The Most Important Lesson I Can Teach You This Year

Nonprofit StorytellingToday, I have a story to tell you.

When my kids were younger, they attended the absolutely wonderful Montclair Cooperative School in suburban New Jersey.

My twins, Ben and Kit, are thick as thieves and always have been. When they were five, the school thought maybe they were too thick. The teachers, who knew them each so well, determined that two separate pre-k experiences made sense.

Try telling that to Kit. She was bereft. Miserable.

The sweetest kid in the world actually bit a teacher. It got pretty bad.

In other schools, a kid who bites might be removed from the class. Certainly a punishment of some sort was in order.

But Kit’s teachers proposed a better solution – one that was so smart, so simple, and so compassionate, I will never forget it as long as I live.

THE SOLUTION

Twice a week, Kit would get on the phone and call Ben’s classroom and invite Ben up for snacktime. He’d come into the classroom and Kit would already have set out his goldfish and juice for him. They both lit up. All was well with the world. They would chat for a while and then Ben would toddle back to his class.

I still get goosebumps when I think about how wonderful these teachers were to propose a solution like this. How much they cared.

So why am I telling you this story? Because it illuminates a critical insight.

A great leader is a great storyteller. (Tweet this)

TO RAISE MONEY, TELL A GREAT STORY

For many years I served on the board of the school in a development capacity. I ran the school’s annual fund and twice each year I stood before the membership and made the pitch.

Sure I told them the basics. The Co-op is a private progressive K-8 school with small classes and master teachers. Schoolwork is interdisciplinary. Time to study the Middle Ages? It’s not a week; it’s an entire semester. It’s costumes and sewing, it’s literature, it’s mosaics, it’s music.

But I kept that part brief. It’s not what sold anybody.

What really sold them… the only thing that really sold them… was my story. About my kids and their wonderful teachers. I told the story and then pointed them to pledge cards. That’s all it took.

Can you tell a powerful story like this about your organization and its work?

If not, you are missing out on the absolute best way to bring people and dollars to your organization.

IN THE AUDIENCE TONIGHT

I never missed a Ronald Reagan State of the Union addresses. He was a master.

He introduced a concept into his speeches that has been replicated by every President ever since.

“Joining us this evening, sitting next to my lovely wife Nancy is….” Camera scans up to the person of the evening or perhaps more appropriately, ‘the prop.’

It was always the most memorable part of the speech. It wasn’t abstract. There was no political jargon.

It was just a good old fashioned, powerful, story.

One great, concise impactful story about how your work touches the life of an individual or family in some very real and tangible way. The story would touch the heart of a 10 year old, a 50 year old or my 87 year-old mother (if she could hear it).

Nonprofit storytelling. It beats a mission statement or a laundry list every single day of the week. It’s gold for an organization. It does not entirely trump success metrics but I believe impact is communicated with both.

Reagan brought politics to life with that one story. As if he was at your kitchen table talking about your neighbors and how if we all just pitched in a little more, we could make the world a better place.

I believe that in general, nonprofit leaders don’t do this well. Sometimes they don’t do it at all.

WHAT IF THERE IS NO OBVIOUS STORY TO TELL?

Say your organization is doing research to cure an illness. Or providing training. Or is in the business of advocacy or lobbying?

Harder to tell a story, or so they tell me.

I respectfully disagree. Across a wide spectrum of organizations, at the end of the day, all the work is about real people. Your job is to bring it to life. I’m talking about YOU telling the story that causes people to ask “where do I sign up?”

And what if the audience is disconnected to the reality of the work you do? I’ve had folks say, “they don’t really care so much about the issue; they just contribute because their boss does.”

Your job as a nonprofit leader is to MAKE THEM CARE. A story is the best vehicle.

FIVE ELEMENTS OF NONPROFIT STORYTELLING THAT RAISES MONEY

To help bring a story to life, I’ll use as an example one my clients, ACRIA, who works to fight AIDS through research, education and advocacy.

1. Someone to root for.

I’m rooting for Bob. He is 55 and has lived with HIV since his 20s. He presents as a 70 year old man. His HIV status compromises him and leads to early onset of geriatric issues – like dementia, Alzheimers. He lives in Mississippi and keeps his HIV status to himself. His health care coverage is basically non-existent.

This is a specific individual we portray as our protagonist, not an entire general community.

2. A real struggle or conflict.

The professionals at his clinic don’t encounter HIV patients often and they have some prejudice.

3. Empathy.

Here’s the hard part. Put the listener in the shoes of the protagonist. Try this. “Imagine you are Bob.What would you want to hear from your health care professional? Do you think that is what Bob heard? Nope. Here’s what he heard….”

4. How your organization solves the problem.

Last year alone we trained X thousand health care professionals to provide them with the kind of language and information they need to treat every HIV patient with care, compassion and the highest possible quality of care.

5. Evidence of a happy ending.

Bob is now participating in a research study looking at the intersection of HIV and aging. It’s unchartered territory as a result of HIV meds. But there are new problems. Bob is now engaged in helping us navigate these waters on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of men and women who are now over 50 and living with HIV.

PRACTICE YOUR NONPROFIT STORYTELLING

A great story captures your imagination, creates a memorable visual, and causes you to put down your fork at a fundraising event. It’s so primitive that it’s hard wired into each of us from the time we can remember sitting on someone’s lap in our footsie pajamas.

We know one when we hear one. We remember it. It opens our eyes to a need, a plight, and ignites us to say, “Where do I sign up?”

And yet, it is a skill that many leaders don’t have, that many leaders don’t see as important and it is a skill that requires practice.

I hope you will add “Practice storytelling” to your list of New Year’s Resolutions. Put it before “avoid gluten free food.”

________________________

And if you’d like support on how to tell a good story about your organization, I’m happy to help.

Leaders have used my 50-minute personal coaching sessions to try out their stories, elevator pitches, to talk about speeches at events, and many practical issues they face as they navigate the turbulent waters of nonprofit leadership.

Happy to help you think about how to tell a great story about your organization. Learn more at www.joangarry.com/sessions.

Joan Garry
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Joan Garry

Widely known as the "Dear Abby" of nonprofit leadership, Joan works with board and staff as a strategic advisor, crisis manager, change agent and strategic planner. Joan also teaches at the University of Pennsylvania with a focus on nonprofit communications and leadership.
Joan Garry
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  • bill holston

    Excellent post Joan! I’m going to put that one to work.

    • Let me know how it works for you Bill

  • Couldn’t agree more about the value of story-telling. In fact, I think it’s so important that I put together an interactive webinar for my clients called “Story-Telling for Business.” It’s gotten great reviews.

    • Elaine. Would love to learn more about it. Will email you off line…..

  • Beatrice Szantyr

    You never cease to amaze…simple, clear, profoundly important. Thank you, New year’s resolution made. well above gluten-free.

  • A-cat on the west slope

    I also agree that story telling is what hits people deepest. I am a board chair of a small environmental group that has been struggling through an identity crisis and merger. Our annual meeting is coming up and we desperately need to tell a good story about our future and our potential. We barely have our strategic plan in place and our ED is not really with us. It is all gonna hinge on me and one board member who is a really good writer and who gets it. We will do our best to coordinate the message between the Board Chair, ED and the prezi presentation about the Strategic Plan… that will be our kick off to a season of major donor development that has been on hold for too long. Eye of the Needle…wish us luck!! I might need 50 of your minutes. :-0

  • Colleen

    Great read! Makes so much sense.