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The Power of Storytelling

Mister Rogers, the beloved American TV icon from the Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood show, always carried in his wallet a quote from a social worker that said, “Frankly, there isn’t anyone you couldn’t learn to love once you’ve heard their story.” Have you ever heard a story that was so compelling you felt the need to share it with others? It may have been inspirational, emotional, comical or even dreadful, but it grabbed you and moved you in some capacity.

A good story can beckon you, transport you, inspire you and even change you. Now think about that within the context of your nonprofit. Imagine sharing a story that motivates a person to become a lifelong supporter of your cause. A few years back, I received a letter in the mail from a nonprofit that sent me a story about a sick child and the care this child received from their organization. The story left me in tears. What do you think happened after that? You guessed it! I grabbed my checkbook and wrote a check.

On another occasion, I attended a concert, and during a break in the concert, some representatives of a nonprofit came on stage and showed a touching video about hungry, impoverished children needing our support. I was so touched by the heartfelt video and personal anecdotes that I went home and did more research. What do you think happened after that? You guessed it. I began financially supporting a child. Now does this mean that every story I hear leads me to write a check? Not exactly, but these two instances show how I was personally beckoned, transported, inspired and even changed by the stories I read and heard.

One of the best storytellers I know is Wayne Olson. With over 20 years of experience as an accomplished attorney, author, speaker, trainer and consultant in the non-profit sector, you can imagine the bounty of stories he has collected over the years. He currently works as the Gift Planning Officer at Intermountain Foundation in Utah. I wanted to pick Wayne’s brain about the power of storytelling, and I think you will find excerpts of his responses to be most insightful and helpful.

Bree: Why are stories/storytelling important in the nonprofit development world?

Wayne: Because people do not relate to the cold world of facts, statistics and numbers. While those things are real, they have to be translated in a way that people will understand, embrace and remember. Story telling helps us relate to one another and make difficult concepts memorable and repeatable. When we put a face to a concept, it is far more powerful.

Bree: What type of stories do you tell as a gift planning officer?

Wayne: We tell the stories of people who have given before and what was accomplished with that action. Donors want to know they will make a difference, that their donation will not be wasted. The best way to do that is to tell the donor the story of someone who has done it before and the satisfaction they received. If we see someone do something and achieve a great result, we are more likely to do it ourselves.

Bree: How do you use these stories in your marketing efforts?

Wayne: I use them to build my relationship with the donor. It is common ground. It also helps advance the relationship in a way we both want. Donors want to make a difference, and we have the ability to help them leverage their money to make the difference they want to make.

Bree: What advice do you have for other nonprofits in terms of their storytelling?

Wayne: Look at everything you do from the donor’s point of view. Storytelling should be natural, organic and authentic – not memorized or forced. We should become adept at storytelling, and there are only two ways to do that: 1. listen to other good storytellers often, and 2. practice storytelling in front of a live audience.

Practical Tips for Storytelling

If you ever get a chance to hear Wayne speak, I would highly recommend you bring some tissues and get ready to be inspired! I love the advice Wayne leaves for us at the end. We all know people in our lives that can tell a good story. Carefully examine how they tell their stories (from their body language to their vocal volume to their word choice) and learn from them. Whether you enjoy public speaking or not, Wayne makes a good point. Putting your storytelling into practice in front of a live audience will help you feel more confident about telling stories.

There are a number of effective ways to share stories. How about we get a little practical? Here is a sampling of different types of stories to incorporate in your marketing efforts:

1. Tell your story. Sometimes the best way to relate to an audience is by sharing your own personal experience with your nonprofit’s mission. Give details about how you became a part of your organization and why you love working for this organization.

2. Give real-time details about an event or project. Perhaps your organization is doing a building project that will help support the community or provide more resources for children and families. Instead of waiting to share the final results, consider taking your donors and prospects on a play-by-play journey in real-time to keep momentum and create excitement throughout the entire process.

3. Share testimonials. Why not let a volunteer or champion donor speak for your cause for you! Volunteers have first-hand accounts of the incredible work your organization is doing. This is a great way to demonstrate appreciation towards these individuals and give them the platform to inform the community of the impact your nonprofit is making. Donors, especially those that have given faithfully for years, have been affected greatly by your nonprofit’s work. Their stories need to be heard. Their stories could create personal connections with people and show them that they can also give a similar gift to your organization.

Regardless of what type of stories you tell, it is important to market these stories across all your channels. Share these stories on your planned giving website, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn. Link to the story in your e-newsletter. Print the story in your annual newsletter. Add an excerpt of the story on a postcard. Follow up to the postcard with an e-blast that also includes the link to the story. The possibilities are endless, but you want to be sure to get this story out. Give people the opportunity to be moved by your stories.

What about you? What stories do you love to tell others? Feel free to share how you have seen storytelling be effective in reaching your prospects and donors. We would love to hear from you.

Bree Daniel

By Bree Daniel
Integrated Marketing - Southeast Region, Crescendo Interactive, Inc.

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