6 Tips for Collecting Great Nonprofit Stories

October 6, 2009

If you’ve been in this field for any length of time, you’ve heard all about how important it is to capture your organization’s story.

Most nonprofit marketing bloggers, however, tend to focus solely on one aspect of your organization’s story when, in fact, having an entire cache of stories – from your founder, your clients, your board members, your staff, community members – will make all of your development writing – from your annual appeal to your newsletter to your grant proposals to your web copy – literally flow with passion.

I call them “story swipe files” and they’re a critical component of Simple Development Systems.

How can you find your organization’s story?

Start by paying attention.

1. Schedule some one-on-one time with one or two of your board members to find out what motivated them to become involved with your organization.

When I sat down with a board president for an organization I once worked with I learned the story of how spending a summer teaching with our program completely turned her daughter’s life around. This mother was so grateful that she learned more about the program – and became active on the board.

2. You run an after-school program? It isn’t only about the kids. Make some time to talk to the parents. Find out how and why your organization is helping them, what changes they’ve seen in their children.

3. Schedule a minimum of thirty minutes to an hour a week to call donors with your personal thanks. Really engage them in finding out why they contribute to your organization.

4. Staff members have stories too. They didn’t come to work for your organization strictly for a paycheck. Share your stories at staff meetings and encourage your colleagues to share theirs!

5. While video is nice, photographs can be just as effective. Buy a digital camera for the office and take pictures – lots of them. Pictures make a story come alive and can be included in video or on your website.

6. Lastly, don’t ever try to polish the language in your stories. Outside of basic spelling and punctuation corrections, let your subject’s voice remain authentic, true, and distinct.

One very inexpensive tool that I’ve found to be invaluable in story collection is a mini voice recorder.  Olympus has one of the best – and it’s less than $30.

Create a story inventory. Make story gathering an active, ongoing process. Keeping a centralized inventory of stories will make each writing project easier – and will allow you to use specific examples of your program’s work to match the goals and missions of whomever you’re writing for.

Love this story? Hate it? Let me know – and, please retweet!

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Mark Kordic October 15, 2009 at 7:22 am

Let’s hear it for the priority of capturing stories. All staff members can be alert to the importance of identifying changed lives stories. Give them rewards for their identification of these stories and communicating the impact of your organization will influence others to get involved.

Donald Griesmann October 23, 2009 at 11:58 am

Hi, Pam. As always, good stuff. The story is always the critical mass. The only addition I have is spend a day in orientation to be the receptionist and another answering the receptionist calls and greeting walk-ins to learn what is happening at the gate. I have learned there are fantastic things done at the gate and some dreadful errors piled upon each other happen. There is nevertheless truth about the story to be found there. I have also learned in some NPOs this should never be the lowest paid job.

Lori L. Jacobwith October 28, 2009 at 11:53 am

I, too, am a strong proponent in collecting and sharing stories at NPOs. Two tips from my trainings:

1. Don’t necessarily call them “stories” when you are working to collect them. Ask questions of staff like: Who did you have to say no to today? Or, what client made your day/week? And then listen. They’ll share great things with you.

2. Use this fun excercise to get people understanding the power of words and short stories: Ask them to create a 6 to 8 word “story” that conveys some element of their work like this one: “Joe feeds his family by not paying rent.”

Anything that helps people craft and share stories is great.

Lori L. Jacobwith October 28, 2009 at 1:32 pm

I, too, agree with collecting and sharing stories in NPOs.

Two tips I share at my trainings:
1. Don’t ask for a story from staff. Ask them questions like: Who did you have to turn away today? Tell me about them? Or, which client are you still thinking about from last week? Then listen. They’ll often have amazing things to share.

2. A fun exercise to do with board and staff is to get them to create a short 6 – 8 word story that highlights one of the agency programs. Example: Joe feeds his family by not paying rent.

Give a prize for the most compelling shortie. People get excited to learn how to do this and then they share these nuggets with others.

Susan Stoppelman October 31, 2009 at 9:41 am

Great suggestions.

In addition, I recommend noting some demographic information with each vignette you save. It might help when you use several stories and want to portray the range of your clients served.

Tracy Moavero January 7, 2010 at 3:31 am

Love this piece! One problem many organizations have is that program staff can be terrible at communicating with development staff. I think that letting the program staff know exactly how the anecdotes work in fundraising would be helpful. “Keep us updated on your work” doesn’t cut it. Too vague. But if they find out what specific stories (e.g. client who credited organization with healthy life choices, lobbyist who got a great response from an elected official) can do, it might help. If they find out that a foundation staffmember or a major donor asked lots of follow-up questions on that piece of info, maybe it will stick in their minds a little better. Having a mechanism for gathering info might help too, like creating a folder in the office network and sending frequent reminders of what info would work there.

Steve Smith January 28, 2010 at 1:37 pm

Nice work, Pamela, getting nonprofit do-ers to think about collecting stories. This is what supporting customers respond to. Thanks for blogging!

Tracy Barron Phillips July 15, 2012 at 5:38 am

I am speaking with a NPO this week, and I believe their most important activity in an upcoming transition time will be telling their story. It will be critical – thank you for confirming my opinion and for great tips on how to do it!

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