7 Steps to Ethical Storytelling (G.R.E.A.T. Stories)

Does the protagonist of your story know what she’s getting into—how you’ll use her story, and the risks are of sharing it? Probably not, if you’re like most communicators. Let’s change that.

Organizations like ours—that share stories regularly to activate our people—wield power and influence. When a protagonist lends us her story to share, she opens herself up to curiosity, criticism, misunderstanding, and sometimes even physical harm. It is our responsibility to respect those whose stories we share, ensuring they 1) are comfortable with the way we use their stories and 2) stay safe.

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How to Spot & Gather Strong Stories

When you gather compelling stories—about beneficiaries, donors, or volunteers, or other players—to share in campaigns, thanks, and other communications, you gain a powerful complement to your data and anecdotal understanding of the people you want to engage. Together, these insights forge a shortcut to engaging hearts, minds, and wallets.

But it can be tough to source the right stories. Stories Worth Telling, a useful guide from the Meyer Foundation, reveals a damaging disconnect in the way organizations collect stories. Almost universally, organizations rely on program staff knowledge and relationships to gather stories, though the department overseeing the storytelling process is typically fundraising (54%) or communications (42%). Yikes!

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6 Nonprofit Story Types to Tell:

There’s so much content around on storytelling, lots of its focused on why stories are so effective.

But there’s far less guidance on helping you know what your story possibilities are, and building your skills in shaping and sharing your stories. That’s what most of you said you wanted to know to become 5-star storytellers, and that’s the focus of this article.

Storytelling starts with finding the stories your organization already has. But, most of you tell me you don’t know where to find your stories. Here’s how..
Great news here—there are 6 types of stories you can tell, and you’re likely to find all of them in your organization. So start thinking about what stories you have to tell in each of these categories:
  1. Our Founding: How your organization was created
  2. Our Focus: The core challenge you tackle
  3. Impact Stories: This most-told nonprofit story features the before and after—shows impact of your organization and supporters
  4. Our People: Donor, staff, volunteer, client/participant profiles
  5. Strength Stories: How your particular approach adds value to the services you provide, and moves your mission forward
  6. Our Future: The change you want to make in the world or what your work will lead to.

#1: The Typical Nonprofit Founding Story

Is yours as deadly as this one? Because you have all the ingredients to make it far more effective.

Typical Founding Story

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8 Interview Guidelines for Capturing the Best Stories

As nonprofits continue to realize the value of storytelling in their print and digital communications, strong interview skills are critical for capturing constituent stories. Interviewing really is an art, as I learned when I first started writing professionally more than a dozen years ago.

These eight guidelines can help you conduct better interviews and accurately capture the most compelling stories.

1. Prepare. Try to get a sense of the person you’re talking to, when possible—look at a photo, a website, historical information, whatever your organization or Google has available. (But don’t make assumptions based on those things.) Spend some time putting yourself in that person’s shoes and considering what their perspective might be. (Might be.)

2. Compile a list of questions. Have an idea of what you hope to cover—you don’t want to waste people’s time with a lack of focus. As you talk (i.e. listen), skip questions that seem less relevant and instead raise questions you hadn’t thought of previously. Skilled interviewers ask the “right” questions and also can tell instinctively when to delve further or move on.

3. Record. You’ll be surprised what you can miss if you’re trying to take notes by hand, either with a pen or keyboard. Make sure you ask permission first, though.

4. Pay closer attention than you think you need to. It’s surprisingly hard to listen, process what you’re hearing and think of the next question to ask quickly. I recently heard a recorded interview where the interviewer summarized what the interviewee said after each question—but got it wrong almost every time. She clearly wasn’t hearing the nuances of what her source was relating. This is also why you record; so you can pay less attention to your notes and more attention to the person talking.

5. Clarify rather than draw conclusions or assume. Remember that you’re trying to gather someone else’s story. In order to clarify what they’re saying, ask “Am I understanding correctly that…?” or “It sounds like…, is that true?” rather than “So, you were X and did Y.” And never judge.

6. Be quiet. Don’t think of interviews as conversations, during which most of us feel pressure to make small talk to fill silences. It’s fine to “Mmm-hmm” or say that you understand (if you do), or to ask for more detail or clarification or just…be silent. Don’t hijack the interview by talking too much.

7. Ask. Always ask if there’s anything else the person wants to share or feels is important for you to know. You might get some of your best information this way. I used to worry that, if given the chance, people would talk my ear off about unrelated things. Sure, it’s happened. When it does, I politely interrupt and say I need to wrap up. But it’s rare; most people are respectful of others’ time and busy themselves.

8. Stay in touch. Make sure you have contact information so you can gather more details and confirm accuracy as you incorporate interviewee stories into your content. Always thank people for sharing, and follow up with samples or links to the related material your org produces.

Testimonials Can Spur The Confidence and Actions You Want

You tell me you’re always seeking more effective ways to build interest and action. Well, there’s no better way than letting your supporters and partners do the talking with testimonials.

You’ve seen testimonials for every type of program, issue and organization imaginable. They’re brief quotes from a member of your nonprofit’s network—donor, volunteer, client, staffer, member or community stakeholder—that clearly and briefly express how your organization’s work has benefited her life or that of her family or community. But still, few of you use testimonials to full effect.

Today, I hope to motivate you to start putting testimonials to work via this easy-to-get-to success story from Help a Reporter Out (HARO).

HARO tweeted a request for testimonials, and got stellar results (in 140 characters or less) tweeted out. HARO then retweeted these mini-testimonials to its own 61,000 followers. Trustworthy referrals and exponential reach, at no cost, and little effort.

Look at these responses they received from satisfied customers, the first from an expert source and the second from a journalist who found the sources he needed.

Nonprofit Testimonials

Take a look at what could be…these powerful examples are drawn from nonprofit websites:

Volunteer: The hours that I spend volunteering for HOM are the best part of my week. I always look forward to coming into the office and seeing other volunteers and the delightful staff, and I especially cherish the times when I go visit patients. I feel that discovering Hospice has been one of the greatest events in my life.

Donor: I had the opportunity to witness the growth and development of children in need when I volunteered at Berea Children’s Home and Family Services while in college. The children had experienced so much hurt from the past. This season, our families just really wanted to make a difference…so we all made gifts to BCHFS. [We] could not be more satisfied and confident knowing that our gifts positively impact children’s lives.

Client: I came into the hospital a very nervous hip replacement patient. I left confident and relaxed, comfortable with my ability to care for myself and my family…You cared for me intensely when I needed care, and let me care for myself when I was ready. What more could a rehabilitation patient ask for?

Add a name, title and employer name and testimonials power up:
It is always wonderful to see what we accomplish during our projects. We really feel like we make a difference by improving the land and beautifying the urban wilds,” said Matt Lynde, a Boston Cares project leader who works with EarthWorks Projects to spruce up and landscape wildlife sanctuaries in Boston.

Add a headshot, and the testimonial comes to life at its strongest. 

Nothing you or your colleagues say is as strong as the words of your supporters’ peers, friends or family.

Why Testimonials Work

For prospective clients, donors, partners and others, there’s nothing more valuable than hearing from peers on what their experiences have been with your organization and its programs and services. Testimonials carry more credibility than anything you could say yourself.  And, others speaking about your nonprofit may have glowing comments about your work that you would be embarrassed to share yourself.

Your prospect expects you to go on and on about the impact of your nonprofit or the importance of your new program. However, when you have someone who has experienced that benefit first hand, their comments are much more convincing and accepted!

Keep this in mind though: The most powerful testimonials aren’t about your organization; they’re about how someone much like the prospect has benefited from involvement with your organization. So the more specific and genuine the testimonials, the more they’re likely to move your people.

How to Get Testimonials and Use Them for All They’re Worth

  1. Follow up regularly with clients, volunteers, donors and others, asking for feedback. Doing so via an online survey such as Survey Monkey can be effective, or mini-polls via Facebook and Twitter. Follow up as soon after your interaction with your audiences as possible, while the experience is still fresh.
  2. Ask for one or two sentences describing the value of the experience with your organization whether it be program participation, giving or use of your counseling service. Try to focus testimonials on an objection your prospects are likely to have, such as volunteering takes a lot but doesn’t give much back.
  3. Provide an example to make it easier for your supporters to craft a useful statement. You can even draft a testimonial to be OK-d or revised.
  4. Request permission to use the testimonials in your marketing and fundraising campaigns.
  5. Take the testimonial you get and shape it into a brief but powerful statement. Limit testimonial length to one or two brief sentences, with a photo whenever you can get it.
  6. To ensure credibility, include the name and title of the person contributing the testimonial and the name of their business or organization if relevant. In some cases, issues of confidentiality will make attribution impossible. If this is the case, create a profile to serve as an attribution, e.g. “Donny R., 30 years old, and WHR dental patient for over ten years.”
  7. Integrate testimonials in general and more targeted communications, both online and offline. I feel that spreading testimonials throughout your online and offline channels and campaigns has far greater impact than concentrating them on a single page. By spreading them out, prospects are more likely to see them even if they don’t read every page.
  8. Make sure to refresh your testimonials on an ongoing basis to reflect current programming and campaigns.

Start Your Testimonial Collection Campaign Today

Yes, get out there and start soliciting testimonials from audiences today. Remember to ask for testimonials whenever possible, and use them often and wisely!

In addition to great marketing content, you’ll be getting useful insights to strengthen the way your organization does business. Bonus!

How Do You Put Testimonials to Work?

Please share your take on gathering, shaping and sharing testimonials here.