The Truth About Nonprofit Storytelling | npENGAGE

The Truth About Nonprofit Storytelling

By on Nov 16, 2015


Nonprofit Storytelling

I’ve been working as a fundraiser long enough to see some “next great things” come and go.  Others stuck around for several years, or even became a mainstay of fundraising.

So forgive me, but I just don’t get this “new” idea being proclaimed from the rooftops about storytelling.

Don’t misunderstand—I believe storytelling is absolutely critical for fundraising success. Donors (translation: people) are generally not as moved by statistics as by a good story, a connection with another human, or an animal or object that is the underdog. But that’s not a new idea; in my lifetime, fundraisers have always been storytellers.

One of my favorite stories from childhood (and beyond) begins, “Once there was a tree . . . and she loved a little boy.”  Maybe you, too, have read and appreciated The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein.  This is a simple story—just 624 words.  Its message isn’t complicated.  It repeats itself.  But it is powerful, visual and memorable.

This post isn’t a tribute to The Giving Tree, even though this book has stood the test of time (it was published back when Lyndon Johnson was president).  Instead, it is a passionate plea to stop treating storytelling like the latest fad in fundraising, and understand that telling stories is a long-standing, proven means to connect with people and help them relate an abstract concept or one they have never experienced to their own lives.

And storytelling is not rocket science—it’s something any one of us can do.  But it requires us to slow down and look at the work we do and the needs we address with a new set of eyes—the eyes of our donors.

What is going to excite them about the work?  For the most part, donors want passion and vivid word pictures to help them visualize what you are doing.

What isn’t going to excite them?  Most donors don’t have the inclination to read  a long report full of statistics and key performance indicators.  (There are exceptions, but let’s stay focused on the mass market.)  so why do we force-feed them dense pages of statistics, using language that only shows how smart we all must be, and jargon that makes little sense to the donor.

The first several lines of The Giving Tree go like this:

“Once there was a tree…and she loved a little boy.

And every day the boy would come and he would gather her leaves

and make them into crowns and play king of the forest.”

            (Harper & Row, ©1964)

Run this through the typical fundraising editing machine and it will probably read like this:

Once there was a tree that was a common species in our region …

And this tree, were it aware of its emotions, could potentially have strong feelings for a young individual who was a recipient of the outcomes that made this tree one of the more prolific producers of the various other trees in the region.

Yes, I’m being a curmudgeon. But instead of spending time stressing over how to “learn” to tell a story, start listening to yourself talk when you’re with a friend; isn’t that mostly storytelling?  Ask yourself what you read or saw at work today that made you want to cry or cheer, or just smile with pride because you had a role in making it come true; that could be your next story.

And take a few minutes and read The Giving Tree; you can find the entire text here.  In the few minutes it will take to read it, you’ll be reminded of that “once upon a time” when you couldn’t close your eyes at night without first hearing a story.

Let’s rekindle passion in our donors by telling them stories that leave them wide-eyed and asking for more.


Pamela Barden, CFRE, is a Direct Response Fundraising Strategist and Copywriter. With a professional career in strategic fundraising that spans 35 years, Pamela brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to working with nonprofit organizations.  She specializes in writing fundraising copy, P.R. materials and instructional articles, as well as developing and executing fundraising strategy.

As Vice President and Group Director at Russ Reid (2006–2009), she was responsible for the management of the largest single account for this marketing agency specializing in nonprofit fundraising.  Her nonprofit experience includes leading the fundraising work for International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (2001–2006); World Relief Corporation (1988–2001) and Youth for Christ/USA (1979–1988).

Pamela is a Certified Fundraising Executive (CFRE), an Advisory Panel Member for Rogare: The Fundraising Think Tank of the Centre for Sustainable Philanthropy at Plymouth University, winner of a Gold Award for Fundraising Excellence and an ECHO Award from the DMA, a Distinguished Instructor for UCLA Extension, adjunct instructor at University of La Verne and a weekly columnist for “Today in Fundraising.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *