The Power of Storytelling
Honestly, I can’t think of a single reason why Kevin and I should ever have crossed paths. He is a plumber who was born and raised in Pennsylvania and later moved to Florida. I am a writer and one-time fundraising professional who has never lived outside of New Jersey. All I can tell you is that Kevin McCall needed help telling a story. A twist of fate and a few degrees of separation later, I was going to help him tell it.
In 2009, several years before our first conversation, Kevin’s 21-year-old son Ryan was murdered in a robbery near the college he was attending in Florida. On the day Kevin learned of his son’s death, he began writing in a journal—something he had never done before. When we first spoke in 2017, he told me that he wanted to turn six years of daily journal entries into a book that, he hoped, would help others who were suffering from losses of this magnitude. How could I say no?
Within a few weeks, he handed over to me a half-dozen notebooks filled with whatever thoughts he had each morning for six years, handwritten in pencil. Some sections been digitally converted into a Word document, but even these were going to be a challenge to sort out. What on earth had I gotten myself into? At that point, I had no idea if I would be able to read Kevin’s handwriting, let alone find a narrative arc.
After nearly two years, For the Love of Family: How a Knock on the Door Changed Everything is being released to Amazon. Together, Kevin and I were able to mine his emotional, handwritten journals to tell the story of how this husband and father navigated tragedy and the deepest of sorrows. And how, through love, faith, and sheer determination, he held his family together. Despite his grief, Kevin had vision and passion, some of which he expressed by creating the Ryan P. McCall Foundation.
I am confident that Kevin's story will be of great value to those who read it. In fact, I think For the Love of Family would make a terrific movie or miniseries. As I have often told Kevin, I am convinced that actor Tom Skerritt would be perfect for the lead role.
But that’s beside the point. What I’m trying to tell you is that stories matter.
As novelist Flannery O’Connor once said, “A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way.” A good story captivates our attention and captures our hearts. And I have yet to meet a nonprofit organization that doesn’t have something interesting and uplifting to tell.
Nonprofit professionals and volunteers spend a lot of time crafting the perfect mission statements, vision statements, and elevator speeches. We sharpen our language and practice our delivery until it rolls elegantly off of our keyboards and tongues. This is an important exercise, enabling us to communicate our organization’s work accurately and succinctly. For a variety of reasons, you need reliable, consistent language for talking about your organization. Websites, newsletters, annual appeals, magazines, grant applications, and case statements should reinforce a common message and brand.
Sometimes, though, we want more. Successful organizations are fueled by passion—the emotional give-and-take between and among stakeholders that adds up to more than the sum of its parts. You want to convey the impact of your work. You want to share a feeling about your vision of a better future.
There are three main categories of story that I would like for you to think about, and to have at the ready, for when time and opportunity allow for a richer conversation about your organization: the Founding Story, the Client Story, and the Donor Story.
I’ll bet that you already have the seeds for a good founding story. Whether your organization was founded in 1881 or 1981, there is a compelling narrative about someone (or two or three) who observed a need in the community and felt so strongly about it that they just had to do something.
There are, of course, many wonderful nonprofit founding stories throughout American history. The legendary Clara Barton founded the American Red Cross in 1881. Drawing on her experience as the “Angel of the Battlefield” during the Civil War, Barton dedicated her life, and her newly formed organization, to helping those in distress. In 1910, Mrs. Ruth Standish Baldwin, a wealthy widow, and Dr. George Edmund Haynes, the first African American to receive a doctorate degree from Yale, formed the Committee on Urban Conditions Among Negroes to reduce racial discrimination in northern states during the Black Migrations. Their grassroots efforts later became the National Urban League. Ten years later, advocate and “mother of social work” Jane Addams and suffragist Crystal Eastman co-founded the American Civil Liberties Union. Addams went on to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931.
And what, you may ask, if your organization’s timeline doesn’t reach back into past centuries? Well, I suggest to you that this simply means that you are in the process of making history.
In 2016, a small group of museum and history professionals in New Jersey started chatting about the need to help colleagues in their professional community—educators and others working in museums, historic sites, libraries, schools, etc.—who were struggling with difficult topics in African American history. They decided to organize a small workshop to bring others into the conversation. Two years later the Sankofa Collaborative was born. Sankofa is a word from the Twi language of Ghana that translates to “go back and get it.” It describes their efforts to use the stories of history—including the challenging ones—to inform the future. Their most recent conference, held in January 2019, was attended by more than one-hundred participants! The Sankofa Collaborative is exploring history while fostering positive change for a better tomorrow.
Your organization was founded because at least one person observed a need in the community and felt something so deep and motivating about it that they just had to act. Who were they? Why did this issue matter to them? What challenges did they face on this particular journey? Why was their vision, and their passion for this vision, so strong?
Numbers are important. For a variety of reasons, from grant seeking and reporting to strategic planning, you need to know the scope of your services in quantifiable terms. Every now and then, however, it is good to step away from the data to think about your clients as beings with real needs. Whether your clients are children, senior citizens, wild animals, trees, or the oceans, they are the reason your organization exists. They are the reason that you and your colleagues get up every day to face the challenges that come with fighting the good fight.
Dennis C. Miller has advised hundreds of nonprofit organizations on how to reenergize, renew, and approach the future with clarity and passion. He says, “Don’t let your nonprofit organization become the best-kept secret in town. Tell your story about the positive impact you are having through the eyes of those you serve. Ask your clients to talk openly about how your organization has helped them.”
Maybe your nonprofit’s best stories are not about people at all. What then? Animals at the Smithsonian National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute enjoy an international fan base through the Zoo’s highly popular webcam program. Webcam viewing might not produce stories in the traditional sense, but it does invite us into the daily narrative of the animals’ lives. By “getting to know” the lions, elephants, pandas, and naked mole-rats (weirdly cute, in spite of their name), we become emotionally attached. We care about what happens to them.
What story can your clients tell about the value of your work? How is their condition improved because your organization exists? How is the community, or the world, a better place because of the work you have done with and for your clients?
Philanthropy brings joy to those who engage in it, and there are many donors who are happy to share how being generous to others has improved their own lives. They want everyone to feel that same joy. Their stories are often as compelling as those of your founders and clients. It might be the successful businessman who establishes a scholarship to honor the memory of his father, who was a teacher. Or the wealthy entrepreneur whose own history of escaping spousal abuse leads her to make annual gifts to provide job training for women in safe houses.
Gathering up donor stories necessitates getting to know—really know—the people who give to your organization. It is an interesting and rewarding process. I can recall working with a donor at a small college to establish a scholarship. He was a very successful businessman in the tech industry and the assumption was that he would only want to support “the best and the brightest” students. As the conversation continued, however, it became apparent that he was more interested in supporting students with financial need. He didn’t care as much about GPA and told me that he had been an average student himself. What he really wanted was to help students who might have to drop out of school because they couldn’t pay their tuition. This donor had a great story that I was happy to share with other donors, to help them consider what moved them to make a gift.
The development team at Caldwell University has spent the past year and a half getting to know their alumni donors and sharing these testimonies through their website, social media, and quarterly newsletter. Lori Funicello, Assistant Vice President for Development and Alumni Affairs, uses these articles and video testimonials to inspire the entire university community. Technology helps her track the effectiveness of these efforts. “Through email and web analytics, we can track who opens each e-newsletter, which articles and videos catch peoples’ attention, and which individuals make gifts as a result. Tracking the analytics also helps us identify potential prospects who may be interested in learning more about Caldwell University. As a result, we have been able to engage lapsed donors, as well as better engage and steward our current alumni, donors, and friends.”
What inspires your donors to give? What are their own life stories that compel them to be generous, and to choose your organization as the outlet for that generosity?
How to Tell Your Stories
While you will want written versions of your stories, consider the many forms of media that are available. In other words, think beyond the page. Video and audio recordings have never been easier to create and share, and well worth the investment if you plan to get good mileage out of them. Barry Cohen, Managing Member of AdLab Media Communications, LLC, a public relations firm, agrees. “The power of the human voice adds depth, dimension and reality to a testimonial. With audio and video, you can reach people at the emotional level far more than you can with just written words—or even still photos.”
Amy Eisenstein, ACFRE, wrote about her conversation with Tammy Zonker, CEO & Founder of Fundraising Transformed, about taking storytelling to yet another level. Through “storyliving,” donors are invited to become part of the story. “I love it!” Amy says, adding, “Inviting them into the story is a beautiful concept.”
In my own experience as a donor, there is a huge difference between making financial or food contributions to the local foodbank and spending an evening at our area’s homeless shelter serving the clients there. There, I am not fulfilling a need. I am connecting with people who are having a rough go of it. I see them, and they see me. They are fed. I am transformed.
How might you involve your donors in the mission-related work of the organization? Can you create opportunities for them to get to know the people who are benefiting from their donations?
People love good stories. I can remember when, at the advent of VHS (and Blockbuster stores that sold them), there was great lament at the coming death of the experience of going to “the movies.” Well, this particular apocalypse never happened. In fact, our appetite for stories has exploded and is more varied than ever, expanding from movies and miniseries to gaming to interactive video (Black Mirror, anyone?).
I encourage you to explore the stories that created and continue to uphold your organization’s mission, and that express your vision of a better future. Feel them, imagine them, have fun with them, and share them! And if you happen to picture Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga in the lead roles, go for it. I won’t judge.
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