Humans begin telling stories soon after they learn the basic concepts of speech, with most 3- and 4-year-olds able to tell many stories, including autobiographies, fiction, and stories they have overheard. My 3-year-old son definitely cannot read yet, but he can tell you his favorite trains story from cover to cover.
So if we humans are wired to appreciate both the hearing and the telling of a good story, why as nonprofit professionals is it so hard to tell “our” story in a compelling way? And, since it can help us be more successful in fundraising, how can we get better at it?
First, like with any skill, practice makes perfect. At each development department meeting (or staff meeting for smaller nonprofits) have 2-3 staff members tell a story of something they’ve helped achieve at your nonprofit. Or perhaps an awesome interaction they had with a program participant. Have people practice telling stories, and then share feedback.
Second, what would be the “happily ever after” ending to your nonprofit’s story? Perhaps your organization ultimately works to ensure that every animal has a forever home, or that no child goes hungry, or to eradicate cancer. Donors, especially those inclined to give big gifts, want to use their investment in your nonprofit to solve a problem. It is our job as development professionals to make that problem, and how we’re solving it, compelling enough to fund by telling a good story.
Lastly, sometimes we can get a bit carried away with our word choices and use jargon that we use everyday but is not accessible to the audience. Focusing on telling a good story helps you to use words that the average American understands. What in the world does under-resourced mean? I doubt most donors could tell you, yet they can understand that a child whose single mom waits tables probably has trouble coming up with the $658 needed to supply her with the average cost of back-to-school supplies. She also struggles with how to fulfill her dream of going to school to become a dental assistant, so she can provide for her daughter and have a schedule with regular hours. And your nonprofit can help her enroll in her local community college and find the grants and wrap-around supports (childcare, housing, etc.) she needs to fulfill her dream. Focus on the narrative you want to tell and worry less about the individual word choice.
Good storytelling is both an art and a science. Keep practicing, have a compelling ending, and focus on the narrative, so that telling your nonprofit’s story—and thus your fundraising—will only improve.