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!

Whether you see this disconnect in your org or not, you’ll get better stories (and more of them) when you make it easy for story gatherers to identify, collect, and share them. Here’s how:

1) Clarify Who Does What

There are five steps in the nonprofit storytelling process. Make sure you define who does what in your organization, so each step gets done.

The first order of business is to figure out the single person who “owns” organizational storytelling; the “story boss.” Typically that person is part of the fundraising or communications team, and figures out who can best handle these responsibilities:

  • Identify stories that will bring audiences close and motivate them to take the actions you need (typically the story boss works on this, solo or with colleagues)
  • Collect your stories. Some story bosses ask collectors for essential data then follow up to build out the facts and graphics themselves. Others ask colleagues to gather most of the story (a rough draft), following up themselves to fill in as necessary. Vital but often overlooked step: Permission from the subjects of your stories and photos!
  • Develop your stories. Whether starting from an outline or a rough draft, someone has to build out and polish stories, then add a memorable photo or graphic. The difference between flat delivery of information and a well-crafted story is enormous! Clear guidelines, well-communicated, go far in reducing the story revision workload.
  • Catalog and store your stories. The story boss usually sets up a story bank to make stories accessible to all organizational storytellers (think broad here). Tag each story with topic or program, collector, date, subject’s name, and place gathered to make it easily accessible.
    NOTE: You may want to make your story bank available to the public, as Mom’s Rising does here.
  • Share stories. Stories are worthless until they’re shared. The story boss typically spearheads asking, training, and supporting colleagues, donors, volunteers, and other supporters to be confident and effective storytellers.

2) Ask, Guide, and Remind Colleagues to Gather the Right Stories

As much as story gathering and telling may be top of your mind, most of your colleagues have other priorities. Make it easier for them to source the best stories with these three tactics:

  • Email your story collectors a single prompt weekly or twice monthly help them identify strong stories. Here are a few examples:
    • Your volunteer brigade gave a huge assist to the Green Team project last month. Is there a volunteer or two who stepped forward in a significant role for the first time? If so, what did she do and what drives her passion?
    • I heard that several clients in the young adults with autism program graduated last week. Is there one new graduate who stands out as entering the program facing significant challenges and making incredible progress in surprising ways?
    • Tell me about a long-term donor you had a great conversation or email exchange with this week. What drew them initially to our organization, and what keeps them giving and loyal?
  • Share stories you’re using now to kickoff all-staff or team meetings on a weekly or monthly basis. Highlight why these stories are so compelling. Better yet, ask your colleagues who sourced the stories to do so.
  • Let folks know what key messages you need to highlight in right-now marketing and fundraising campaigns. Then show them examples of existing stories that illustrate each one, and ask them for more like those.

3) Make It Simple to Log and Submit Stories

Simplify the way your story gatherers log stories and submit details, and the more good stories you’ll get. Try this:

  • Create a brief form for gatherers to complete. Here’s a great example from storytelling guru Vanessa Chase.
  • The form can be either hard copy (best if most gatherers aren’t on computers or tablets when they capture story details) or a Google form.
  • If gatherers can log story data online, it’s far easier for your story boss to check them in, then develop and share.

Get this story collection process into place now to start reaping the benefits. To meaningful, memorable stories!