Everywhere you turn, it seems someone is creating a new nonprofit to combat some societal evil. In the USA, the number of registered 501(c)(3)s jumped from around one million in the mid-1990s to over 1.5 million in less than 12 years. That is the equivalent of 801 new 501(c)(3)s being created each week…for more than a decade! And “501(c)(3)” is only one classification of nonprofits. It doesn’t even include the number of associations, chambers of commerce and political action groups. Nor does it include the penny collections and coin jars at convenience stores to help raise money for a neighbor’s medical bills.
All of this benevolent entrepreneurialism should help grow our nonprofit sector, right? Unfortunately, no. As much as we like to say we’re not competing with each other, we are competing for people’s attention and donations—the same attention businesses and politicians are competing for.
This competition is making donors much more savvy. No longer are people satisfied with simply sending cash. People increasingly want to direct where gifts are going and see a measurable return on investment from their gift. Personally, I am excited for this new level of accountability. I think it will force us to get better both at doing our mission and increasing the impact we can have on our communities.
But what’s a struggling nonprofit to do? In this environment, is there any chance of surviving, to say nothing of making a difference? Or does it have to simply settle for merely getting by? How do we break through to our prospects in a way that they’re eager to listen to what we’re saying? And in an age of social media, how can we be sure that when people are talking about our nonprofit that they’re telling our story?
The surprising science of storytelling
Telling stories is integral to being human; the science is showing that it’s actually part of our hardwiring. Noted anthropologist Jane Goodall said that human beings are “storytelling primates.” We’re the only species that tells stories. So shouldn’t we figure out how to tell them well?
The next time you’re at a crowded event or at a lecture, pay attention to what happens when the speaker says, “Now let me tell you a story.” Notice how the atmosphere changes. People look up from their cellphones and laptops. For a moment, the room is charged and people are leaning in with expectation.
Do people lean in when you talk about your nonprofit?
5 buckets of stories
As fundraisers and marketers, we are the storytellers. We are the keepers of the lore of our organization. We naturally hear stories from donors and supporters. As we share those stories within our organization, our co-workers become re-energized.
These five categories of stories are a helpful way of organizing stories for both our internal and external audiences.
- Founding Stories—what wrong was your organization created to set right?
- Mess-Up Stories—when did people make mistakes for the right reasons?
- Suffering Stories—when has your organization gone through challenging times and had to just “gut it out?”
- Phoenix Stories—when have you been under attack and come out victorious?
- Glorious-End Stories—what will the world look like when your nonprofit is no longer needed?
Think of each of them as buckets for collecting stories. As you start filling the buckets, you’ll start training your entire organization to harvest more stories for each. And as the buckets get filled, when you find yourself in a situation, you’ll be able to dip into a bucket and pull out an appropriate story.
Often our nonprofits are so intensely focused on surviving in the present and moving toward some projected future that we forget the past. We forget the stories and the people who brought us to where we are today. Having stories in these buckets helps us remember.
Stories invite the people in our organization to be part of something larger than themselves. These stories provide a touchstone for measuring our present. They resonate with people outside our community—both with supporters and those we’d like to have supporting us. Stories can breathe inspiration into an organization. People doing valiant deeds awaken something in us that wants to excel, too.
So take the time to get to know how to tell stories well. Start systematically collecting your own!
Originally posted 3.22.2016—Updated 7.2.2018