In the Beginning: Nonprofit Founding Stories

juliebrownGuest blogger, Julie Brown, Program Director at the Findlay-Hancock County Community Foundation. Julie is intrigued by storytelling, and the opportunity it offers to inspire donors and volunteers to act.

As storytellers for a Community Foundation, we find ourselves in the enviable position of having too many stories to tell: agency stories of great grant-funded programs, emotional client stories of lives transformed by these programs, and donor stories about those special folks who make all of our work possible.

With so much rich content, we kept postponing the telling of our first story:  the founding story.

  • In her trainings, Nancy Schwartz says that one of the six stories that every nonprofit needs to tell is its founding story.
  • In  Andy Goodman’s “Storytelling as Best Practice,” he shares the words of Marshall Ganz, a long-time civil rights organizer, who advises leaders to tell a story of self, a story of us, and a story of now.
  • Turn on the television and you will see for-profit companies using heritage marketing—another version of the founding story—to build trust.

Recently we finally decided to tell the founding story of the Community Foundation, via video. 

Almost immediately, we learned that telling a forty year-old story presents many obstacles.  We spent days digging through local museum archives, old newspapers, court records and corporate documents. We also invested time locating the visionary people who played key roles in the founding.  But, once the background research was done, we were able to sit back and hear a remarkable first story unfold.

Picture a shy and quiet man, L. Dale Dorney, who worked as an accountant and lived in a modest home.   In the early 1970s, he arrived at the Cleveland Foundation with his 65-page will in hand.  Homer Wadsworth, director of the Cleveland Foundation shared, “No one knew whether he had five hundred or five thousand dollars to give.”

Later we learned that Mr. Dorney’s gift would be five million dollars and it would grow into the Findlay-Hancock County Community Foundation.  We also learned that the quiet Mr. Dorney’s will was pure poetry.  He wrote, “Our earthly possessions are, after all, but life holdings and the grace with which we part with them at the end of life’s journey shows the heart in its least disguised form.”

Our founding video, Dale Dorney: Architect for the Common Good, was produced by Timber & Frame and premiered to an audience of friends, donors, and grantees.  We challenged viewers to follow Mr. Dorney’s lead and “Define your purpose.”

The premiere was followed by an online release through social media, a blog post written by the Community Foundation president, and local newspaper and radio coverage of the story.  The newspaper even covered it as breaking news!

Just think, when we meet a new person, we bond more quickly when we appreciate her journey.  Similarly, understanding an organization’s history builds trust and understanding.  For other examples of successful founding stories, visit the Cleveland Foundation’s website highlighting its first 100 years or the CARE International website.

Get your step-by-step guide to…:
Telling Your Founding Story 

And please tell us how you shaped and shared your founding story!

More on

 P.S. Get more nonprofit marketing guidance plus in-depth case studies, templates and tools via the Getting Attention blog & e-news. Subscribe today

Guest Blogger in storytelling | 1 comment
Tags:, , , ,

<< Back to Main