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Vanessa Chase of The Storytelling Non-Profit recently joined us for an episode of Bloomerang TV. She shared her advice for nonprofits who want to improve their storytelling abilities, as well as the benefits of doing so. You can watch the full episode below:

Full Transcript:

Steven Shattuck: All right. Hello. Welcome to this episode of Bloomerang TV. Thanks for joining in. My name is Steven Shattuck. I’m the V.P. of marketing here at Bloomerang.

Today I’m really excited to be joined by Vanessa Chase of The Storytelling Non-Profit. She’s just an awesome non-profit strategist, a great blogger, one of my social media buddies. It’s great to have you here, Vanessa. Thanks for joining us.

Vanessa ChaseVanessa Chase: Yeah, thank you so much for having me, Steven. I’m super excited to be here today.

Steven Shattuck: Cool. For people who don’t know you, Vanessa, or maybe aren’t following you online, could you talk a little bit about the work you do and kind of the things that you’re into?

Vanessa Chase: Absolutely, yeah. My background is in non-profit fundraising. I used to be a development officer not so many years ago. I was really frustrated by a lot of the relationships that I had with donors. I constantly felt like people just didn’t care enough about the cause. It led to many late nights and many frustrating relationships and attempts at fundraising.

I finally started to do a little bit more of reflecting on how I was fundraising, how we as an organization presented ourselves, and it really led me back to this issue of how we communicated with donors, how we steward them, how we moved our relationships forward. That got me interested in better communication methods.

And one of the things that I’ve really come to love a lot is storytelling — which has led me to most of my current work in teaching organizations and fundraisers how they can tell those stories to build relationships with their donors to improve the revenue and also just to create a better philanthropic environment.

Steven Shattuck: Great, cool. You run a really great blog. I tweet your stuff all the time because it’s so well written and insightful. The Storytelling Non-Profit. You’re obviously into storytelling. We should say that today’s your one year anniversary of that venture.

Vanessa Chase: Yeah.

Steven Shattuck: Congratulations on that.

Vanessa Chase: Thank you.

Steven Shattuck: That’s very cool. For those of you that don’t read that blog, you need to read that blog. Bookmark it and check it out. Because there’s really great content on there.

Vanessa Chase: Thank you.

Steven Shattuck: So, storytelling — this isn’t something that I see a lot that non-profits focus on. There are always other topics that people write about and talk about. But, this seems really important. Why is storytelling something that non-profits should focus on in your opinion?

Vanessa Chase: Yeah, that’s a great question, and it’s one I get asked a lot from fundraisers or from executive directors who say why should I care about this and why should we invest staff time or resources into this endeavor? Isn’t this just one more thing that’s kind of trendy and will pass? You know, that sort of thing.

The thing is, though, if you look at how we communicate outside of the fundraising realm, outside of non-profits, how we talk to our friends, how we communicate with family, it’s all through stories. Those are how we build fundamental relationships with each other at a very basic human level. I think that that’s how we create empathy, how we become vulnerable in relationships, how we come to trust people and like them and eventually love them in some cases.

So, I think that a lot of those concepts are really applicable to relationships that an organization has with its donors or with its broader community. So often we’re just kind of this like one way P.R. broadcasting machine —

Steven Shattuck: Right.

Vanessa Chase: — kind of like throwing out facts and statistics. The thing is that nobody can really make sense of those. Your donors don’t have the context to know what a lot of that stuff means for them, for the community, for the world they live in.

Yet, telling them a story that focuses on kind of like this micro level — one person who you’ve helped or one person who’s really passionate about the cause who works at the organization, then they can start to contextualize what those things mean and kind of make sense of all that information. I really look at storytelling as being kind of this facilitation tool to help someone understand the work that you’re doing in a much more meaningful way.

Steven Shattuck: Do you think that’s the issue, that maybe non-profits — it’s too much data and it’s too much appeals and they’re not really, you know, telling the heart of their mission and what’s going on? Or, is it they want to but maybe they don’t have the resources? What’s your sense of the actual problem that folks have with this?

Vanessa Chase: Yeah. I think it’s a combination of both, really. It probably depends on the organization, its maturity level, what the staff knowledge base is. It’s definitely a combination of those two things, though. One of the common things that I’ll see organizations do is in a thank you letter or an appeal they’ll tell people your gift is helping us make an impact or you’re making a real impact in the world. But, you don’t really go deeper and unpack what that impact is —

Steven Shattuck: Yeah.

Vanessa Chase: — which is the hard part. That’s the hard part of communications in any setting is diving deeper and really helping people understand what they’re a part of. In non-profit work that’s just as difficult because we have to be able to explain what we’re doing, how we’re doing it, and why someone’s been a part of that.

I often think that goes back to relating to your mission and your vision for your work. The more you can give people examples of small instances where you’ve taken a step towards that mission you’ve been able to very clearly show rather than just tell them what the impact is.

I think that’s usually a good place for people to start is to look at where have you been talking at this very kind of like high level and how can you break that down a little bit more for people, whether that’s data or whether that’s saying really broad, sweeping statements like, you’re making an impact or you’ve been a part of a much larger movement. Those are good opportunities to use storytelling and to be able to explain those things a bit more.

Steven Shattuck: You use the term digging deeper and drilling deeper. What’s an example of a story that maybe a non-profit could tell that’s just beyond, you’re making a difference? Is it maybe highlighting one person whose life has been impacted by funds? What’s that actually look like? Maybe some examples that you’ve done in your work.

Vanessa Chase: Yeah, absolutely. Well, there are so many examples of stories. I think some of the common ones in terms of the types of characters you could feature in a story would be definitely a client, a client success story. Those I think are the most common ones that you’ll see.

But, there are other great examples, too, you know, featuring a volunteer, a staff member, a board member, even one of your donors. Those are all people who are connected and who are part of your audience. They all have unique stories and unique perspectives.

I actually find that donor stories are some of the most impactful. I remember a couple of years ago when I was working at an organization. I had just made a random thank you phone call to someone one day. We were talking about why he’d been giving to the organization for ten years.

He’d recently become a monthly donor. I’d asked him. He told me that the reason why was because — and, just to give you some context. This organization was a social service non-profit. He told me that years ago when he had been in university he had dressed up as a homeless person for Halloween.

Steven Shattuck: Oh.

Vanessa Chase: He got really, really drunk and ended up passing out on the sidewalk. Somebody took him to the hospital. They actually thought he was homeless —

Steven Shattuck: Wow.

Vanessa Chase: — There was this whole big kerfuffle. He was so embarrassed about it. He said that he spent years trying to make up for his poor judgment.

Steven Shattuck: Yeah.

Vanessa Chase: We talked about that. I was like that’s really interesting. He said that now that he has kids and he’s married he’s really spent a lot of time trying to get his kids to understand a better world view than what he had as a child. I was like, wow that’s really amazing.

You know, just sometimes talking to people, asking them things like, why are you so interested in the cause, you hear the most amazing stories whether it’s a donor or a client or someone else who’s involved.

Steven Shattuck: It seems like you could get these stories like interviewing people. It’s not necessary that the development officer or the E.T. or whatever has to sit down and write something off the top of their head. What are some ways that you can kind of generate or maybe crowdsource these stories?

Vanessa Chase: Yeah. I think this is the really fun part of storytelling actually.

Steven Shattuck: Yeah.

Vanessa Chase: Because it’s such a team sport and you can really use it as a way to get your whole organization involved in something that’s really fun, really positive, and just energizes everybody around the work that you’re doing. So often we get caught up in these little details, the minutiae of our work, and we kind of lose sight of the bigger picture. But, in having an opportunity to tell each other stories first you really kind of re-energize the group and what you’re doing.

I think the best place to start, as I just mentioned, is telling each other stories first. I think that’s always kind of the best exercise you can do before you start to tell stories externally. That can take so many different forms.

The next time you have a big staff meeting, take the first ten minutes and have a couple of people come up and share stories from their work. You can do that. I have always — I’ve never worked with an organization to do this, but I think it’d be a lot of fun, having kind of like an open mic storytelling event kind of like ‘The Moth’ which is a —

Steven Shattuck: Yeah.

Vanessa Chase: — storytelling non-profit in the U.S. They have these events in different cities where they have people come up and share stories on a certain theme. I think doing something like that would be a really great opportunity just to build some camaraderie around stories and have an opportunity and a platform for people to share what they’re doing.

In terms of things that are a little bit more, I guess, ongoing you can build things like a Google Forum where people can submit stories that they’ve heard and have kind of a central place to collect them. Also, if you have a company intranet where you’re collecting information you can also keep it kind of in one central place there, too.

Steven Shattuck: Great. I love those ideas. I mean someone’s watching this, they’re inspired to make stories. They’re ready to get started.

What’s the impact in your mind? Is it increased donor retention? Is it new donations? Is it employee morale probably is one of them? What are those sort of getting down to brass tacks results that someone could expect to see if they really hone in on storytelling at their organization?

Vanessa Chase: I think so much of storytelling is really this transformational thing where once you start to do it it kind of ripples out into so many aspects of your work. Like you said, employee morale, really changing the culture of your organization and how you approach your mission and vision and really focusing everyone on, that, I think, is a really powerful thing.

I think just building better relationships with employees is really important, too. That’s, I think, one of the great things that I’ve seen about storytelling that I didn’t necessarily expect in the beginning when I started to explore the area a lot more.

In terms of fundraising specifically I often think about — Whose chart is that? I think it’s Kay Sprinkel Grace’s chart. It’s the transformational infinity loop where you kind of look at how people move through the different levels of engagement and how you kind of move them through the fundraising cycle.

One of the things that’s really essential in that, which makes sense to me now, is that it’s built on this constant loop of feedback and communication between the donor and the organization. The donor’s constantly in this process of evaluating their investment when they made one. Did this do what they said it would do? Was this a good choice? Do I feel good about this?

They’re very self reflective in that process I think whether it’s a major donor or an annual level donor. So, the more you can tell them stories I think the more you can help facilitate that process of evaluation so that someone does feel like they’ve been positively reinforced in their philanthropic choices and that they’ve made a good decision, that they want to continue the relationship.

It’s a lot of things like that, I think, that’s a huge impact in terms of retention. I remember a couple of years ago when Penelope Burk released some more information on donor wants and needs. I think it was in the Cygnus Donor Survey. She talked a lot about the fact that they wanted to know how their gift was used and they felt like they would make a second gift if they knew how it was used.

Steven Shattuck: Yeah.

Vanessa Chase: It’s amazing to me that we have all this research and data that suggests that our donors want things like stories and better communications from us.

Steven Shattuck: Yeah, absolutely.

Vanessa Chase: All we have to do is really step up to the plate and deliver.

Steven Shattuck: Yeah, all right, well, let’s tell some stories. Great. This has been —

Vanessa Chase: Yeah.

Steven Shattuck: — really inspiring. We’re about out of time, but I want to give you the last word to let folks know where they can learn more about you, maybe follow you on Twitter, check out your blog. Where can folks find out more about the work you’re doing?

VanessaChaseChase: Sure, yeah. You can find me on Twitter @vanessaechase. And, you can also find me over at thestorytellingnonprofit.com.

Steven Shattuck: Yeah, check that out. I really loved your post. I don’t know if it was today, but it was recently. You actually listed, I think, 25 ways that non-profits can tell their story. Really helpful. Check that out. Vanessa Chase, it’s been awesome. Thanks for joining us on Bloomerang TV.

VanessaChase: Thanks so much, Steven.

Steven Shattuck: All right, take care now. Thanks, everyone, for watching.

Kristen Hay

Kristen Hay

Marketing Manager at Bloomerang
Kristen Hay is the Marketing Manager at Bloomerang. From 2018 - 2020, she served as the Director of Communications for the Public Relations Society of America's local Hoosier chapter. Prior to that she served on several different committees and in committee chair roles.
Kristen Hay