Storytelling without stories

I recently found out I’m attending the Nonprofit Storytelling Conference this year – arguably the most fun conference I’ve been to – and it’s got me thinking about storytelling.

I don’t have to tell any of you that storytelling is critical to fundraising. But it’s one thing to say it and another thing to put it into action.

I’m fortunate enough to work with a number of clients ranging in size, scope, “industry”, who / what / how they serve, etc. They also range as it relates to their access to content a.k.a. stories.

For hospital foundations I work with, it’s arguably easier – they have a clear process for identifying patients with stories that will be compelling for fundraising purposes, and as long as they have consent, a good interview, and photos, we’ve got ourselves a story.

For healthcare organizations that aren’t hospitals, for example research organizations, they’re more removed from the patients they serve (organization –> researcher –> patient) and therefore it’s a bit harder.

Then there are organizations who have lots of content and stories, but their “voice”, so to speak, doesn’t lend itself to the traditional, tear-jerker, heartstrings-pulling direct marketing we know and love as fundraisers.

Now you could say, “Well they should change their voice!” And in some cases that may be the right thing or an option at all. But for some organizations, that voice – the voice that doesn’t lend itself to the usual DM storytelling – is authentic and right, so we have to tell stories another way.

It was in working with a colleague on a direct mail letter recently that got me thinking about this conundrum. So I asked myself, What’s at the core of storytelling in fundraising?

It’s about connection. The problems that charities are solving are compelling in and of themselves, but it takes a real story to bring it home, and really motivate most people to take action. How can we connect people with the cause in a deeper way?

So how can we do that without your standard patient/beneficiary story? How can we connect the donor/prospective donor to the problem, solution, and their role in it? We have to be creative!

Can we talk about sights, sounds, or smells? Approach it from a sensory perspective to bring the donor in?

What have you tried? What’s worked? What hasn’t? What conundrums are you facing? Share with me in the comments or on Twitter! I can’t wait to hear.

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Written by Maeve Strathy


Maeve is the Founder of What Gives and has been working in fundraising for twelve years.
Click here to learn more about Maeve.

Connect with Maeve via:
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2 thoughts on “Storytelling without stories

  1. We have a small foundation in a small community of 2500. We have a board of 10 and have been going for 7 years. We have not sent out a single newsletter. We have not followed up with donors more than to send a handwritten thank you. Once a year a neatly bundled colorful annual report goes out. Our donor retention rate is… o h what is that?
    Do newsletters need to be in color? How many a year? How to stay in touch with donors?

  2. I was just talking to someone about how to pull stories from program staff and love this blog post. Sometimes the stories are in the little details that staff don’t even realize. I always use this as an example: I was working at a service agency that was thinking of a move and a social worker said: “Being near metro is irrelevant to my clients because metro is too expensive for them.” She never would have thought of telling me that but it was a story about the agency’s clientele in one sentence.

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