Mazarine Treyz: Hey, everybody. Welcome. This is Mazarine Treyz of Wild Woman Fundraising, and today I’m interviewing Vanessa Chase Lockshin of The Storytelling Non-Profit. We go back a couple of years at least, three years now of being friends and talking about business and storytelling and nonprofits.

Vanessa Chase Lockshin: I think so. I think it was in 2013 that we met. So yeah, coming up on four years. We’ll have to have a friendaversary.

MT: We should. That would really be fun. So Vanessa, just in case people here don’t know, what’s your background in storytelling?

VC: My background was originally in fundraising. I got started in higher education and then worked at a social service organization after that. But I think it’s also – my background in storytelling comes out of a lifelong interest in writing a narrative. I’ve always been a writer for as long as I can remember now. It’s been something that I’ve wanted to do and do professionally and also personally. When I was working in fundraising, I wanted to really explore storytelling in relation to donor stewardship and retention specifically, but found that it just had really great impact on fundraising.

That was kind of what led me to explore the applications of storytelling for fundraising purposes.

MT: Wow. So you got a background in this from higher education and you also have a book. Do you not?

VC: Yes, last year I published a book called The Storytelling Non-Profit: A Practical Guide to Telling Stories That Raise Awareness and Money.

MT: Well, I reviewed your book here. So if you haven’t yet checked out Vanessa’s book, you should. 

What is one of the most common mistakes you see with nonprofits telling stories in their newsletters, for example?

VC: That’s a good question. I mean, newsletters are certainly one of the more common communication tools that nonprofits use when they’re stewarding and cultivating donor relationships. I think in newsletters specifically, one of the biggest problems that I see are that stories are not donor centered enough. Donor centered is a term that a lot of people hear about. We don’t necessarily dig into what it actually means to write in a really donor centered fashion. But I think it’s problematic because often times, donors are unable to recognize themselves as the heroes of the story, right? We want them to not only recognize that impact, but to know that they really played a vital role.

We aren’t really making that crystal clear for them in the stories. Sometimes they don’t really understand how it applies to them or what relationship they have to that story. I think that’s a huge missed opportunity for stewardship.

MT: Yeah, because one of the top reasons that we lose donors is that they don’t see who’s going to hurt if they leave. Whereas if you make them the hero in the story, you’ll make them see that you can’t live without them.

VC: Yeah. Penelope Burke has researched in donor centered fundraising. She’s often talked about like the two main reasons that donors often leave is that they don’t understand how the gift was used or what impact it has. I think that newsletters are such an awesome opportunity to show people their impact in action and kind of have a natural report back mechanism every month or every quarter. Whatever timeline works for your organization. Then on top of that, using stories, you’re able to really illustrate that impact in action for donors.

MT: Yeah. That’s something that I think a lot of program staff really have a hard time with because they’re like, I did this work. This was me. You’re showing them your story and you’re like, the donor didn’t do that. Why are you not highlighting me more? I had that recently with a nonprofit that I was working with. I was like, I appreciate that you did this work personally and also the donors enabled you to do it because they paid.

VC: Yeah. I have to say, I don’t think I’ve ever come across egocentric communication that I found appealing. There’s a level in which no one finds an egomaniac appealing. So as an organization, we kind of have to buffer ourselves from unintentionally taking on that tone sometimes and how we talk about how the work is so awesome. We’ve done this work. Look at all the great things we’ve done. There needs to be an air which is more inclusive.

MT: Yeah, like there has to be people understanding that nobody cares who your program staff are. It’s nice that they’re there and they’re doing the work. But you’re living their values in the world, doing the work we don’t have time to do. What really matters to the donor is that the work gets done thanks to them. Not because, you know, because your program staff person’s name is Susan and she has three kids and she loves her job. Which is still nice, but we could care less. In the story, you can tell them how to do that.

So what are some of the elements of a good nonprofit story? Let’s say like you had a recipe.

VC: The elements that I often teach and refer to, there’s five of them. So connection, character, conflict, resolution, and if it’s a fundraising story, call to action. So I can talk a little bit about each of those if you’d like. So I always think that connection is the most important first element of a story because we have to establish some rapport or some sort of connection with the audience that we’re communicating with. So in a fundraising letter, it might be reminding people that they are an appreciated and valued donor. It could be connecting with them on a values level, reminding them about why they care about something.

Or it could be something more emotional. They could be using the elements of emotion to connect with people that way. Whatever that is, that’s kind of how we hook people in and draw them into that story. From there, we can then introduce a character of some kind into that story who then has a problem that donors can solve through giving potentially, or maybe have solved through giving.

I always think that conflict takes up a good 60% to 70% of a story. Really it’s the thing that keeps the plot moving forward. It’s the thing that people are interested in reading about. They want to know why this problem existed, why was someone not able to solve it on their own. How was your organization able to solve it. Those are all really important questions to consider as you’re kind of drawing out that conflict.

Resolution can sometimes be a tricky one because in a fundraising story, we may not necessarily have a resolution already. Maybe we’re looking to resolve the story. But you can still talk about how you plan to resolve it, or what resolution you think may come as a result of giving or participation on the part of donors. Then there’s a call to action. I think this is so critical, because often times people will say to me, Vanessa, we tell lots of stories. I just don’t really think they’re impacting the fundraising bottom line or I don’t really see the return on investment in social media, or something like that, for example.

My first question is always, well, was there a call to action? If there wasn’t a call to action, it means your audience didn’t really know what you wanted them to do next. Did you want them to donate? Did you want them to share that story or sign up for your email list? Whatever that might be. But you have to make that next step really clear for them for your story to work and for there to be a really clear return on investment on them.

MT: Aside from having non donor-centric stories, those are some big problems. It’s like what is the goal of the story? Who are the audience? Non monthly donors becoming monthly donors. You could tell a story of someone, why they became a monthly donor.

VC: Absolutely. I always like to remind people that as a nonprofit, you’re not in the business of telling a story just for the sake of telling a story. Of course, stories are nice, and yes you could like read a book or go see a movie to tell a great story. But even that has a purpose. The purpose is entertainment. Your purpose isn’t necessarily entertainment like it would be in that kind of a story context. Your purpose is more using stories as a strategic communication tool for fundraising or marketing or some other initiative that you might be working on. It’s really important to be clear on what that initial purpose or intention is because that will allow you to not only make more strategic decisions about your messaging, the type of story you tell, but also ensure you have a really good call to action.

MT: What are the four different kinds of stories nonprofits should have on hand to get people interested, engaged, motivated and finally giving to their cause?

VC: I have to say, I found it really hard just to think about four.

MT: I just wanted to put out a number.

VC: No problem. I have four that I thought about and I want to talk about. But I’d love to hear what you think too. So maybe you can tell me your answer to this after we talk.

MT: Sure.

VC: So the four that I was thinking about were

1. the needs story,

2. the impact story,

3. a values story and also

4. a failure story.

  1. The needs story is the story highlighting of what your organization’s needs are and how people can kind of be involved in that. So I think it’s a really kind of classic fundraising story.
  2. Impact stories are great, because again, they engage and thank people. They kind of show the before and after, so to speak, of what happened and how people impacted that.
  3. Value stories are also important. I think there’s going to be an increasing move in the sector, hopefully this year, to really be focused on value space communication. I think especially in the US where we see an increasingly values divide in the population. I think that organizations are going to reflect values more and more in their communication because it’s a way that people connect to each other. It’s that very fundamental thing that they believe in. So I think a story that really highlights values encourages that kind of connection with an audience and can be really powerful.
  4. The last one I think that’s important to have is a failure story. Now, I would say this is probably not for faint of heart. A lot of organizations listening thinking, oh my gosh, we’re not going to talk about things that we failed at. But I think it’s really important to underscore for your audience that it’s not always like rainbows and unicorns at your nonprofit. Things happen and I think stories like this give you authenticity and street cred with your audience in the sense that they can believe you when you have really great wins. They can also empathize with you when things don’t go according to plan. Because inevitably in life, sometimes things don’t go according to plan.

MT: Tell me about it. Well, that’s one of the hardest ones I’ve found for nonprofits to really accept is the failure story. I was just talking about this yesterday with a coaching group that I was leading. We were talking about out appeal letter stories. I told them about the appeal from Indra Sinha, the Amnesty International like 1991 appeal with the headline, Should We Give Up? (see below)

Then it talked about how they saved Agostinho Neto from torture and then he became a torturer. Like he became a warlord in Africa. The premise is, “Should we give up because this guy’s a torturer now and we saved him?”

If you’re reading this story and you’re seeing that there’s other stories of people they have helped, you’re thinking no, don’t give up. So it lets your donors complete the sentence of, well, I want them to keep going because I’m not going to do this work of political refugees. Not only does the failure story show the need, but it does help people trust you more and makes them think like, do I want them to go on? Should I show them that? You know what I mean?

VC: Yeah. I think another example I thought of while we were talking about this, Engineers Without Borders every year produces their annual failure report. So rather than an annual report, it’s actually a failures report, which kind of in the culture of engineering is maybe a little bit more acceptable. But they talk about all the projects that went badly and they talk about lessons learned, which I think is so powerful because it positions them as people who learn from mistakes that they’ve made, who are using that information to move forward and continue to do really great work.

MT: Yeah, definitely. So people want to see that example. You should totally go on the Engineers Without Borders website and check out how they do it. Another one is the http://www.givewell.org website. They have just a little tab on their navigation called Mistakes. So you can see how they’re doing that too. So thank you so much for sharing those four kinds of stories. I really like that. So when it comes to matching messaging in stories, what advice do you have for people? Because we all have our messaging we do throughout the year hopefully.

VC: Yeah, absolutely. I think messaging really of course is the foundation of any kind of communication that we’re doing. I think one of the mistakes that people often make is not having the messages in place before they start to think about a story. So they kind of do it the opposite way where they find a story or think about a narrative they want to tell. Then they go look for the right message or think about the right message. That’s not quite the right way to back into that situation.

So a story is really just the tool to illustrate that message. So I would say it’s important to have that message in place before you can really start to look for a story to tell. I think it’s easiest when your organization is organized and being strategic about messaging that you’re putting out there, whether that’s a couple of messages every year or maybe one per quarter, and really focusing on that as a key communications goal that you have. That can often be very helpful, and having that in place ahead of time also allows you to then think about, well, what stories will help us tell this message or illustrate this message? Which is then really useful for going on to find those stories because that helps you kind of have an idea in mind already of what you’re looking for and how you can start to source those.

MT: Definitely. Don’t have too many messages. Don’t have too many stories that aren’t really the clear main message. So since we have limited space to tell our stories, how do you think people could edit their stories better?

VC: I love this question. Editing I think is one of the most important phases of the writing process. In fact, when I teach my classes on storytelling, I often tell people that if they ever read my first drafts of anything, they would probably be surprised that I was a professional writer because they all suck. They’re really terrible. The reason that I’m able to actually produce good things is because I spend a ton of time editing stuff. Editing is where you’re really able to polish things, to make sense of stuff, to rearrange it. That’s really where the magic happens. So I can impart that piece of information to people. They can take that and use that.

But I think in terms of like actual editing tactics that can be useful, my partner Matt shared something with me recently when we were working with a client that I found really helpful. We were talking about email appeals and he said that his kind of litmus test for figuring out whether or not an email is too wordy to begin with is using this phrase at the beginning. So he puts it in front of like the first sentence of the email. It says

“Let me get straight to the point.”

If you don’t get straight to the point right after that, you’re probably a little off the mark and being too wordy. I think that actually is a really good editing tool for stories too, because in a case where you’re limited with space, you have to be concise. So if you put that phrase in front of the story that you’re telling, it will often be very telling as to whether or not you’re achieving that kind of goal of being concise. So that can be a really helpful tool to help you figure out what to cut out.

The other thing I would say too, is after you write a first draft, one thing that can be really helpful is to read through and think about have you buried some of the best parts too far down in the story? So I like to go through and really look for what I could call the gems or really beautiful phrases or powerful statements. All of those really great things that really jump out often times in writing. And if they’re buried too far down or there’s not any up at the top of the story, I often will start cutting things and rearranging because I want to make sure the best parts of the story are in there. Everything else is not as important or not as good. That, I’m always open to cutting out.

MT: That’s such good advice. Let me get straight to the point. Yes.

VC: Yeah, I feel like that’s helped me countless times in the past few months.

MT: I am going to totally use that now. I am so grateful to you, you are always inspiring me. So Vanessa, you’re going to be teaching a storytelling course in February. If people are attending another storytelling event, why would your course be valuable to them?

VC: There are lots of events and things out there about storytelling, right? Even at conferences that don’t focus on storytelling. There’s often classes or workshops on it. But I think the thing that’s different about the class that I teach, which is called The Storytelling Nonprofit Master Class, is that it’s really a class that’s more focused on the how. So how to actually tell stories.

So we really don’t spend a ton of time on the theory or talking about why it’s so important to tell stories. Instead, we focus on the actual tactics of it and also implementation, which I think is hugely important. I love taking classes and going to workshops and things like that. But I know from my experience as a student, it’s always so frustrating when you kind of leave and you have lots of information and you’re like, okay. Well, what am I supposed to do with this, or how do I actually start?

So in the class, we actually build in implementation time so that you don’t just spend all your time learning, but actually get to work on doing the things that we talk about. Which I always think is so, so important. I would say the other thing that’s really valuable to me, personally, about that class, is that there’s an element of a long term community that really rallies around people. I think that having people who get what you’re doing is so important. Often times, being at an organization can be isolating or maybe you don’t feel like you have the right kind of allies. So I think this class really provides you with a community of people who get storytelling, who appreciate it, who can encourage you and help you and support you.

So far we’ve had about 120 alumni in the class. So there’s a really great community already, from all over the world which is really exciting. I’m looking forward to meeting all the new students who will come in next month.

MT: Oh, I love that, Vanessa. Thank you so much. Well, how can people find out more about this? Is there like a website or something?

VC: Yeah, probably the best place to go to is here.