Does storytelling in fundraising really work? Associations that have used it successfully say it requires the right kinds of stories told in a way that inspires.
There is no shortage of blogs, books, or conferences advising associations to add stories to their fundraising if they want donations to soar. But is it really that simple? A fundraising Field of Dreams: Tell a story, and dollars will come.
“I think there is a lot of talk about storytelling and the art and science of storytelling,” says Susan Waldman, chief marketing and communications officer at Meals on Wheels America. “We will always use compelling personal stories when we want to make a financial ask.”
Vanessa Chase Lockshin, president of the consulting firm The Storytelling Non-Profit, says stories are effective in fundraising because they help connect a donor to the organization. “With a good story, there is opportunity to communicate the shared set of values that can draw the donor in,” she says. “How do we hook people in? Telling interesting stories is a place to start.”
But stories are just that: a starting place. Associations and experts using storytelling say it’s important to know how to find stories, the key elements to include, and how to bring it all together so donors open their wallets. It is not quite a fundraising field of dreams, but if the stories are built right and relationships are created with donors, the funds may come.
Ingredients for a Good Story
What is the key element needed to tell a story that encourages people to donate? The answer: a hero. Whether the hero should be the donor or the association is up for debate.
“Some think it’s important that donors see themselves as the hero of the story,” says Lockshin. “I think it’s important they feel they have some role, and that can be a supporting role.”
Monica Tiffany, creative director and principal at the marketing firm Merrigan & Company, agrees. “I think people need to feel like they can have an impact,” says Tiffany, who has created fundraising campaigns for associations. “We have to position the need as something an individual can have an impact on—to say, ‘This is what we can do if we all chip in and everyone helps.’”
Meals on Wheels America makes its donors the heroes. “We say, ‘[People] are getting help because you make that possible,’” Waldman says.
Along with spotlighting a hero, the story needs to showcase the association’s values.
“We’re looking for stories that can communicate our organization’s strategic communication message: to ensure people know we are more than a meal,” Waldman says. “We provide socialization, where people haven’t seen anyone all day except us. We lean into stories where it’s a person who might not get out of their house and see another person. Our strategy is to make sure we are telling stories to our donors and donor prospects to help them understand the value of Meals on Wheels.”
Lockshin adds, “There has to be a through line to the stories, some kind of fundamental message, a constant that the donors see as your story.”
They are happy to talk about it. They gain a lot themselves out of sharing their stories. They want to thank those people who have been helping, and they see this as a way to give back.
— Susan Waldman, Meals on Wheels America
Once an association knows the kinds of stories it needs, where does it find them? That depends.
As a national umbrella organization, Meals on Wheels America does not provide services to seniors, but its members do. “Our membership finds the stories,” says Waldman. “They are the ones out there touching people’s lives every day. We invest in collecting the stories with our members. We travel, we film, we interview.”
The American Road and Transportation Builders Association relies heavily on storytelling when fundraising for its Lanford Family Highway Worker Memorial Scholarship Program, which awards funds to children whose parents were permanently disabled or killed while working on transportation projects.
“The stories sort of tell themselves,” says Eileen Houlihan, ARTBA’s director of foundation programs and media relations manager. “The students who apply for the scholarships send in information about how their parent was injured or killed and talk about their personal journey.”
ARTBA uses the information the student provides to create vignettes that tell how the scholarship will help them. The association then includes these with its annual fundraising letter, which Houlihan says makes a real impact.
Vignettes work because stories don’t have to be elaborate. “Two or three sentences on a photo—that is a story,” Tiffany says. “A sidebar with all the ways your associations are making a difference—that is a story. It doesn’t have to be a 500-word press release. Brevity is driving content more and more.”
An association may have a great story, but no potential donor will hear, read, or see it unless it’s shared in the right place.
“It’s really [about] maximizing each channel,” Waldman says. “Generally, where people are spending time is where you want to be.”
Meals on Wheels America tells its stories in emails, on its website, and on social channels like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. Videos tend to work well on social media because people expect to see videos in those spaces.
“With a fair amount of predictability, if they are dedicating time to watch video, they will watch your video,” Waldman says. “The question is, how long can you get them to stop and pay attention?” On the other hand, Waldman says, the group doesn’t use video in email outreach.
Also, channels can be used effectively in concert with each other. “Social is great for directing people back to content,” Tiffany says. “Facebook is a great place to get them back to your blog.”
And while the online world is popular because of its accessibility, going old-school works well too. For example, ARTBA gets the best response when students tell their stories in person at its annual meeting.
“I think it’s much better when it’s a personal story told right in front of you,” Houlihan says. “It’s very moving just to read the story, but it’s moving to hear it in person as well. [The students] get up and speak from the heart. Some of them lost their parents while young. Some lost their parents while they were in college, so the impact it had on them is what they talk about.”
Bringing It All Together
Even after associations have developed and shared their stories, their work is not over. To properly use storytelling in fundraising, the stories must help foster a relationship between donors and the organization.
Meals on Wheels America wants its donors to understand how their money is improving the lives of seniors nationwide. “We communicate the impact they are having,” Waldman says. “We thank them for the donations they’ve given. We say, ‘We’ve delivered a million meals because of you.’”
Tiffany calls this process stewardship. “You have to deliver on that promise,” she says. “Stewardship is a big part of this. Say, ‘Here is a student who got this scholarship, and this is how grateful he was. This is the promise we made to you, and we did it.’ This builds trust and a feeling of camaraderie. The next time you come to them, they are going to have that sense of trust.”
Those sharing their stories also play a role in the stewardship process. “The people who we are getting stories from are so appreciative,” Waldman says. “They are happy to talk about it. They gain a lot themselves out of sharing their stories. They want to thank those people who have been helping, and they see this as a way to give back.”
When it all comes together, stories are told, donors feel they’ve made an impact, and associations have accomplished the work they set out to do.
“I imagine many of us working in nonprofits, that’s what we came for: to stand up for people who need our help,” Waldman says. “If we are working in an office, finding the stories, retelling the stories is where we get to engage our own passion. We really get to bring our humanity to our work.”
[This article was originally published in the Associations Now print edition, titled "The Storytelling Touch."]