Vanessa Chase Lockshin recently joined us for a webinar in which she covered the five things that nonprofit organizations should be doing differently when it comes to storytelling. We learned about the best opportunities for storytelling, plus easy strategies that your organization can take advantage of.

In case you missed it, you can watch the replay here:

Full Transcript:

Steven: My watch just struck 1:00, do you want to get started?

Vanessa: Yes, that sounds great Steven.

Steven: All right, awesome. Well good afternoon to everyone on the East coast and good morning if you’re on the West coast or somewhere in between. Thanks so much for being here for today’s Bloomerang webinar. “Storytelling in 2016: Five Things Your Nonprofit Should Do Differently.” My name is Stephen Shattuck and I’m the VP of marketing over here at Bloomerang, and I’ll be moderating today’s discussion.

Just before we begin, just a couple housekeeping items. I want everyone to know that we are recording this presentation, and I’ll be sending out the recording as well as the slides later on this afternoon, just in case you didn’t already get the slides. So if you have to leave early or perhaps you want to review the content, you’ll be able to do that later on. Just look for an email from me later today. And as you’re listening today please feel free to use the chatbox right there on your webinar screen.

We’re going to save some time at the end for Q&A, so don’t be shy at all. Send any questions or comments our way. I’ll see those and we’ll try to answer just as many questions as we can until 2:00. And please feel free to follow us on Twitter, tweet us. That would make us both happy. You can use the hashtag “Bloomerang,” as well as @BloomerangTech is our username. And you’ll see Vanessa’s here real soon.

If you’re listening by computer, perhaps you have any issues with the audio, we usually find this a little bit better by phone. So if you want to dial in by phone, if you can dial in by phone. It’s usually a little bit better audio quality. Just find that phone number on the email from ReadyTalk that went out today and a couple of days ago.

So just in case this is your first webinar with us, I just want to say welcome if you’re a first timer. We do these webinars just about every Thursday. In addition to that we offer some really great donor management software. That’s what Bloomerang is and is all about. If you’re interested in that, or perhaps in the market for new donor management software, we’d love for you to learn more.

You can check out our website, you can check out our features page, you can even download a little video demo. You don’t have to talk to a salesperson if you don’t want to. Who wants to do that after all? Please check that out if you’re interested.

I want to go ahead and introduce today’s guest, I’m really excited to have her back. She was a presenter late in 2014, December I believe. So many people asked to have her back so I had to do it. So Vanessa Chase Lockshin is here. Hey Vanessa, how’s it going?

Vanessa: Hey, Steven, it’s going pretty well. How about yourself?

Steven: Very good. Very happy to have you here. We’ve got about a thousand people registered, I can’t wait for them to hear your five things that you want us to concentrate on. Before we get to it, I just want to brag on you a little bit. In case you guys don’t know Vanessa, she’s someone you should definitely know. She is an international nonprofit consultant, she’s a thought leader, she’s a frequent trainer and speaker. In 2012 she founded the Storytelling Non-Profit, and she helped nonprofits articulate their impact to donors through narrative techniques and storytelling to improve their fundraising success.

She provides consulting, training, and coaching to nonprofits all over the world. And she’s helped those organizations raise over $10 million. You might recognize her name, she’s a frequent speaker at conferences and she’s got a really cool project. A couple that she’s going to talk about today. One of which is the Stewardship School. And she’s also a board chair over at Women Against Violence Against Women. So Vanessa, I’m going to pipe down. I’ve said too much already. Why don’t you go ahead and get started, my friend.

Vanessa: All right, that sounds great. Well hello, everyone, and good afternoon. I hope you all are having a great week so far. I’m based in Vancouver, Canada and unfortunately, but probably not surprisingly, it’s actually raining here today. It’s nice to be inside in here with all of you to talk about storytelling in 2016.

I know we’re a little ways into January, which seems crazy. This month has almost come and gone. But I think it’s still a good time of year to be thinking about what we can do differently, how we can continue to improve our fundraising results, and how we can use storytelling more effectively.

We’re going to be talking about a number of different things here today during the webinar, most of which I’m very excited to share with you. Before we dive in a little bit more, I wanted to ask you all a question. And you can use the chat box over on the left hand side of the screen.

My question for you is, did you tell stories in 2015? How did it go? You can just say a simple yes or no if you want to, if you’d like to type something more that’s also great too. It’s always great to hear how people are using stories and how it’s going for you in general, if you’re getting the kind of results that you want.

Great, so lots of you are saying you’ve told stories, it went well. A few of you are saying you’ve used it on social media, there were challenges. Great, terrific, so great to see you all using stories and sharing this with us. A few of you are saying that you are using it online, using video and email as well which is terrific. Great. Thank you so much everyone for sharing your thoughts on this.

I absolutely love to hear that nonprofits are using stories, which is probably not surprising to most of you. I think stories are one of the best ways to really engage donor audiences for a couple of reasons.

The first is that stories are a way for us to really connect emotionally with people. And it’s a way for us to get people to empathize. By that I mean rather than just understanding the issue, people feel more deeply with it. And when we’re able to evoke that emotional response from them, that’s where we can really get them engaged as a donor and really get them committed to what’s happening with our organization.

There are a number of challenges with storytelling. And I saw a few of you have mentioned them in the chat box, if you scroll back up there and look. Some of you said things like challenges with client privacy, or confidentiality. Also not feeling like you totally got the results you wanted.

I hear you, I totally understand that. I’ve worked with a number of organizations over the years who struggle with storytelling in one way or another. And I can really guarantee that every organization that’s engaged in storytelling has had some sort of challenges they’ve had to overcome along the way. We’re going to talk about a couple of those challenges today, as well as some other ideas for 2016.

What I’m going to start us off with are some of the common storytelling mistakes. So what are some things I frequently see my clients and other organizations doing that are totally avoidable. That’s the important thing. There are things that you can do differently. Also I think by really making these really simple changes you can get a lot better results along the way.

We’re also going to talk about five specific strategies for storytelling in 2016. I’m really excited to talk about these. There’s a couple I think are not talked about or used enough in our sector. We’ll kind of round off with some final tips about telling great stories, and as Steven said we’ll also leave some time for questions and answers. So as you’re going along be sure to type in your questions in the chat box, we’ll definitely get to them at the end. I love being able to answer questions for people.

So as Steven said my name is Vanessa Chase Lockshin and I am the president of the Storytelling Nonprofit. If you’re interested in finding out a little bit more about my work and the work I do around storytelling, my website is You may have seen me out speaking at conferences. I’m all over the place during the year in the U.S and Canada. I frequently speak at conferences like AFP and ADRP as well as

[inaudible 00:07:43] and a few other ones.

I’ve had the pleasure of working with clients in the U.S, Canada, and also the U.K on things like storytelling. I’m really helping them to figure out what is their story, what is this big message that they want to communicate to people? And how can they tell the stories of their work so that people understand it better, and ultimately become more committed as a donor?

I’m really passionate about storytelling, it’s something that I love doing. And I think that, as I’ve seen organizations get more and more substantial results from their storytelling, it just continues to make me such a big believer that it’s just one of the ways that we can be, not only effective fundraisers in our work, but also really effective communicators which I think is almost more important.

All right. So another question here for you before we get started. When you tell a donor story, what results do you hope to get? Pie in the sky question, it’s a visioning question. If you told donors a story this year, what kind of results would you want to get? A lot of you are saying financial donations, Elizabeth said funds, absolutely, yeah and you can type your answers in. So Chris said wanting them to connect emotionally, Lisa says engagement. I like the word engagement, I think engagement is a really interesting word and concept in fundraising.

One of the things I often challenge people to do though when we talk about engagement, is to really kind of drill down a little bit more. What do we mean by engagement? What are the different levels of engagement a donor can have with our organization? Is it just financial engagement, or is there something else? Are there different steps along the path to full financial or philanthropic engagement?

Let’s see, what other ones are people saying? Hoping to get people advocating on their behalf, deeper knowledge of our program and our needs. Yeah absolutely, I think that’s a really good one. That idea of really hoping to deepen people’s knowledge of your organization and your cause. That’s one of the things that I think is often most important about stories, is that we can use it as an educational tool.

So rather than just giving people informational updates about our organization, giving them ten facts about what our programs do or fact sheets and things like that, we can actually tell them a more interesting story. And in the process of engaging them emotionally, or surprising or delighting them through that story, we’re also educating them, but it seems much less obvious and more engaging ultimately, which is a great thing as well.

Terrific, so I’m glad some of you have thought about these things. The reason I asked this question is because I always like to get people to think about, what is that big goal we’re aiming for? What is the thing that you really hope to accomplish through storytelling? I always like to remind folks that one of the important things about telling a story is that we’re not just telling it for the sake of telling the story, because we think it’s something we should be doing. We’re ultimately telling the story because we probably have a goal in mind, and we have something we want to accomplish.

So as you’re thinking about storytelling in 2016, I really encourage you to write down what that goal is for yourself and stick it somewhere on your desk where you can see it, and think about that every time you’re engaging in communication with your donors. How can I continue to work towards that goal? Is that thing that you’re sending out, or emailing to people, actually going to help you move closer to that? That’s a really good way to make sure that you’re proactively working towards that with each and every communication that you send your donors.

All right, so as I said I wanted to start out by talking about some of the common storytelling mistakes and there are three I’m going to talk about. One of the reasons I like to start with these is because they’re often mistakes I see a lot of organizations making. And they’re things that are very avoidable. So we’re going to talk about what these mistakes are, and also give you some ideas as to how you can make sure to avoid them and do things differently with your storytelling and fundraising work.

Okay so the first one is the story does not actually convey a need. This might seem kind of counter-intuitive if we’re talking about fundraising and using stories for fundraising. You would think that naturally every story we tell for fundraising would convey a need, or would somehow show donors why we need their money.

I think logically you’d be correct, but so many times I see stories that don’t actually show a need. They’re just telling a story about something that’s happened. It’s kind of a factual narrative about a person, or their participation in a program or service, or whatever it might be. But it doesn’t actually make the connection for the donor, that this is a need in the community.

So one of the big things that I like to remind people of is that donors want to know how they can actually help. Telling them a story is great, but when it comes to the end of that story, we’ve got to then tell them this is a bigger problem in our community, or in our state or wherever you might be working and the geographic regions, and this is why we need you to help. This is an unmet need and this need is very important. So being able to actually show them that there’s an unmet need is really key. Nobody wants to help if the problem is already solved. So we want to show them that there is actually an unsolved problem, that they can then come alongside our organization and support.

Frequently one of the things that I’ll see when this happens is that organizations will tell stories maybe on their website, or in a direct mail piece, something like that. They’ll be writing along, telling this great story about Suzie, who participated in a summer camp program or something like that. How she’s had this great time, how it was really important for her to participate in it, and how she’s hoping to come back next year. And the story kind of ends.

Rather than doing that though, one of the things we can do instead is to talk about how Suzie is one of a lot of kids in our neighborhood who can benefit from summer camp, who can benefit from the things that she’s benefited from. And we can talk about why it’s important for kids to participate in that program.

So again, being able to make that connection for people, being able to go from what I call the micro level, looking at like one person or one story, to macro and being able to show them the bigger picture. Which is I think, often the bigger unmet need in our community that our organization is working toward. And ideally of course that will connect peer mission and vision which is something that donors are probably already really passionate about.

So mistake number two is that the donor is not the hero of the story. So one of the principals that I always abide by when I work on stories with organizations is that our stories have to be donor centered. Especially if we’re telling them for a fundraising purpose. So if we’re sending them out in a direct mail letter, or stewardship, or whatever that might be. Our stories, much like the rest of the writing, has to be donor centered. And by that I mean that we are really putting donors at the center of that piece. They’re the hero of that story, we’re really being able to show them how they can participate in it and make a difference.

So on the flipside of this, the mistake that I often see people make is that when the story wraps up and you think about the characters in the story, the hero of that story will be nonprofit organization. So it will be your organization, you would be the hero of that story, of whatever problem it was that needed to be solved.

Now, I can understand why that would make sense. Because your organization is in theory, executing all this work, and you’re the ones who are actively involved and engaged in this process. But when we’re talking to donors and we’re asking them to make a gift or participate in some way, we really want to focus on how they can be the heroes. How by making a donation they can make a difference. Making it really about them and what they can do, rather than about our organization and what our organization does.

This is, I think, a really big one. So I think whenever we’re talking about how can we improve our fundraising results, one of the basic things I think organizations can do is become more donor centered. And when we’re talking about our stories and what we can do to make our stories more effective for our donors is really think about how we can make our donor the hero of the story instead.

All right, so the third and final mistake I want to talk about is this, no call to action. So again, when we talk about fundraising and using stories in a fundraising context, our goal is probably to raise money on some level. For a project that we’re working on, or annual budget, whatever that might be. Now the thing that I often see people do though with stories is they tell this really great story, it’s very emotional, they talk about the plight of the character, all the challenges they face, how they ultimately resolve this problem.

But then the story just kind of ends. You get the donor really involved in it, and then it just kind of ends and that’s it. There’s no call to action, there’s no next step, what can people do, how can they be a part of this. That’s a huge missed opportunity. I see this happen all the time in stories. In fact, I read an email, I think it was during year end fundraising, one of the many that I get, from an organization. They told a really great story in that email, but there was no call to action, no donate button, nothing in the email. No way for me to actually make a gift, which I probably would have, had there been that.

So every time you’re sending out some sort of communication where your goal is to raise money and you’re telling a story, making sure that there’s a call to action is one of the key things that I always suggest you do. Read through there and make sure, have we extended an invitation for people to now be a part of the story? Have we told donors how they can have a role in this story?

In terms of an actual call to action and what makes it really good, there’s a couple things that I would think about. So first of all, that there’s a specific dollar amount. So you’ve actually asked for a specific amount in a gift, whether it’s $25 or $100, or something larger than that. There’s a sense of urgency, so you’re telling people that this needs to happen now because XYZ reasons. And the final thing that makes a good call to action is having a deadline.

So telling people that they have to donate by December 31 for instance is a really hard deadline. There’s other ways to kind of create deadlines as well, whether or not they’re hard and fast o just for the sake of getting people to respond faster, it’s something that you can certainly do. So specific dollar amount, urgency, and a deadline is what will make a call to action very strong.

One of the things that I always encourage people to do, I know that sometimes we can get really wrapped up in our own organization and the work that we’re doing, but I would really encourage you to start being more of a student and an observer of fundraising material everywhere. So think about subscribing to other nonprofit’s email lists or direct mail lists, and see what they’re doing and evaluate it.

Think about, would you respond to this? What’s great about this letter or this email? What was the call to action? Start to think about what’s working well and what’s not in other people’s fundraising material. That’s one of the ways that you can really learn a lot about how people are fundraising and different ways that you can also use those tools as well.

Ali asked a really great question which I’ll answer now. So she wants to know, “How do you create deadlines while also staying authentic?” That’s a great question. So there’s a couple of different things I would say about that. First of all, if you’re doing some sort of deadline on the calendar like December 31, or maybe June 30 if it’s the end of your fiscal year or something like that. Those are definitely hard deadlines. They’re authentic, they’re real, people can’t get a text receipt for that calendar you’re after, the 31st. So you’re budget [inaudible 00:19:45] those sort of things are all deadlines you can use.

If you don’t have something like that but you still want to have some sort of deadline, there’s lots of ways you can go about doing that. If you have a matching gift for instance, maybe there’s only a certain timeframe where people can donate to then have their gift match. Maybe it’s a week or two weeks, whatever that is.

The other thing you could also think about is running campaigns for specific periods of time. So maybe March is the month where you fundraise for some sort of program that you’re running. And that’s like the only month where you’re talking about that, and having designated gift to that program. So that’s another way you can kind of create that certain urgency or deadline for people. I hoped that helped a little bit Ali. I can also talk about that a little bit more later as well.

Okay, so we’ve talked about the three mistakes. What I want to do now is kind of move away from talking about the mistakes that we often make, to talking about things that we can do differently and we can do better in our storytelling. What we’re going to do now is talk about five strategies for 2016. Before I jump into these though, I’ll add the caveat I guess, but you don’t have to use every single strategy I’m going to talk about. And in fact if you did it would probably be a lot of work and it might be really challenging to implement them all at once.

As we go through them, I would encourage you to think about which one would work best for your organization given your resources, your capacity, your time and bandwidth to execute on something new. Think about all five of them and then prioritize, what’s the first one that you want to try? After you’ve done that in a couple months, try another one. Don’t feel like you have to go all out and do all of these right now. They’re great suggestions that you can use at any time of the year and I think that they’re something every organization can benefit from. It’s really just a question of what your overall fundraising strategy for the year is and how these might fit into that really well.

Let’s go ahead and talk about the first one here, let me flip to the next slide. The first strategy I want to suggest is to tell the story more than once. This is a really good one to think about. One of the things that I often see organizations do is they have this really great story that they collected from someone, and then they tell it once in a direct mail letter, and then that story is never seen again. You won’t see it on their social media channels, they’ll never mention it again in a letter.

But here’s the thing, not everyone will see everything you post, or everything you send out. If you have a story that did really well or that you think donors will respond to really well, really consider how you could get more mileage out of that story, or how you could use it more effectively.

So where else can you tell it, could you retell it in a slightly different way if you’re sending a follow up email or direct mail letter? What could that look like? That’s one of the things that I often use when I’m working on email strategy with people, typically for fundraising email campaigns for instance. We’ll send a series of something like three to maybe seven emails if it’s a longer campaign.

What we’ll do is we’ll often have one key story or key message that we want to convey across all of those emails. The reason that we want to say that same message over and over again is so that the most people possible see it and respond to it. So rather than keep changing the message in every single email, we’ll stay consistent and hope that more people will see it and more people will respond to it.

If we’re using a story that complements that key message, we might tell the story slightly differently. We might arrange it differently in the email, we try testing different things which is all part of this idea of measuring our results so that we can then decide what went best or what did best and how can we really make sure that we are effectively using a story that we put a lot of time and energy into creating.

A quick question here from Amy, “How many times can we tell it before it gets predictable?” I don’t think it’s a question of getting predictable Amy, it’s probably so much as a question as people seeing it too much perhaps. One of the things that I would do is that if you were sharing it, let’s say on social media, I would measure engagement levels with it and see when things peaked, how many people liked it, or commented on it, or shared it.

You could also think about spacing out the times that you share it. So maybe you share it at the beginning of the month and then a couple weeks later you share it again. Then maybe you have a different kind of commentary or picture to go with it, something that’s a little bit different so that people might engage with it if they have not already seen it.

I think measuring results is a really key part of this for a couple of reasons. I always like to measure results because this is how you can really tell what’s working for your organization, what’s really effective, and how you can make sure that you can then be smarter with how you’re telling stories or fundraising, and being able to make sure that you get the most out of the work that you’re doing.

The second strategy I want to suggest is don’t forget about stewardship. I often talk about using stories for fundraising purposes, so using it to ask for money. But the other side of the coin is that we can use stories in many other places, like donor stewardship. I think this is a really important one. We all know that donor stewardship is key for retention, making sure that we keep our donors over many years. But the thing is, that’s it’s often not enough just to say thank you. The actual content of the stewardship matters.

So telling stories in places like our thank you letters, our newsletters, stewardship reports, are all really great places to go beyond just a simple thank you and to really give donors a deeper dive into how the gift was used, and highlight their impact. I think that’s a really important piece of this.

As many of you probably know from reading Penelope Burk’s work or Adrian Sargeant, one of the things the donors like is to know how that gift was used and what impact they were a part of. Being able to tell a story is one very simple way that we can do this. It’s super effective and it really shows the work in action, it shows what donors were a part of. So you might think a thank you letter is not enough space to tell a story, but I promise you it is.

You can tell that story in a paragraph, maybe a little bit shorter. Or if you’re feeling more ambitious, you can also have an insert for thank you letters. Maybe a half-page or a full-page story that you attach to your thank you letters that donors can then read and continue to engage with. Those are some simple ideas on stewardship, there’s probably a lot more I can say on this. I do want to share an example of this with you all.

This is an example from the Nashville Rescue Mission. Some of you may have heard of them before. They have a donor newsletter that consistently raises a lot of money every year. The newsletter is so effective because it tells stories about how donors made an impact. I’d really encourage you to take a look at their website, they have lots of newsletters archived there.

They’ve done a really good job talking about people that they’ve helped, how donors have been a part of this, having their clients thank their donors directly is another great thing that they do in all of their stories, being able to say that none of this would have been possible without gifts from generous donors who helped fund programs like this.

There’s lots of other good examples as well. I really like Nashville Rescue Mission and their donor newsletters. Other ones I like, [inaudible 00:27:46] Children does a really great job with their email newsletters as well. As I said earlier, take a look at different websites or other things like that. The organization that this newsletter here is from is the Nashville Rescue Mission. There’s also places you can look online, like for other examples of donor stewardship, thank you letters, and newsletters as well.

Another idea for you in terms of where you can tell stories that will really help you get results, and this is a little bit different of course than telling the story in your direct mail letter or something like this. This is really about a strategy for donor retention which is another great thing to think about as well.

I’m really excited to talk about this one, number three which is leverage the newscycle. This is something that advocacy groups do really well but I think that most organizations can also use this strategy as well. I’ll explain what I mean by this and I’ll also show you an example as well so you can get an idea of this. The idea behind something like this is to find a sweet spot to connect your issue to what’s top of mind for donors. By that I mean what’s happening on the news? Or what’s happening in your community? What are people talking about and what’s really relevant and then being able to then draw a connection to your organization to say “This is how we work on this” or “This is how we support this kind of work or this issue in our community.” There’s lots of ways to go about that.

Highlighting the issue in the community and how your organization is addressing it is really key. So being able to talk about, let’s say maybe there’s something like a heat wave, this is something that an organization I worked for a number of years ago did very effectively. They often talked about the weather. They were an organization that had a homeless shelter. So they would frequently use things like the weather in Vancouver. Either it was very cold or it was really hot and they would talk about how the weather was affecting people who were homeless.

That might seem like a really simple thing to talk about, but it was actually a very effective strategy because donors would often . . . people living their day-to-day lives would complain about the rain, or the cold, or being too hot, whatever it might have been. But by us saying, “You might think you’re miserable in this weather, but think about the people in our community who don’t have access to shelter or to air conditioning,” and then being able to talk about how we as an organization address that issue was a way for us to bring all of those issues together in our donor’s mind.

I like to think about this as tapping into the emotions that people feel. This is a really great strategy for tapping into issues that are a little bit more edgy, or that people feel much more emotionally charged about. I’ll give you an example here on this next slide.

I work with a great organization here in Vancouver called Women Against Violence Against Women, which is a rape crisis center, and one of the things that we’ve done over the last year or so is we’ve really thought about, “What are some of the issues in our community where people get really angry or upset about what’s happening?” Consistently, one of the things that people are always upset about is one of the universities here in town and the instances of sexual harassment and sexual assault on campus.

What we do in our emails, in particular this one that we sent in December, is we talked about how this institution, The University of British Columbia, has over 23,000 female students on their campus and how they’re not responding to survivors of sexual assault in an acceptable way, that sort of thing. We talked about how our services and our work are really relevant in order to make sure that institutions like this are held accountable and that they are more supportive of women in their environment.

There’s a lot of ways that you can use news stories that are happening in your community and then tie it into your organization’s work and talk about it. Really think about what are some of the news stories that are happening either now or just keep an eye on what’s going on in your community and then think about how can we tie that into a program or service initiative that we have? Or how can we use that to create a bigger conversation about this issue with our donors. That’s a really great thing that you can do.

Strategy number four. Tailor the story based on giving. This is another thing that you can do, and probably one that you would want to try if you are getting a little bit more sophisticated with segmentation which is always a great thing to think about. By segmentation I mean dividing up your data based on some sort of specific criteria. Maybe how much people are giving, how often people are giving, the channel that they are giving through email, direct mail, something like that.

The reason I suggest this is because segmentation can provide a really personalized experience for donors. In other words, if you know what donors give to, so if they like to give to a specific program or a specific initiative that you do every year, how can you then tell them stories about that to then further cultivate that relationship with them, to then engage them a little bit more on that specific program they like a lot, rather than telling them information about programs that they don’t really care about and they’ve never given to. Thinking about how can you further engage them on that one thing that they really care about?

This can be a little bit more difficult to do, I will definitely admit that. But if your organization has the database capacity to do this and the ability to custom create content in different formats, so in email, or in mail, whatever that might be. This is a really great thing, because again, you can touch on what matters most to your donors and really provide them with that highly personal experience, that can often be really great.

We’re here to the last strategy that I’m going to talk about, and this is a little different than all the other ones that we’ve looked at for a couple of reasons. The last strategy is let donors tell their stories. I really like this a lot because this is about building a bigger community and about being a more inclusive community with our donors.

One of the things that is really terrific about creating opportunities for donors to tell their stories is that they actually feel very seen and heard in the process, they feel like there’s more of a dialogue happening between them and the organization, they get to know all these people who are now a part of the organization, who they’re helping, who they’re serving, whoever that might be.

They also get to know other donors. They get to feel that sense of community among people who are philanthropically engaged with the work as well. Being able to understand who those peers are and being able to have connections with them is something that’s incredibly valuable, and can really help to create that sense of a robust community all through stories and the stories that people have to share.

There’s a lot of ways that you can go about doing this. I’ve seen a number of organizations in the last year or two start to do this on social media, where they’re making it easier for people to tell their stories and actually inviting and encouraging that, rather than just constantly putting out content from the organization.

One example, I’ll show you another example here on the next slide, but one organization that I worked with a couple of years ago, they did an annual walkathon, and one of the things they would frequently do is they would actually ask people to share their stories about why they were walking and it was an organization that supported cancer patients and their families. They would ask people, “Why are you walking away from cancer?” and that was called Walk Away from Cancer. It was a really great opportunity for them to get people to share their stories on social media. They would ask them to take a picture of themselves walking and talk about why they were participating in the event. They generated dozens of stories every year when they did this.

It was such a great way for them to allow their event participants to talk about why this mattered so much for them and for them to then amplify those stories a little bit more, and for them to touch on why it’s so important for people to be involved with this event, and then to be able to see that it’s not just one person that’s participating. There were literally hundreds of other people in the community who were also involved in this as well. So there’s a sense of stronger community that develops around this one particular event.

Another example I’ll give to you, this is from the Women’s Center for Creative Work, which is down in Los Angeles. One of the things that they do, and I interviewed them on my blog a couple of months ago, it was probably like last summer I think about what they do, and they frequently hold these monthly story events where they have an open mic and people can come and talk about their creative work and feminism which is something that they’re really engaged and involved in in their community. It’s created this great opportunity for people to come and share their stories, and to connect with other people, and to talk about things that are real for them and for their own experience.

You certainly don’t have to put on a big event for this to happen, it can be something simple through email or through social media. I wanted to give you a couple examples of what this looks like, if you’re interested in thinking about how can you continue to create a larger dialogue through story. I would certainly suggest that one of the best ways you can do that is by letting donors tell their story.

I know that that’s often a challenge for a lot of organizations because it feels like you’re kind of handing the keys over to your media or to social media, but I think that sometimes you just have to trust that people have good things to say and that they’ll be appropriate and that you can moderate and oversee it as necessary.

There’s a lot of ways in which it’s really important to be able to create that space for people to share their stories. I think as organizations who are often at the helm of a conversation about a specific issue or a cause in the community, we can be that place for people to have those conversations and to share those stories.

Those are the five strategies that I wanted to share with you, and just to recap them quickly. The first one was tell a story more than once, don’t forget about stewardship, think about leveraging the news cycle, tailor your story based on donor giving, and let donors tell their stories. Before we wrap up and go on to questions I just want to share a couple more tips on storytelling.

So first of all, think about collecting stories on an ongoing basis. I know one of the big challenges for a lot of organizations is often finding time to collect stories or having stories to tell.

One of the things I recommend is figuring out how can you do this on an ongoing basis, rather than making it this last minute scramble to try to find a story for your direct mail piece. Think about building up a collection of stories, or what some people call a story bank where you have a couple saved up that you can reference and use whenever you need. That’s a really great way to make sure you always have good content and good stories to share with people.

Another thing I encourage you to do is strategically think about your fundraising plan and which stories will compliment it. If you have your fundraising plan done for this year already, which is terrific, kudos to you if you have, think about the flow of things. When are you fundraising for certain initiatives? When do you have campaigns going out? What sort of stories would work well with those appeals or campaigns that you’re doing? Really think about how you can tie stories in or plug them into different parts of your fundraising plan.

This is something I often do with my clients when we get their fundraising plans done, we take a look at it, and we think through “Okay, now that we know what we’re fundraising for throughout the year, how do stories fit into this? What types of stories do we want to tell? What are the key messages that we want to tell people when we share those stories?” That really helps us to get organized.

I think that’s one of the biggest things that’s the most helpful for organizations when it comes to storytelling, when you actually have a plan in place and you kind of got the strategy laid out and the bigger picture sense, for a year or six months or whatever it might be. It becomes immensely easier to then go about telling those stories and doing it in a very consistent way.

Remember, storytelling is also about showing. This is another important thing that I think is so great about storytelling, is that we can actually show the work in action. We don’t just have to talk about it theoretically or share facts about it. If you’re feeling like your storytelling maybe isn’t going quit the direction you hope it is, really take a second to think about is it showing the work in action? Are we really giving people a clear, vivid picture about what’s happening behind the scenes in our organization?

The last thing I want to share with you as well is if you’re feeling like you don’t know where to start with storytelling or it’s getting really difficult to find the right stories to tell, think about telling your own stories. You might not be a client of your organization, but chances are there’s probably some sort of connection you have to the cause, some reason that you decided to work there.

You have a really immensely great story to tell about that. So I would really encourage you to think about, how can you share your own story? Whether it’s at major gift meetings with a donor, maybe it’s on a thank you phone call with someone. How can you tell your own story, and model storytelling for your colleagues, but also be able to just start with yourself first as a way to get the ball rolling with storytelling? So with that, I think we’ll go ahead and do some questions. We have plenty of time so I’m hoping we’ll be able to answer quite a few that came in.

Steven: Yeah, let’s do it, we probably have about 15 minutes. Thanks to everyone who chatted in and participated, and answered Vanessa’s questions. Looks like we got a lot of really good comments on social media, and people even emailed me as well Vanessa, so great job. I’m just going to roll through the questions as they come in.

Here’s one from Amy, Vanessa. She’s asking “What type of approach of storytelling would you recommend for a park or an outdoor space?” It looks likes she’s having some trouble finding a specific story about that type of organization. Do you find that some organizations have an easier time with that versus others, having more compelling stories to tell. What advice do you have for Amy there?

Vanessa: Great question. One of the groups I’ve had the chance to work through last year has been the Land Trust Alliance. They do conservation work in the US and they probably have a similar challenge as you Amy, which is how do we tell stories about the land which is not a person, it’s a place. How can we make that compelling to people when we talk about that?

One of the things that they’ve done really well is to think about who is it that we serve by conserving land? Whose lives do we make better by making this land available, or keeping it agricultural land, whatever that might be? When they think about who is benefitting from that work, it’s always people. That’s usually the end beneficiary.

Then they’re able to figure out who they can talk to, people who access their parks, people who were hiking, farmers who are able to maintain agricultural land. All of those people are people who have stories to tell about why the conservation work has been so important to their lives and that’s been a good starting point for them.

One of the other things that they’ve done and that I think has been really clever, is they also told stories about specific objects or plants in their conserved areas. So I think there was one particular land trust in the East coast, I think it was in New Jersey. They went about telling a story about this rare bird species that they had on their land which they wanted to talk about, so they kind of made up a story about it and they told the story about the bird in one of their direct mail pieces. It was a really effective strategy for them to talk about animals they were helping in their land as well.

There’s definitely a couple ways that you can go about it. I think the first thing I mentioned thinking about who is ultimately benefiting from your work. Being able to make a list of those people and then being able to follow up with them for stories is a good starting point.

Steven: Vanessa, do you think that a story always has to tug at a heart string? A couple folks, I’m going to kind of lump together Pam and Mya, your questions into one. They work at organizations where tearjerker type stories just aren’t really possible. Do you think that all stories kind of have to have that emotional tug or can they be funny, or informative. I think people feel a lot of pressure to generate this very strong emotional reaction. What would you say to folks that have an organization or a mission that those kind of things aren’t always possible or kind of difficult to find at times?

Vanessa: Well I think one of the things that is frequently misconstrued when we talk about emotion in storytelling is that we think the emotion has to be this sad or heartwarming emotion. We forget that there’s all these other things that we can make people feel in between those. If you’re thinking about what kind of emotion you want to convey, or what would best connect with your audience, one of the things that I would say is the best starting point is to talk to your donors and get a sense of why they donate.

I find for a lot of organizations, I talked about WAVAW or Women Against Violence Against Women earlier. One of the reasons donors respond so strongly to the university, which they often talk about in their emails, is because they’re angry about it. It really makes people absolutely livid. There’s this sense that it’s not this heartwarming, sad story, but people are actually angry. I like that people are angry about it because that means that they want to give to it and they want to see change in the community.

I would suggest talking to 10 or 20 donors, calling them up, or maybe sending them a survey. Ask “Why do you give to our organization? What’s so provoking about it and really gets you riled up or excited about this issue?” and try to identify what those emotions are. Then think about how you can bring more of those into your work.

It might not be something like extreme sadness or extreme happiness, maybe it’s something else. Maybe it’s anger, maybe it’s the sense of humor, maybe it’s a personal connection, whatever that is. The best way to figure out what that is is by talking to your donors directly and then being able to tie that information into how you’re communicating with them.

Steven: Makes sense. Vanessa, a lot of people who are listening today and who listen to our webinars in general, a lot of small shops on the call. A lot of people talked about how they’re a one person show in terms of a communications or marketing department, limited amount of time and resources, what advice do you have to those people who are taking on multiple tasks including storytelling and stewardship, where is the best place to start, where can they get the highest ROI in your opinion?

Vanessa: Great question. I think there’s a couple things I would think about. First of all, It doesn’t have to be this big grand activity that takes up all your time. It can be something that you do in a small way but very effectively. So for instance, you know you always have to send out a thank you letter or an acknowledgement letter to people who have given. That letter is probably pretty standard, maybe you change it once or twice a year.

That’s a really great way to add a story into stewardship. And you’ll write it once, it will be in all your letters, and then you’ll send it out to people time and time again. Which is a great way to make sure your story reaches a lot of people.

Other things you can think about as well is, if you are a small shop is if you have volunteers, you can think about having your volunteers become a little bit more involved with your storytelling work. So asking them to collect stories or asking them to somehow be involved into that process can alleviate some of the work from your plate and also help you make sure that you get those stories. So maybe you have volunteers interview people, or maybe you have volunteers talk to staff members to collect stories, whatever that might be. That’s a really great place to start as well.

Steven: Vanessa what about segmenting? We’ve had some people ask about sending stories or crafting stories for specific audiences, so current donors or maybe people that they want to be donors but aren’t yet. What advice do you have for kind of segmenting your audience and maybe tailoring the content for each of those different audiences. It seems like people resonate with the same types of things, so should they change it up very much in terms of what audience they’re targeting?

Vanessa: Great question. I feel like I could talk for hours about segmentation. But I’ll try to be succinct with my answer. I think in general there are often some differences between audiences. They’re small, but those small tweaks can often make a difference in the types of results you’re getting. So for instance, generations.

So people that are over 75, people who are over 50, people who are over 25, things like that. Those types of generations often respond to things very differently in fundraising and often respond to a different type of story. So if it’s possible to segment demographically that’s a good thing to think about.

I think also that difference can come through in your offline versus online donors. There can often be an age or demographic difference there as well that might be useful to consider. But in general I think one of the things to think about is more so what donors are giving to you. If they’re making a designated gift or if they’re responding to a certain campaign, being able to follow up with stories about that program or about that appeal that they donated to, I think is important. Because that’s what’s going to be relevant for them, that’s what they gave to, that’s what they remember giving to hopefully.

That’s a really great way to then be able to connect them to what they’ve given to and keep them engaged with that rather than talking about something that isn’t as important to them, being able to really tap into that is a good thing.

Steven: Vanessa, a question just came in that just jumped out at me, I got to ask it next. It’s from Jamie. Do you remember an example, maybe personally or one that you’ve seen, of a story that you felt really good about but it just kind of fell flat? Any kind of lessons learned there? Why it didn’t work or what the factors were that made the piece unsuccessful or the campaign unsuccessful?

Vanessa: Oh, great question. I have a couple from early on in my career. In one campaign we worked on last year, it didn’t go quite as planned. But I can tell you that the consistent thing that I’ve learned from the handful of campaigns that have not gone well for me has been that we have generally not spent enough time understanding our audience. That’s the thing I always come back to in this work because so much communication is about understanding who you are communicating with.

And while you know that in general you’re communicating with your donors, donors is a very broad way to describe that group. There’s a lot more nuance in that. There’s demographic and psychographic information we can learn about that group of people that can really influence how we write certain things or how we say certain things, how we position our organization in relation to that person or what their beliefs are.

I think really being able to spend as much time as possible understanding your audience is always a good thing. For a lot of the organizations that I work with that’s an ongoing task. It’s something they never stop doing or stop learning about. They’ll often send an annual donor survey, or they’ll try to find other ways to collect data about their audience that will then influence their messaging and the stories that they’re telling.

I would say that one of the campaigns I did early on in my career that didn’t go well it was really because I just didn’t understand why donors were giving to that organization. Once I did understand it, the next campaign that we did was much more successful. We were able to write in a way that really resonated with that group.

Steven: Vanessa, do you think that there’s a medium or a format that works particularly well for a particular type or size of organization? A couple of questions came in around that idea and John here is asking about, he has a small conservation nonprofit, just as an example. Have you found any sort of common ground, or things that work particularly well? Maybe video versus email versus print for a type of organization or a size or a type of audience, any correlations there? Anything interesting you’ve uncovered?

Vanessa: Yeah, great question. It’s one I get asked a lot and I wish I had some sort of standard answer for people. It really depends on who your organization’s audience is. I find for every nonprofit their audience is slightly different or the way that they’re interacting with that organization might be slightly different from other organizations.

Really think about what are the key channels or mediums that people are actually engaging with you on. Maybe they’re very active on one social media channel but not another, maybe they still like to receive direct mail, maybe the only way you communicate with people is through email, for instance.

Think about what those key channels are that your donors respond to, not everybody else’s donors, but your specific donors. I think that you’ll probably find that there’s really only two or three that people are really using, and being able to spend the bulk of your time on those is probably the best use of your time to get the highest ROI on fundraising and storytelling.

Steven: Vanessa, what about the role of the board? Can the board help out in this? Have you seen any active board members actively participate in this process? Either generating stories, or creating them, or sending them out?

Vanessa: Yeah absolutely. Storytelling is actually a really great way for board members to be involved with fundraising. I’m sure many of you can relate. Board members often do not want to ask for money, they’re running the opposite way when they see the fundraising stuff coming. But what we can do I think is reframe how we talk about fundraising to them. It’s really about telling stories, it’s about connecting with people.

And while we don’t always need board members to make an ask, we do need them to be ambassadors in the community. They can talk about stories, they can tell their personal stories as to why they’re involved with that organization, they can tell a story they’ve heard about somebody the organization has helped, and they can just be storytellers in the community. Connecting with people that they meet, with their colleagues, with their family. That’s a very effective, kind of grass roots way to go about it. But it’s one way to definitely get board members engaged in this process of storytelling and fundraising.

Steven: I love it. Vanessa, this has been great. I feel like we could probably talk about this the rest of the afternoon but I do want to be sensitive to people’s time, especially if they haven’t had lunch yet. We’ve got maybe a couple more minutes. I want to give you the last word to talk about all the cool things you’re working on. But maybe to wrap up, what’s one quick tip you would give for people who have never done this before? This is their first introduction to this whole idea or process. What do you think is the one thing they should do today to get started?

Vanessa: My suggestion would be to just start. I know we often spend a lot of time planning or fretting about how things are going to happen, but just starting the work is sometimes the best place to start. Start with telling your own story, or talking to somebody at your organization to find a story to tell. Even if it’s something as simple as posting a story on social media today, start with that. See where that takes you and see how else you can continue to engage in storytelling.

Steven: I love it. This is great Vanessa, and I know we didn’t get to all the questions, but would you be willing to take some questions by email later on?

Vanessa: Yeah, absolutely. If people are interested in continuing to learn about storytelling, I host a free virtual conference every year, which is generously sponsored by Bloomerang this year. It’s coming up, and registration just opened today.

So if you’re interested in learning more about storytelling, we have 12 terrific speakers who will be at the conference this year talking about all facets of storytelling. You can go to It’s happening on February 10, 11, and 12. Like I said we have a great lineup of speakers.

We have Claire Axelrad, Tammy Zonker, Mazarine Treyz, Sheena Greer and a number of other great folks who are coming to share their generous knowledge about storytelling and some great case studies about how other nonprofits can continue to tell great stories out in the community.

Steven: Yeah, please check that out. That was an easy sponsorship for us. I think, Vanessa, I wrote you the check the same day you pitched me on it. We don’t do a lot of sponsorships, but that was a no brainer for us. Definitely check out that event. And reach out to Vanessa, follow her online. Vanessa, I’m going to put your contact info up on the screen. Any additional tips for how people can reach out to you?

Vanessa: Email and Twitter are generally the best ways to get in touch with me. My twitter handle is @VanessaEChase. You can also send me an email anytime, [email protected] I’m generally pretty good about responding to all the emails that I get, so feel free to email me with any questions you have after the webinar.

Steven: This was great, thanks so much for being here Vanessa. It was really fun. We’ll have to have you back sooner than a year from now like we did last time.

Vanessa: Thanks so much for having me Steven. This was a lot of fun.

Steven: Yeah and thanks to all of you for taking an hour or so out of your day. We know how busy you are at this time of year, probably doing a lot of year end receipting. Thanks for being here. This is awesome to have you. We’ve got some great webinars coming up. The rest of the year, we’ve got them scheduled out almost through September every Thursday just about.

Next week, one week from today, we’re going to be talking about major gifts with Jeff from the Veritus Group. It’s going to be a really great presentation. Check that out if you’re a major gift person or interested in that. We’ve got some other ones on our webinar page that you can register for. You may see a topic there that tickles your fancy. We’d love to see you again some time soon.

We have lots of great resources on our website as well. We’ve got our video podcast, our monthly newsletter, our daily blog. We’d love to keep the conversation going with you.

Thanks again for joining us. You’re going to get a little survey when you close the webinar. Feel free to let me know what you thought. You won’t hurt my feelings, I don’t think you’ll hurt Vanessa’s either. We’d love to hear feedback and hope to see you again on another webinar. So have a great rest of your day and a great weekend. We’ll talk to you again soon.

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.