Fiction storytellers are taught from an early age to “write what you know” and to “show, not tell.” Both of these admonitions apply to nonfiction storytelling as well. “The most important person in a story is you,” says fundraiser Ken Burnett to colleagues who come to him for advice. At first glance, this might seem to contradict the fundraising mantra of focusing the story on the donor and not on the organization. But in practice, the two perspectives are not just complementary, but also necessary. In a well-told story, you are serving as a proxy for the donor. “It is in effect saying, ‘I was there and I saw this, and believe me, if you had been standing there beside me, you would understand this too,'” Burnett explains.
An effective eyewitness story exudes authenticity. “It’s a lot harder sell when you have to repackage other people’s stories,” Burnett says. He advises people not to write their stories down too quickly after they happen. A story full of raw, fresh emotions tends to come across as false and insincere. At the other extreme, over-editing can have the same effect, though it can sometimes be difficult to balance the need for review and approval up the chain with the need to preserve what makes the story compelling. (“I like to believe that the customer is always right,” Burnett observed, “but I wish that the customer wouldn’t always rewrite!”)
Regardless of the writing and review process, the goal should be to craft a story that reads like it was created more or less spontaneously. “You can still script a story,” says Burnett, “but the best stories retain an element of improvisation.”
A successful story is also tailored for its audience. As legendary advertising copywriter David Ogilvy put it, “If we don’t understand them, how can we expect them to understand us?” When writing stories, fundraisers can and should draw on their extensive knowledge of donors and the community to craft a tale that will resonate with them. To share a story is to give a donor something of value stands out from everything else that’s coming in through their inbox and mailbox. Your generosity in offering a story to a prospective donor is more likely to lead to that person wanting to share something with you in return.
This post was adapted from “Once Upon a Time: How Storytelling Can Motivate Donors to Support Your Nonprofit Without Being Asked,” by Paul Lagasse, Advancing Philanthropy, Summer 2016 (reprinted with permission). You can read the whole article here.