Six Elements Of A Good Non-profit Story

WWF Turtle image
By Maria Chilcott   (This article was first published in Fundraising and Philanthropy Magazine - )
Stories are the currency of fundraising. But you can’t tell stories successfully until you can tell which stories are gold.

It’s one thing to know storytelling is important for your direct mail letters, website, social media sites, YouTube clips, presentations and meetings. It’s another to be able to identify the good stories within your organisation. Some causes can just seem more dramatic and compelling than others. Perhaps you’re so close to the action it’s hard to see what is interesting to an outsider.

How can you recognise these poignant, funny, sad, memorable and exciting narratives that will convey the heart and soul of your work to donors – and importantly show them the difference they can make? There are six key elements to watch for.

1. It’s contagious

I like the approach of James Buckhouse from Twitter’s corporate design team: “A good story is one that you want to repeat.” If you hear or read something then find yourself continually thinking about it or telling it to others, you’ve probably struck gold.

2. It is personal

The facts about a social need can be complex and overwhelming. But a good personal story centres donors’ attention on a character whose situation or experience they can relate to. Ideally it should be an actual person (or animal if they are your cause) and keep it to just one. This gives the donor a focus and taps into human hard-wiring to want to find out about other individuals. It also encourages action because one person can be helped, whereas large-scale issues seem impossible to eradicate.

The international aid agency charity: water brilliantly expresses the urgent global need for clean water through individual stories like Jean Bosco’s: “Shy and sturdy, he carried an empty 5-gallon Jerry can on his head with a banana as the cork. At 15 years old, his days were filled with little more than water fetching.”

Mind you, a story’s ‘hero’ needn’t always be a beneficiary. They could be a passionate volunteer, someone who’s gone that extra mile (often literally) to raise money for your non-profit. You might have a major donor who is keen to inspire others to be generous.

It could be a leader like WWF Australia’s CEO Dermot O’Gorman, whose regular blogs on the charity’s website reveal how he is touched personally by its work. Or Chris Cuffe, the founder of Australian Philanthropic Services (APS), a non-profit that helps people establish Private Ancillary Funds. Speaking with potential donors, he tells the story of how he became a philanthropist and established APS. These revelations have attracted major donors and helped grow Australian philanthropy.

3. It is detailed

Try to communicate the specific, unique and rich little details that will ring true and bring your subject’s experiences to life. These set a scene and make a story easy to grasp. Include sensory information like colours, sights, sounds, smells, skin crawling, goosebumps, a lump in the throat; or emotions like joy, terror, hope, dread.

There is a caveat here though. While details are captivating and evocative, too many can distract and confuse. It helps to think about the purpose of your story then ask yourself whether the detail is furthering that purpose. If not, hit ‘delete’.

4. It makes people care

Making an emotional connection with donors is another must. A way to gauge this is by considering how much the story moved you. If it made you smile, cry, gasp, laugh, or shake your head, chances are it will also evoke a response in others.

5. It shows a transformation

Donors want to achieve change, so they give towards the better world created by your work. Your story should reveal how you’re going to improve someone’s life by showing a problem identified and addressed with your donors’ help. Include obstacles the story subject has overcome and be positive because that gives donors confidence that their help will do some good.

Your story should have a beginning, middle and end but exactly where you begin is up to you. What moment most piques your own curiosity? Perhaps that’s the best starting point to create drama and a sense of tension and anticipation, as people wonder will happen next.

Try incorporating an element of surprise. This could be in the vehicle you choose to tell the story. An example is a clip promoting the 2014 Vinnies CEO Sleepout event which tells the story of a homeless boy in simple but vivid words and animation that hold your attention to the end.

6. It uses great visuals

Choose one key image and remember that faces engage people best. Photos where you clearly see the eyes help to create an instant connection.

Today supporters can track your stories 24/7. So it’s vital that storytelling be in your fundraising toolkit. With practice, some curiosity and passion, you’ll soon be recognising and telling the compelling stories that engage, motivate, and inspire donors … and their contacts.

By Maria Chilcott

I work with non-profit organisations, helping them to transform their communications with stories that will inspire giving. Email me