Withisms from Lori

Boldness, clarity and wisdom for fundraising professionals making a difference.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

How to tell a great story: Use real-life examples

I often work with the staff and boards of social profit organizations to help them fine-tune their skills in what is often referred to as “storytelling.”

Much has been written about the impact of sharing examples of client stories, volunteer stories and even donor stories with the community. Here are a couple of good reads on the topic:
The 4 Parts of a great story by Katya Andresen
Mission Moments: Creating an army of ambassadors

The magic of storytelling is in the content of the story. I find that often staff and board members are not quite sure what I mean by “sharing a story” or if they do they are pretty certain they don’t have a good story to share.

I believe everyone has at least one story to share. . . their own. And we usually have lots of other “real life examples” of the amazing work being done at our organizations.

So, here’s what I did recently at a coaching session with a group of staff that ranged from the CFO to the grant writer to program staff managers to get them thinking about what stories/real life examples they had to share:

My question: Share with me an example of a real way YOUR work makes a difference in the life of someone else.

Answers ranged from: I work with people who are desperately in need of mental health support to I crunch numbers to make sure we are on track financially all year long.

So, next I asked the group to think about someone real. A person whose life is different because of the numbers they crunched or the red tape that was cut through to get the mental health support that was needed.

The CFO, we’ll call her Dorothy, shared how she saw the value of a pre-school program that had lost its government funding. She was able to help with language that allowed the organization to raise enough private dollars to keep a portion of the program that is still serving a little girl named Hannah. She’s 4 years old and had some learning difficulties and was not walking or talking at the same level as other 4 year-olds. Her curly brown hair matches the color of her dark chocolate eyes. Hannah had nowhere to go if the program closed and would not do well in kindergarten without some extra support.

Because Dorothy was able to identify the cost per child and the impact of the program on each child’s readiness for kindergarten, other people were inspired to make contributions to help support the program that had been in jeopardy of closing. Little Hannah now knows her colors and numbers and barley stops talking. She’s even walking and nearly ready for kindergarten in the fall thanks to the “administrative” work done by the CFO.

Now I have a face and a real example to paint a picture for me about this organization in a way that was missing before.

My suggestion: Rather than asking for “stories” here are some other questions to ask staff, especially program staff:

  • Who did you turn away last week? Tell me about one of them.
  • What family, child, senior, or fill-in-the-blank has stayed on your mind this week? What happened to cause them to come in to ask for our services? What are we doing to help them?
  • Is there anyone you’ve met who has caused you to be incredibly proud that we exist? Tell me about them and how YOUR work might have inadvertently or directly helped them.

Rather than asking staff, especially program staff for stories. Ask these questions. Start a staff meeting with one of these questions. Help your team help you collect and share real-life examples of the people’s lives you are saving and changing. And then go share them with others.


Sherry Truhlar, CMP, BAS commented on 16-Mar-2012 08:35 AM

Practical advice, Lori. Your specific questions will lead to specific stories. We love using these types of stories in our nonprofit auctions, too.

Kirsten Bullock commented on 16-Mar-2012 08:53 AM

It can feel like pulling teeth to get stories from front line staff. Thanks for these great tips to make it easier!

Pamela Grow commented on 17-Mar-2012 03:48 PM

Thanks for these great, practical tips, Lori. I like to share the results with program staff as well, whether I'm using their story in an appeal or a grant proposal or the website. It helps to give them a more vivid picture of the"why" and leads them to
coming to you more frequently to share stories. Kind of gets everyone on the "same page," so to speak!

Lori Jacobwith commented on 19-Mar-2012 08:43 AM

Thanks for the comments, Kirsten, Sandy and Pam! I agree the real life examples help people to understand the "why" behind the ask and the important work of the organization.

Sandy Rees commented on 19-Mar-2012 06:56 PM

Great tips Lori! Stories are a great way to establish a connection with a donor or prospect, and your tips make it very simple. Sandy Rees

Laurie commented on 05-Apr-2012 12:11 PM

We struggle to get "stories" from our front-line staff as well. I think re-framing our request in the ways you suggest could really help. Thanks!

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