit organizations raise more than $450 million from individual donors. With a B.A. in political science and speech communications from the University of Minnesota, Lori also has training from Indiana University’s Fund Raising School. She is a longtime member of the Association of Fundraising Professionals. In addition to being the founder of Ignited Fundraising, Lori recently took on the part-time position of director of development and partnerships at the Monroe Institute.

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