Storytelling as a development tool

by Yvonne Hundshamer, Blue Grotto Inc.

Effective Storytelling communicates the values that attract donor interest

When you want to know more about someone, you wonder about his or her “story” - family, tastes, talents, accomplishments. Increasingly, foundations and other grant makers do the same when evaluating a request from a nonprofit organization. Evaluators want to know your story. It’s one reason most grant applications require a narrative, encouraging you to give a detailed account of your history, the population you serve, and how effectively you manage resources.

For many organizations, the grant making process has itself become a form of storytelling. It is used to communicate the core values of an organization. Consider that your nonprofit competes against dozens of other, worthy organizations for a shrinking pool of funds. How can you distinguish yourself? And how do you grow your base of support while maintaining close ties to your existing base of donors? In her new book Beyond Fund Raising : New Strategies for Nonprofit Innovation and Investment author Kay Sprinkel Grace gives a suggestion - “Donors must be inspired by shared values, partnership, respect, and vision.”

Why storytelling?

Storytelling is a powerful tool. More than flow charts or bullet points, stories stick with people. Whether your goal is to reach one person, or to stand out at a volunteer fair where hundreds of people will pass through your booth, your story can introduce the organization’s values and also give others the chance to both rationally and emotionally connect with your work.

“The best way to (persuade people) is by telling a compelling story. In a story, you not only weave a lot of information into the telling but you also arouse your listener's emotions and energy.”

Robert McKee (From “Storytelling that Moves People, a Conversation with Screenwriting Coach Robert McKee,” Harvard Business Review, June 2003

Storytelling also promotes the shared vision that strengthens your relationships. Anecdotes help an organization show who it is rather than simply tell what it does. They take into account the organization’s roots, the passion of its founders, and the philosophies that went into building it. An organization’s mission and vision, where it has been and where it is going are often best illustrated through a narrative.

The process of chronicling your organization’s experiences, accomplishments, people and memories enriches your key messages. It encourages you to celebrate the past, capturing the elements that help make you distinctive. Moreover, it articulates the values that have kept the organization relevant in today’s competitive nonprofit environment - providing much needed context for strategic planning.

Too few organizations take advantage of the opportunity to tell their stories in routine communications. Taking the time to tell your story in every format - from newsletters and fundraising materials to advertising and mission statements - helps you connect more closely with audiences. This ensures that potential donors, volunteers, and community representatives get to know you better, an important element of fund development.

What makes for a good story?

What kind of stories can communicate the values that influence fund development efforts? Each organization’s history is unique, but you should work to effectively articulate items such as:

Storytelling offers perspectives in a format that is both easily grasped and easily repeated. Imagine how successful you can be when your key message can be retold by staff, board members, volunteers and donors alike. The Idaho Nonprofit Development Center (INDC) felt the topic was important enough to offer a one and a half hour presentation at their annual non-profit conference: Why Should People Give to You? Why does your nonprofit do what it does? Why does it matter? If you want others to give to your organization, all staff and volunteers need to share the same values – and know how to express them. And in articles on the topic of storytelling, organizational development consultant and author Eileen McDargh writes that “crafting compelling, honest stories that resonate core values in action is a skill worth learning by any leader, manager, sales executive or parent.”

As your organization approaches a milestone, celebrates success, plans for transition or embarks on new initiatives, consider the stories that you have to share. These stories have the power to inspire, excite and support those vital to your organization’s purpose. In the fiercely competitive and rapidly changing environment of philanthropy, it is important to recount the values and successes of your organization and use your own best practices as a map for the future.

Yvonne Hundshamer is president of Blue Grotto Inc. (, a Minnesota business that works with organizations to document culture and values, celebrate milestones and articulate vision