Crafting Stories to Engage Donors, Volunteers and Staff
In the wake of the recent election one hard learned lesson is clear - the need to understand the perceptions of your constituents and what motivates them. While it will take months, or possibly years, to see how the new administration will impact philanthropy, the issues nonprofits address remain.
Taking the pulse of your constituents, reviewing your mission and engaging volunteers and donors of all ages and backgrounds by effectively communicating your success stories will help align your organization’s communications and development strategies.
Yet creating engaging and ongoing story content can be a real challenge for many nonprofits. You’ve probably heard the content mantra many times - stories focused on those doing the work and those impacted by your organization's work should illustrate your successes, inspire action by donors and volunteers alike, and reinforce your mission’s value firmly in the reader's mind.
Storytelling vs. Random Content
Using storytelling methods to curate content helps focus your message to engage your target audience(s). It also means keeping your storyline going. Think of it as a novel. You wouldn't write just one or two chapters and stop. Your readers want to know what happens next.
Return to the stories you started last week, last month or last year to let your constituents see the progression of each story. Remind them of the importance of your programs and the urgency of your call to action. And in doing so, you’ll give them a reason to remain engaged with your mission.
- Let your mission impact inspire your content creation and create a story arc to move your reader over time from beginning to end. Think of a novel’s progression from conflict to climate to resolution.
- Strategy should drive content creation so have a clear outcome or ending in mind. What do you want to achieve – gain attention from major media outlets; increase program attendance; create momentum for an upcoming capital campaign; or tap into potential volunteers?
- Frame your stories to support your staff's varied goals by creating solid relationships between the program and fundraising staff and your communications staff. Think of your goals, programs and key players, both internal and external to your organization, as material for upcoming chapters.
- Talk with volunteers and donors and let their stories be heard to give you more diverse characters for a more rounded storyline.
- Help your audience connect with the issue(s) your organization addresses by focusing on the people (not the issue) affected by your work. Tell the story of their struggles as well as their successes, so your readers connect with them on a human level much as they would connect with the protagonist of a novel.
- If you have multiple target audiences, create storylines geared for each of them. Science fiction fans don’t necessarily care to read mystery novels, so write for your readers.
- Leave some of your stories as “to be continued” – the child still waiting to be adopted, the puppy still waiting for its forever home, the teenager still looking for a mentor/tutor – to compel readers to resolve the suspense by remaining engaged through volunteering or donating.
- Avoid content creation by committee by letting groups offer ideas, but leave the crafting of stories to your communications staff or person to ensure a unified voice to your messaging. Think how challenging it would be to read a novel written by five different writers, each in their own voice.
- Remember that data conveys information, but infographics tell a more visual story.
- Repurpose content you already know people valued most based on social media engagement and website analytics. (Authors often borrow from real life when writing fiction – it’s their version of repurposing content!)
As we move forward, nonprofits with a solid storytelling strategy will be better positioned to unite their constituents in supporting the work necessary to continue serving the common good.
Pamela J. Willits, owner of PJ Wordsmith, provides communications and grant writing services for nonprofits and educational institutions. Pamela has served on the Association of Fundraising Professionals Greater Cleveland Chapter Board of Directors and is a member of the Grant Professionals Association. She holds a BA from The Ohio State University and has been crafting messages and telling stories for over 25 years.
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