Sometimes things don’t turn out the way we planned. When that happens, use the opportunity to invite donors to have a closer look at the important work you do.
We love a good transformation story: someone was hurting. Things were all wrong. Then your donors stepped up and your organization did life-changing work. Those stories are powerful and effective, and we love to tell them.
But what if things didn’t turn out so well?
How do we tell a story when it’s just the beginning of a long process of change?
How do we tell stories when we don’t know the ending?
I believe some of our internal conflict over these stories is our fear of giving donors a not-so-perfect picture of our mission. On the one hand, we’re seen as the experts. But really, there are so many factors beyond our control. We cannot fix it all.
I’m not talking about taking responsibility when we mess up (more on that another time). I’m thinking about those interventions where we did our best, and it seemed like things were okay. We saw change. We may have shared a story from a beneficiary who made a radical turnaround because of our work. But a few months later, they were right back in that unhealthy situation. Do you tell that story?
You probably don’t want to (or need to) highlight that person’s personal setbacks. But there are stories you can tell around the experience:
Explain the process of change your beneficiaries go through.
Focus on one aspect of the change process and help supporters understand why it’s such a hurdle.
Share a story about the setting that causes difficulties in the change process.
Feature something in your work that deals specifically with one of those hurdles.
This works for unfinished stories, too. For complicated stories, and for slow change. Use setbacks and the unknown to invite your donors to draw close. You’ll be glad you did.
I can see why people might be hesitant to allow strangers into their space. We are conditioned to look at people who are not like us as either scary or exotic. Since childhood, most of us have been warned of “stranger danger”.
The ad features a family of shaggy “monsters” enjoying their vacation. It starts where many of us are when it comes to inviting strangers to stay in our homes–it’s a little scary. But then we see a delightful series of scenes: enjoying a beautiful view with a cuppa tea, a family hike, collecting shells, taking selfies, cooking, playing games…
These are simple things we enjoy with our own families.
The shaggy monsters clean up after themselves, straighten a picture on the wall, and leave a thank you note. As they close the door, we finally see them as they really are–a human family, just like us.
Kevin Morby’s song, Beautiful Strangers, provides a relaxed musical backdrop. Not a word is spoken. It’s a beautifully orchestrated story with an important message:
Strangers aren’t that strange. We have more in common than not.
The stories we tell can build bridges
Unfortunately, in our attempts to elicit emotion (or donations), we often emphasize our differences rather than our shared humanity. When we do this, we miss opportunities to present a realistic and nuanced view of the problems we solve. At worst, we reinforce stereotypes and even exploit the people we are called to serve.
Every story gives us a chance to choose. Do we set up a “them and us” narrative, or will we do the work to offer another perspective?
You need to tell stories to raise more funds for your mission, ministry or nonprofit. But why is that? What exactly is it that stories do?
When I joined David Oaks’ end-of-year fundraising accelerator in August 2021, David and I were experimenting. We worked with eight small organizations and walked them through their end-of-year fundraising. None of these organizations had done year-end campaigns before, and every one did better than they’d ever done. Some saw wild success, but others still struggled. The difference, at least as far as David and I could see, was the ability to tell powerful stories in writing.
Writing & storytelling make a difference in your fundraising
We talked and we said we have to do something. There has to be some way to help them with their written storytelling projects. That’s when Mission Writers was born. I started Mission Writers in February this year, 2022. The idea was to get writers together and help them help missionaries and small ministries and nonprofits write these stories. We’re still learning and experimenting, but I’ve become even more convinced that this is going to make a tremendous difference for these small organizations’ ability to raise funds.
Let’s look at some reasons we need to tell stories, and why we need to become skilled storytellers.
Why Tell Stories?
Stories help us connect – When you listen to a story, your brainwaves actually start to synchronize with those of the storyteller.
Research shows compelling stories cause our brains to release oxytocin, increase empathy, and have the power to affect our behaviors.
Stories help us remember who we are and what we’re about. Donors give to their values. Telling stories that reflect those values help donors make good decisions about whether you’re a good match for them.
Stories reveal truths – your storytelling can help people see the world in a new way. Shift perspectives, overcome prejudices.
Stories offer dignity and context for beneficiaries, and give them a voice.
Stories put our critical minds aside for a moment, and we willingly enter into the narrative. We try to find ourselves in the story.
Stories give us context to make sense of all those things.
Stories give donors context to see where they fit in accomplishing the mission.
Every known culture tells stories. This is the way we make sense of the world and our place in it. All through the donor journey, especially with people who are not yet aware of you and your mission. Stories help draw them in, and help them get to know, like, and trust you.
You don’t just “need a story” to fill a space in your newsletter. You need a story to show donors what they can accomplish by giving to your mission. Where do they fit in this story? Not just through giving, but in the big picture of a world where this thing is a problem. They can reflect their values, glorify God, ease suffering, and experience deep personal satisfaction by stepping into this story and playing an active role.
In our ministries, stories are an invitation into a world most people haven’t experienced. If I live in America and I’m immersed in church culture, and all my friends are Christians, I don’t give much thought to what it’s like to not know who Jesus is. To not have ever seen a bible. So, when you say you need funds to go and preach the gospel, or to live in another culture for several years so they can have a bible in their language, you can’t just start there. You have to bring donors into that world and give context to what you do and why you do it. You do that with stories.