How to Collect Mission Stories to Inspire Donors

“Its 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—in part because they’re busy making the stories happened. “Staff have the raw material.” Tracey Galloway, CEO of Community Cooperative Ministries in Ft. Myers, Florida shares, “but I have to actively encourage them to share their stories.”

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 be requiring staff to share a story when you meet 24 hours. Some of your staff will panic. After sleeping on it, they will come up with something. Even if they don’t recognize that an event 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 exercise. 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 listens to the selected stories. Vote for The Story of the Day. (With large groups, gather people into small groups of seven and select one story to share with everyone.)

3. Reward Quality.

At least one person on your staff thinks they’re too busy to waste time telling stories. Until the evidence is obvious, find ways to prove good stories save time with “perks.” 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 for you to remember the incident, such as “Challenger blew up. Driving. Radio.”  A good story isn’t necessarily new; it’s effective. Allow people to recycle their stories until they win The Story of the Day.

5. Start With Oral.

Storytelling is an oral tradition. Until folks gain confidence with their story-telling skills, don’t expect them to write stories down. Asking staff or volunteers to share stories in writing erects two barriers: time constraints and the need for writing skills. Instead while the details are fresh, suggest they leave a story on a voice mail line 24-7.

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 those with whom you work to hear the individual ideas in stories and how they link together. Use the Pixar formula in a 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 revenue.”

7. Make it Safe.

Privacy concerns may make staff and volunteers reluctant to share stories. You have several tools here to protect your customer. Obviously, you can ask permission. Or you can keep the story and change the details such as the name, occupations, and ages. Finally, you can let your listeners know that you’re protecting the person, “A man, we’ll call him, Joe. . . .”

8. You Tell 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 customers stories, but you do have struggles, insights and stories from leading the agency and these make great stories.

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 came to their application, the panel leaned back in their swivel chairs and smiled for the first time that afternoon. “Thank you for sharing the success stories in your application. We so often hear about needs and not how what we’re doing helps.” The best way to gather more stories: use them and prove how they succeed in providing new resources for your work.

For more answers, check out this Nonprofit  CEO Library.

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Karen Eber Davis

Karen Eber Davis Consulting guides executive directors and CEOs to generate the resources, boards, and support they need to make remarkable progress on their missions. As the award-winning thought-leader, advisor, and founding principal of Karen Eber Davis Consulting, Karen helps nonprofit leaders get answers, generate revenue, and grow their mission. Davis is known for her innovation and practicality based on her work with or visits to over 1,000 nonprofit organizations and her experience leading board and team events. She is the author of 7 Nonprofit Income Streams and Let's Raise Nonprofit Millions Together.