Not every story is a success story

Most lessons or articles on donor cultivation and fundraising include the critical practice of storytelling. If all you’re doing on your web site or in a newsletter is re-stating your mission or reporting data, you’re missing the most compelling tool in your communications toolbox.

If your nonprofit is very new or you have not established the organization as being familiar in your community, you know that your storytelling needs to clearly focus on your clients—how you are helping them and changing lives, with an eye for as much information as possible about longer-range outcomes of your impact rather than simply outputs.

And remember, too, to always report your data with context—not just how many people you served last month but also whether this represents a 9% increase over the previous month, and so on.

So let’s say you’re telling stories and your audience has some baseline familiarity with your mission and how it is accomplished. You can still find yourself in sort of a rut. Do you ever find yourself with your hands on the keyboard, wishing you had something new or fresh to report?

Here are a few suggestions to help you break out of the traditional, linear success story formula (i.e., “Jason had a problem, he worked with us or benefited from our services, and now he is better off”). Instead, consider telling more about:

1. Founding – How your nonprofit was founded, and how it has changed, grown, or evolved throughout its history.

2. Donors – Who are your donors and why do they give?  This can be done in the aggregate, or with individual donor profiles. Or profile your volunteers, either as individuals or as a group. Tell their stories, why they got involved, what motivates them to stay involved.

3. Communities – Talk about the communities you serve, and how they are different as a result of your work and the generosity of your donors. How is your nonprofit connected to a place? Could or would you do the same work . . . anywhere?

4. Headlines and trends – Think about what is making news in your stakeholders’ world, and even if the topic seems altogether unrelated to your work, there may be a connection that you’ve haven’t thought about before. Sometimes nonprofit executives get so hyper-focused on their own work, they forget that their organization does not exist in a vacuum.

5. Political climate – Your organization isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. You may in fact be in conflict with another movement or point of view. Too many small nonprofits have a “don’t go there” policy among staff and board. Be bold and talk about this, frame your argument, and acknowledge the other side; your fans could use the coaching or “bullet points” in their own interactions.

6. Fiscal stewardship – What ways is your organization serving as a good steward of your donors’ money, and how are you efficiently using the resources they have provided? And what about sustainability, a goal that protects more than money?

7. Staff – Show that your nonprofit is a real living and breathing community of people who care by telling the stories of your staff members, profiling them, telling people who they are and why they believe in your mission.

8. The problem – Update your donors on the disease, situation, or struggle that your organization is in business to solve or help. The problem is the villain of your story. Give your readers the background; go “up river” to the root causes and the ingredients of the problem. What is the nationwide trend? Demonstrate that you understand more than just your specific involvement in the problem—go beyond it, in all directions.

9. A different point of view – A fresh take on your nonprofit’s story could come from a child, or another family member, a neighbor, or an employer of the person you serve. 

10. Thought leadership – Does your nonprofit have a unique spin on the work you are doing?  Are you leading the way with your research, programs, or ideas? Tell your donors what your organization is doing to be a leader in the field, a real change-maker and not just a service delivery model.