July 24, 2014

How to Collect Mission Stories to Inspire Donors, Funders, and You

“It’s hard to get staff to share stories.” Glenda Leonard, Development Director at the Salvation Army, said, “We’ve even made it part of their annual reviews, and still, it’s a struggle.”

You need fresh stories of your success—they prove you change lives. You need stories because they open the emotional door of people’s hearts so that your facts, data, and needs can be shared. Yet, it is a challenge to get fresh stories from front-line staff and volunteers—partly because they’re busy making the stories happen.

“Staff have the raw material.” Tracey Galloway, CEO of Community Cooperative Ministries in Ft. Myers, Florida, shares, “But I have to encourage them to share their stories actively.”

Here are nine techniques to help you collect more stories. They will help you to hear, “This amazing thing just happened,” more often.

1. Set Expectations in Advance.

Announce that you’ll require staff to share a story when you meet 24 hours. Some of your team will panic. After sleeping on it, they will come up with something even if they don’t recognize the tidbit as a story. With coaching, they can shape an incident into something with a past, now, and future hope.     

2. Practice Storytelling.

Use story exchanges at meetings like this:

  • Get a partner.
  • Each partner shares a story for one minute.
  • The partners select the better of the two stories to share with the group.
  • Gather to listen to the selected accounts.
  • Vote for The Story of the Day. (With large groups, gather people into small groups of seven and choose one story to share with everyone.)

Finally, a good story isn’t necessarily new; it’s effective. Therefore, allow people to recycle their stories until they win The Story of the Day.

3. Reward Quality.

At least one person on your staff thinks they’re too busy to waste time telling stories.

To keep them in the game, provide short-term “perks” until the long-term payoff starts.

For example, you might move the best storyteller of the day to the top of the agenda. Once his or her issues are done, excuse them from the meeting.

4. Encourage the Use of Story Logs.

What are story logs? A file folder full of story ideas. These can be online or in hard copy. Each entry includes enough details to remember the incident, such as “Italy. Campground. Lego Set.” which reflects my memory of September 11 and is enough to trigger my experience.

5. Start With Oral.

If you ask staff or volunteers to share stories in writing, you erect two barriers: time constraints and the need for writing skills. Storytelling is an oral tradition. Don’t expect folks to write stories until they gain confidence.

Instead, suggest they send you a text.

6. Play With Storytelling.

Stories are a collection of ideas that work together. The formula credited in the media to Pixar is:

  • Once upon a time, there was ___.
  • Every day, ___.
  • One day ___.
  • Because of that, ___.
  • Because of that, ___.
  • Until finally ___.

Help others to see how ideas in stories link together. Use the Pixar formula in story sessions.

Another day teach the Smith Magazine model: Use six words. “Hungry Family. Donated Food. Famous Tacos.” “Silent child. Singing teacher. Musical child.” And, a little bit of shameless promotion: “Frustrated nonprofit. Consultant insights. New strategy.”

7. Make it Safe.

Privacy concerns may make staff and volunteers reluctant to share incidents. You have several tools here to protect everyone.

You can ask permission.

Or you can keep the story and change details such as names, occupations, and ages.

Finally, you can let your listeners know that you’re protecting the person, “A man, we’ll call him Joe. . . .”

8. Tell Your Stories, Too.

Sandy was the CEO of a nonprofit that served special needs children. Whenever (and I mean whenever—you could catch her in a revolving door)—she spoke, she told a story about a child the agency served.

To encourage others to share stories, tell them yourself. You might not have direct customer stories but face struggles and gain insights from leading. Perhaps you convinced a funder to reconsider your application or someone to serve on the board by telling them a story. Stories about how stories work maybe not for donors but for your supporters who need to hear that people change.

9. Story Power. 

The sun was setting. The grant review panel was tired. The nonprofit was the last of ten applicants to present. When it was finally time for the nonprofit’s application to be reviewed, the panel leaned back in their swivel chairs and smiled for the first time.

“Thank you for sharing the success stories in your application. We often hear about needs and not how what we’re doing helps.”

The Bottom Line

What is the best way to gather more stories? Collect and use them. Then share how they provide new resources and fans of your work.

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Karen Eber Davis

Karen Eber Davis provides customized advising and coaching around nonprofit strategy and board development. People leaders hire her to bring clarity to sticky situations, break through barriers that seem insurmountable, and align people for better futures. She is the author of 7 Nonprofit Income Streams and Let's Raise Nonprofit Millions Together.


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