Why do people give us money?

It could be because we asked them. Guilt, fear, hope, or even, possibly, because they want more meaning in their lives.

But how do we help them find that meaning, through giving to our cause?

“Stories are equipment for living.” -Kenneth Burke

If Burke is right, then your nonprofit story will give people equipment to find meaning in their lives.

That means you hold a powerful tool in your hand. Your pen.

How can you help people feel as if their lives had been worthwhile, because they helped your cause? That’s a serious responsibility. It’s not just about making goal or making payroll.

It’s about giving people tools to take apart the meanings of the events around them.

“Story isn’t a flight from reality but a vehicle that carries us on our search for reality, our best effort to make sense out of the anarchy of existence.” -Robert McKee

If they see a homeless person, they don’t have to think, “probably a lazy bum.” They could think, “I helped the homeless last week. I am doing something about this problem.”

If they hear of a domestic violence story in the newspaper, they could shake their heads sadly and say, “What a hopeless world we live in.”

Or, if they went to your gala, and you told the right story, they might say, “This shows how far we have yet to go. I’m glad at least some women are getting out of abusive situations. And I’m glad I was a part of their event.”

Recently I read a book called Story, by Robert McKee.

Story by Robert McKee

Robert McKee writes, “Day after day we seek an answer to the ageless question Aristotle posed in Ethics: How should a human being lead their life? But the answer eludes us, hiding behind a blur of racing hours as we struggle to fit our means to our dreams. . . . Momentous world events are beyond our control while personal events, despite all effort to keep our hands on the wheel, more often than not control us.”

“Traditionally humankind has sought the answer to Aristotle’s question from the four wisdoms- philosophy, science, religion, art- taking insight from each to bolt together a livable meaning. But today who reads Hegel or Kant without an exam to pass? Science, once the great explicator, garbles life with complexity and perplexity. Who can listen without cynicism to economists, sociologists, politicians? Religion, for many, has become an empty ritual that masks hypocrisy. As our faith in traditional ideologies diminishes, we turn to the source we still believe in: the art of story.

The art of story is in decay, and as Aristotle observed 2,300 years ago, when storytelling goes bad, the result is decadence.

A culture cannot evolve without honest, powerful storytelling. When society repeatedly experiences glossy, hollowed out, pseudo stories, it degenerates.

We need true satires and tragedies, dramas and comedies that shine a clean light into the dingy corners of the human psyche and society. If not, as Yeats warned. “. . . the centre cannot hold.”

We have a powerful, important job as we tell stories for our nonprofits.

We help people have more meaningful lives.

They may have given up on philosophy, science, religion, even art, but they can look to us at our nonprofit and give, and say, “at least I can see that I am doing some good in the world.”

But how can you make them feel this way?

In a world full of hollow movie blockbusters in full on decay, you’ve got to tell a better story.

Here are four truths about story, from Robert McKee.

1. Story is about eternal, universal forms, not formulas.

This is why I can’t give you a formula to write your nonprofit story, and in truth, no one can, not if they’ve read Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey 1,000 times.  Each compelling nonprofit story is unique. And each one will say something not just about those that you help, but about you. How you write reveals how you think. So working on your writing, and writing every day will help you learn how to tell a more compelling story.

2. Story is about principles, not rules.

What are some principles of a good story? It should make you feel. It should make you think. It should make you want to share it with others. But I think the most important one, for our nonprofit fundraising, is that it should make you feel.

3. Story is about archetypes, not stereotypes.

Everyone has different stereotypes or misconceptions about those that we serve. Don’t assume that your donor has an accurate picture of who you are helping, even if you’re an animal shelter. They may have an unclear idea of how many animals you serve, or how you serve them. An older relative of mine is still repeating stories about “welfare queens” even though that was long ago debunked as a myth.  If your nonprofit helps people get to a more sustainable economic place, it’s important that your donors not see those you help as stereotypes, but individuals.

4. Story is about respect, not disdain for the audience.

That means you help make the donor part of your story. You make them the hero, not just the spectator. You show respect for them even as you’re educating them about who you serve and why you serve them. So many nonprofit appeals, annual reports, and newsletters either assume the reader knows everything about the nonprofit, or uses we we we language instead of you you you language. It’s sad. I used to do it too, until I learned better.

Would you like to add any other principles of good nonprofit storytelling? Please leave a comment.