When I first started working in the nonprofit sector, my job was to host learning opportunities for teen girls. “Katie” was one of the first girls I ever met, a 12-year-old who loved ballet, soulful music, and chocolate chip cookies. Katie had also been born with a cleft lip.
By the time I met her, Katie had undergone 14 reconstructive surgeries and was facing at least two more. She was self-conscious, rarely making eye contact with anyone. Shortly after we met, I hosted a lock-in for 300 teen girls, focusing on developing strong self-esteem.
While walking through the halls of the event, I saw Katie emerge from her breakout room sobbing.
I went into panic mode: What had happened? Was she OK? What could I do to help her?
And Katie looked at me with huge, tear-soaked eyes and a quivering bottom lip and said:
“Holly, today is the first day I have ever been able to look at myself in a mirror and call myself beautiful. Thank you. Today, I know I am beautiful.”
The Power of a Good Story
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: stories are the currency of fundraising. Regardless of how you start, people pay attention to a good story. Stories ignite emotions and speak to the human experience. They allow you to humanize your mission and help your donor relate to the organization on a personal level.
When I was getting started in fundraising, a colleague of mine told me to always have a handful of stories in my back pocket that I could pull out at a moment’s notice. This advice served me well as I went on donor calls, attended networking events, and generally interacted with our giving public. Over the years, I found that there were a few basic rules for being a successful storyteller:
1. Name names.
Think about how “Katie’s” story would have been different if I had just called her “one girl” or “a girl.” People emotionally connect to names and automatically assign faces to those names. Using a name, even if it is made up like Katie’s, is the most humanizing thing you can do for your story.
2. Be a Hero.
Katie’s life wasn’t just impacted by her experience with my organization, it was irrevocably changed. When you think about the stories you use, make sure they illustrate how critical the work of your organization is to the world. By highlighting those mission-critical moments, you build a sense of urgency for your work.
3. Bring a tear to the eye.
Evoking sorrow, elation, or even rage connects your reader to the story. Katie’s story was my favorite story to tell, especially when I was speaking to a room full of women. Her experience was one to which they could all relate and it was guaranteed to bring tears to the eye and build an instant connection.
4. Leave ‘em wanting more.
I purposefully stop with Katie’s quote when I tell her story. You don’t know my response. You don’t know what she did next. You don’t know where she is today. Those are all details I know, but they aren’t necessary in my initial story. You want to leave your donor wondering.
Those later details might become necessary when I begin to formulate my pitch or ask.
Today, Katie is in college and studying to be doctor. She has created a coloring book for children born with cleft lips and palates. This book tells Katie’s story so that children with cleft lips and cleft palates learn how to see their individual beauty. Your gift of $XXX will help us continue to teach young women, like Katie, how to be confident in themselves and how to pass that confidence along to future generations.
All told, nothing is as valuable to a fundraiser as a good story. Stories captivate the mind, engage the imagination, and humanize your mission. I have a quote that hangs on my desk. It reads:
Those who tell the stories rule the world.
The power of the story is real. All you need to do is tell a good one.