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Embrace storytelling as a catalyst for organizational change

storytellingLast month I sat down with an executive director and two board members to explore how I might be able to help their organization grow their organizational capacity. Over the course of an hour, we talked about all kinds of awesome things such as:

  • the capacity of their existing board volunteers to govern effectively and raise enough funding to operate
  • what average Joe & Jane on main street think their community’s biggest needs are and what the organization sees as the community’s greatest needs . . . and do those things align?
  • measuring the impact the organization is having with its programs.
  • what does “data-driven decision-making” look like and how does it impact board governance?

This laundry list of awesome topics actually could include another three or four topics. It really was shaping up to be a great meeting. I was starting to believe there might be a project or two this board might invite me to collaborate with them on undertaking.

So, when I injected a consensus building question into the conversation such as “So, where do you think I can help,” imagine how surprised I was when none of the things we had just discussed were presented as something they wanted my help with doing.

My jaw nearly hit the table when the board president looked me square in the eyes and said . . .

We can really use your help with developing our organization’s ‘stories’ and working with us on how to effectively tell those stories to the community. We recognize the value of data, but we think storytelling is of greater value.

I’d be lying if the voice inside my head was immediately skeptical. Luckily, I found the strength to keep mouth shut and simply agree to help them with what they asked of me.

In the days and weeks since that meeting, I am getting more and more excited about this project. I’m even starting to think the board president might be a genius. Here are just a few reasons for my ever increasing “glass-half-full” thoughts:

  • Let’s face it . . . data is worthless when shared with donors in a vacuum
  • Real-life stories bring data to life and provide context
  • Resource development activities such as cultivation, solicitation and stewardship are rooted in emotions which require stories coupled with a little bit of data
  • Using storytelling as a starting point could be an effective “organizational assessment lens for board members as they try to develop their own personal stories about the organization, its programs and its impact
  • The art of developing a board volunteer’s story can lead to increased engagement (e.g. visiting during operational hours, volunteers to work with clients, talking to those who have been impacted by the organization’s programs, etc)
  • This approach can spark an honest discussion between board and staff about what more needs to be done to generate more success stories (or conversely, why board volunteers are reluctant to share stories and ask for contributions from friends)

After marinading on this commitment for a few days, I got back to my home office and immediate visited the website of my “virtual friend” Chris Davenport at 501 Videos, surfed over to his virtual store and purchased a 10-pack of his back-pocket book “Nonprofit Storytelling for Board Members“. My plan is to return in a few weeks, distribute one of these booklets to each board volunteer, and start working with them on how to develop their own stories and share those stories with their friends.

I’m viewing this as an organic approach to organizational development. I am buckled up and prepared for wherever this exercise takes us. I’m already predicting that the possibilities are endless.

Are your board members out in the community actively telling their friends and your supporters (and prospective new donors) stories about your organization? If not not, why do you think that is? More importantly, what are you going to do about it?

I feel compelled to provide a FREE PLUG for the 2015 Nonprofit Storytelling Conference being hosted in Seattle, Washington on November 12 & 13. Only the first 300 people who register will be allowed to attend. (Disclaimer: I am not a conference organizer. I have never attended. I don’t gain anything from this shameless plug. I just thought some of you might be interested in learning about this opportunity, especially if you’re intrigued by today’s blog post)

Here’s to your health!

Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC!/eanderson847

Is your non-profit website using pictures to tell a story?

Last week, my friends at Network for Good sent me their weekly eNewsletter with links to all sorts of good things. One of the links took me to an article by Caryn Stein titled “10 Amazing Nonprofit Websites“. With a few free minutes on my hands, the headline was like a fishing lure, and I was hooked. I wanted to know:

  • Who are those agencies?
  • What made their websites “amazing”?
  • What do those sites look like?

The following images are the front pages from three of the ten non-profit webpages highlighted by Caryn. As you scroll down, I encourage you to take a good look because I think there is a common thread running through all these home pages.




What did you see? As you scrolled through these three website homepages, what went running through your head?

For me, it was the pictures that captured my attention. I found myself thinking:

  • Who are those people?
  • What is their story?
  • How did the agency help them?
  • Is there a happy ending?

It has been said millions of times that a picture is worth a thousand words. Since a webpage packed with lots of verbiage has been proven by SEO experts to chase people away, then why wouldn’t you use as many pictures as possible to pull people into your agency’s story?

Last week, I introduced you to Christopher Davenport’s storytelling resources and his book “Nonprofit Storytelling for Board Members“.  Starting on page 10, Christopher introduces the concept of “The 4 C’s of Storytelling,” which are:

  1. Character
  2. Connection
  3. Conflict
  4. Conquest

I won’t expound on these ideas because you’re really supposed to go buy his book. (Disclaimer — I am not affiliated with Christopher Davenport and do not profit from your purchase of his products.)

However, I bring up the 4 C’s because the three websites from the Network for Good eNewsletter article remind me of how much one picture on your website can do when it comes to the four elements of storytelling. After all, doesn’t the picture essentially introduce the character? Doesn’t the image also initially create a connection and get you wondering about the conflict and potential resolution?

Of course, nothing is ever easy when it comes to technology. So, the moral to today’s story isn’t as simple as “go add some pictures to your agency’s website“.

Lenka Istvanova wrote a great post titled “How to Increase Traffic To Your Website With The Help Of Images” at Koozai blog. She goes into great detail about:

  • Alt Tag
  • File Name
  • Image Size
  • XML and Image Sitemap

As I said, nothing is ever easy when it comes to technology, online marketing and ePhilanthropy. My best advice to non-techie people is to: 1) fight through the urge to give up and 2) hire employees and recruit volunteers who are techies to help you.

One final note . . . a few months ago a non-profit executive director friend of mine was contacted by a company claiming that her agency used a picture on their website that didn’t belong to them. Not only did it not belong to them, but there was no photo credit. This honest mistake by an employee cost the agency thousands of dollars in fines.

Does your non-profit organization make effective use of images on your website? Are you pulling people into your agency’s story? After capturing their attention, where are you taking them and how are you telling your story (e.g. YouTube video, article with more pictures, etc)? How are you using images on your website to enhance SEO? Where are you finding your images and ensuring you aren’t violating copyright laws?

Please use the comment box below to share your thoughts and experiences.

Here’s to your health!

Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC!/eanderson847

From the mouths of donors: Part 4

After more than 60 posts to this blog over the last few months, I’ve decided that many of you are probably tired of hearing me pontificate day-in-and-day-out. So, this week I am changing things up a little bit. Last week I launched an anonymous online survey via various social media channels and my email address book. I’ve picked four really awesome responses to share with you this week that I think provide excellent lessons for non-profit and fundraising professionals. Enjoy!!!

Again … the survey was anonymous because I wanted the truth, the whole truth and nothing up the truth. Here is what the today’s highlighted survey respondent said:

Question: Using the comment box below, please write a paragraph or two answering some of the following questions. Of the charities to whom you currently donate money, which one is your favorite?  How did you first learn about this charity? Why did you make that first contribution? Why are you still contributing? How do you know that your contribution is making a difference? What does the charity do to demonstrate it is having an impact?

AnswerUnited Way, Youth Outlook, American Red Cross, American Cancer Society, Heifer Foundation. I was contacted by mail or e-mail, and the charity mission resonates with me personally. They are all my favorites. I really believe that, “For it is in giving that we receive” and in some way I feel good about me giving. I wish I wasn’t so shallow, but it really is about me. I feel good about me buying a gaggle of geese or a goat to help a “real family” support itself. I know they don’t really do that, but I give anyway.

Question: Understanding that these are tough economic times and no donor’s contribution ever should be taken for granted, what does your favorite charity need to do (or show you) in order to renew your support and/or increase the size of your contribution?

Answer: Ask. Tell me a story. Don’t make it too sappy, though. I won’t trust that.

Hmmm … can you tell what kind of real happiness that charitable giving brings to this person’s life? Here is what struck me about these responses:

  1. I am reminded that there have been scientific studies looking at why people give to charity, and they echo what this very smart donor said: “…I feel good…” Click here to read more about this phenomenon. Hmmm … maybe we need to teach our volunteer solicitors about this ground breaking research so they might stop being so fearful about asking for contributions.
  2. In this donor’s second response, I am reminded of an online interview I read with Jim Grote. It was the first time I ever heard of the concept of “Narrative Philanthropy”. In a nutshell, good fundraisers are good storytellers. Click here to read that interview for yourself. I promise that it may change your life! I am also reminded that stewardship doesn’t have to be about fundraising professionals “telling” donors stuff, but it can also be about “asking” for feedback and input.

How does your organization train volunteer solicitors to become awesome storytellers? Do your fundraising volunteers see their jobs are “arm twisting” or do they see themselves as “dream-makers”? What do you do to help your fundraising volunteers with these paradigm shifts? Please use the comment box below to share because we can learn from each other.

Here is to your health!

Erik Anderson
Owner, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC!/eanderson847
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