Harnessing Your Organization’s Story: The Missing Ingredient in Nonprofit Storytelling

At bbcon 2015, some of the top minds in the nonprofit industry came together to present Big Idea sessions. These high-level discussions focused on key thought leadership topics and trends shaping the industry. In this monthly blog series, top Big Idea presenters will recap the topics they presented on so you can use their insight to build your next Big Idea.

Although many organizations are telling their stories these days, there still seems to be something missing from their stories. What’s missing is what makes a story truly great – empathy.

Empathy is a special kind of connection that we form with other people. It’s different from sympathy. Sympathy is when someone feels bad for someone else. In fundraising, sympathy manifests itself as donors feeling bad or guilty about an issue

Empathy is when we feel with someone.

It is the core of our human experience in that it allows us to feel that connectedness with others. That desire to feel connected to others – a sense of belonging – is something that we as non-profits can create for our donors.

Yet, all too often we are missing this opportunity with our stories. Instead the stories we produce end up sounding like every other run of the mill non-profit story. The basic formula of: “here’s someone we have helped, they had this big problem, they couldn’t solve it on their own, but then they found our great organization and we were able to help them. Isn’t our organization great?! Now, make a gift.”

The problem with this model of storytelling is that we fail to form a meaningful connection with our audience. This connection will help them see how they are connected (in a variety of ways) to our work. By that I mean, they are not connected just because they are donors. They are connected through their basic humanity.

There are so many ways to make a connection with someone. Two of the core ways we form connections are as follows:

#1 Shared Values & Beliefs

Our values and beliefs are the core of who we are. One of the ways that we can connect with our audiences through our stories is to communicate the values or beliefs that we share with them. So let me ask you – What does your organization stand for? What do you believe?

I’m on the board of an organization in Vancouver called Women Against Violence Against Women, which is a feminist rape crisis centre. You would think that ‘feminist’ is a defining value that brings many of our donors to us. On some level it is. But over the last year of many conversations with donors there has been a much more fundamental value that has emerged – safety. Our donors want the city to be safe – for themselves, for their wives, for their relatives, for their daughters. Knowing that this is a value that we all share, we have told stories and started conversations about safety.

#2 Life Experiences

The second way that we can find common ground with our audiences through our storytelling is through shared life experiences. There are probably a lot of things you have in common with your donors. Perhaps being a parent. Maybe experiencing grief. It could be something as simple as joy.

Universities and colleges have it somewhat easier when it comes to talking about shared life experiences with alumni because they all went to the same school. But really, any organization can tap into universally shared life experience.

These are just two examples of what it could look like to tell stories about shared values and common life experiences.

When you tell a story, you are opening the door for your donors to have an experience like I had. By telling your donors stories and highlighting a universally experienced emotion, value or belief, you can help them feel more integrated in a community; your community. Because at the end of the day what we all long for is to realize our own humanity in others.