Improve Your Fundraising Through Storytelling

Date Published
Debbie Merlino

Speaking about the Sundance Film Festival, Robert Redford said, “Storytellers broaden our minds: engage, provoke, inspire, and ultimately, connect us.” 

Sounds exactly like what a lot of my fundraising colleagues do every day too!

Stories Worth Telling, a joint initiative of the Meyer Foundation and Georgetown University Center for Social Impact Communication, found that 59% of non-profit organizations in their study used storytelling — most often to illustrate their mission in action or to make the case for why their services are needed. Yet, of these organizations, less than 40% were satisfied with the quality of their stories.

If you’re reading this, I bet you use storytelling too. Perhaps it comes in the form of making the case for giving to a major donor during an in-person meeting. Or maybe it’s your job to review and edit direct mail and email copy, as well as telemarketing scripts, in advance of your next solicitation. 

If you want to improve the stories you and your organization are telling, start by focusing on these two areas:

  1. Review the story collection process in your organization.
  2. Be clear about the role of the story in your communication.

In the beginning… Collecting Stories

  • Identify who is on the front line and will be aware of stories/testimonials. This is not the story! This is the source of the story. Someone on staff will need to follow up and conduct an interview.
  • Create a formalized process for collecting stories and contact information.
  • Think about how you plan to use the story in your communication and draft open-ended questions that will help you advance the desired narrative.
  • Record the interview and try to make it a conversation.
  • Be open to unexpected conversational detours that will add more color to the narrative.
  • Listen more than you talk.

What’s the job of your story?  Pick Just 1

  • Illustrate a problem; expose a reality; challenge assumptions.
  • Define the impact of your organization in a personal way that people can remember.
  • Establish an emotional connection between your organization and the donor.
  • Show your organization in action.

Once you know what you want to communicate, and how the story will advance the narrative, the next step is to write, write, and rewrite. But that’s a topic for another time.

“You write to communicate to the hearts and minds of others what’s burning inside you. And we edit to let the fire show through the smoke.” 

Arthur Plotnik, author and editor

5 Final Tips to Improve Your Storytelling:

  1. Tell the story of one person.
  2. Focus on making an emotional connection.
  3. Details are important. Be specific.
  4. Don’t talk in numbers or statistics. A cerebral case for your cause is less effective than a heartfelt story.
  5. Depending on the level of complexity, you may be able to tell the story in just 3 to 4 sentences… or it may be more effective to sprinkle the story throughout the communication in “chunks” of 3 to 4 sentences.
Debbie Merlino
About the Author:
Debbie Merlino
President, Agency Services

As President of Agency Services, Debbie is responsible for overall client satisfaction. She works to ensure AFG’s winning strategies are being shared throughout the organization for the benefit of all our clients. Debbie is frequently out on the road sharing insights with others and listening to your challenges so we can develop solutions.

What excites you about your work at AFG?

I get to meet the best people and hear their stories. Hardly anyone says they planned to work in development. Learning how our clients found themselves in this profession and hearing the stories of the people they serve is inspirational.

If you weren’t at AFG, what would you be doing?

Attempting the life of a freelance journalist, working in a bookstore, and/or doing a podcast for my own enjoyment.

What are your hobbies/interests outside AFG?

Making people laugh. It’s thrilling! Especially when done purposefully and I’m on stage ; ) I also enjoy yoga and a well-crafted cocktail.

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