That’s how many stories I have written over the past eight years as a storyteller for nonprofits and government agencies.
Stories about overcoming cancer and diabetes. Stories about losing battles to Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Stories about the tragedy of losing everything because of bad decisions. Stories about rebirths of fighting back against poverty and winning.
Stories about impoverished students getting into Ivy League schools. Stories about loving fathers dying while serving their country in Afghanistan.
And so many other stories.
As I’ve learned so well, the best stories are about a lot more than informing and entertaining donors and supporters. Those stories aim to influence how people think and feel, and more importantly, how they support your cause.
Mastering the art of storytelling is arguably one of the most vital fundraising and communications tools nonprofits and government agencies have. Keep in mind: storytelling is what connects us to our humanity.
There’s many lessons I’ve learned from writing so many stories over the years. All of them revolve around similar concepts, no matter if the story is published as a print or website article, a video or a photo essay. Here’s a few common themes.
If a story doesn’t catch your readers’/viewers’ attention in the first few seconds, don’t expect people to take any kind of action.
To motivate people and put them into motion, I’ve learned that you have to trigger an emotion. The best way to do that is to get your audience to relate to what the main character is feeling.
So you have to ask yourself: how do you want your audience to feel? Angry? Hopeful? Happy? The way you frame the story will set the stage for action later on.
Great stories hold our attention because they make us feel something. We continue to pay attention as long as there are problems to overcome for the heroes of the story, and unanswered questions to be solved through the progression of the story.
To make a story compelling, your character’s problem should tie back to your organization’s mission. Focus your story on making your issue relatable to the average person and solve-able for us to invest our time, money and effort.
If your agency is in the field of drug treatment, tell the story of a character struggling with a drug addiction. Will he fight his temptation to get high? Will he stick to his old ways and continue using drugs? Weave the story through his problem, showing us the difficult choices he faces and how your organization is helping him confront his demons.
Problems keep people engaged until they are solved. And in a fundraising narrative, it’s the donor who should solve the problem.
Your story isn’t always just about the character and his problem, it’s also about the solutions your organization provides.
Describe the work that your nonprofit or government agency does to help people like your main character. Be sure to highlight facts such as the number of people dealing with the same issue and how your organization is making a direct impact.
Here is where you credit the true heroes of the story: your donors and supporters. Without them, there would be no organization.
The Call to Action
At the end of your story, once again, be sure to connect your character to the mission of your organization. But you’re not done yet. Hopefully, your audience is now inspired, so tell them what they can do to help your cause.
In other words, give them a clear call-to-action.
Your call-to-action will depend on your organization’s goal, but should contain actions, such as:
– Donate – giving money to your organization.
– Volunteer – offering time to your organization.
– Advocate – publicly supporting your cause on social media, events or other places.
– Subscribe – signing up to get your publications like your email newsletter.
It’s taken me a long time to learn and improve on these techniques. They’re not easy to master. I’ve been at it for the past eight years as a storytelling consultant, and before that, another 15 years as a newspaper reporter specializing in storytelling.
We need great stories in this world — and we need great storytellers to entertain, educate, and most of all, make us human.
Leon Fooksman is the founder and CEO of Digital Storyline. A graduate of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, Leon is a former newspaper reporter who has helped dozens of agencies find, tell and publish their best stories.
If interested in storytelling, Leon is offering one-on-one coaching on storytelling techniques to advance your organization’s mission. Contact him here: firstname.lastname@example.org