One of my clients is a nonprofit charter school that relies on federal, state, and foundational agencies for much of its financial support. As such, it’s required to demonstrate the good it’s doing using hard numbers: improvement metrics, proficiency and graduation rates, and other verifiable figures. It is, as the saying goes, “data-driven,” and as such often finds itself experiencing the need to illustrate the effectiveness of its model (in this case, providing a good education for marginalized students in urban communities) with facts and statistics.
While there’s nothing wrong with a data-driven approach — indeed, for many charities, it’s essential for their success — data alone will never fully engage if you’re hoping to appeal to a normal donor and supporter base for your fundraising. No. They need stories: the efforts of your outreach that connect potential supporters with the narrative (or, more accurately, the narratives) currently shaping your cause, your nonprofit, and your brand.
Complementing the left-brain approach, however, can be difficult. Like data, gathering stories takes time and patience. Unlike data, it takes an understanding of the human spirit. It often requires difficult conversations, subtle pattern recognition, long hours spent staring at scribbled notes or poring over a long recorded conversation in order to understand the bigger picture. It takes an understanding of metaphor.
For my data-driven client, I created a new initiative to gather the stories it can tell in its newsletters, fundraising collateral, end-of-year campaigns, blogs, and social media, as well as in its grant writing and reporting. It’s a program for gathering and classifying the stories of those who have benefitted from the program, as well as the stories (many of them heartrending) that qualify them for my client’s programs and services. Eventually it will become a repository of individual human interest stories told by those whom the nonprofit was intended to serve; in time, these stories will, like tiles in a mural, reveal the larger stories that define the organization and its mission for good.
Storytelling for brand development isn’t a new concept. Michael Grothaus at Fast Company wrote a great piece about it a couple months ago, and everyone from Andy Goodman to the authors of the amazing new The Brand Idea book have been reiterating its importance for ages. The difference now is that conveying those stories needs to be done even more efficiently and effectively. It needs to be part of a holistic approach to your nonprofit’s brand development that includes excellent design, ease of access, and strategic social media — along with storytelling — to make it stand apart.
The good news? No two donors are alike. While some will be driven purely by cold, hard data — drooling over a site like GiveDirectly for its sheer, robot-like efficiency — the rest are waiting to be engaged emotionally, to hear and feel the powerful stories shaping your organization’s mission, as well as those told by those people for whom your charity and compassion are making a real difference.