This is the entire chapter taken from the book “The Non-Profit Narrative”. Sign up for my email list and get 2 chapters of the book before it releases – plus an inside scoop on how to get the book for free!

What if you could double your online fundraising this next year? Would that much funding change your programming? How about your attitude? Would you be excited to go to work every day?

Iʼm here to tell you that it is possible.

Your nonprofit organization was started to change the world. (Read that again.) You are involved in a mission to change the world and that is a story we all can get behind!

This book is designed to get you to think like the screenwriter of your organization’s story. And the best part is: you ALREADY know more than you think.

Where Do We Find Story?

When you start looking for it, you’ll find story everywhere. It is innate in our human DNA. Stories help us see patterns in our own lives. They help us explain the unexplainable.

The Greeks and the Romans didn’t just say, “It’s sunny out and now it’s dark outside.” They had elaborate, passionate stories of gods and goddesses of action. Their stories told why things happened: Why the sun went up; why it went down; and what was the impetus behind such seemingly mundane things. Even though these myths weren’t necessarily “correct” in a modern worldview, to the listener, they made life that much easier to comprehend. These stories also communicated more than causality: they communicated the behavior and the ideals of a culture.

In this book, I will teach you how to do the same. Your nonprofit’s narrative will help explain some of the unexplainable patterns in our culture and in the lives of your constituents.

Where Do We (Often) Find Story Absent?

Think for a moment and answer these two questions for your own organization:

  • Where is Story absent from the culture of our organization?
  • What kind of story are we telling?

For some insight, look at the behavior of your team. Is there evidence of a scarcity mentality? Or hushed conversations at the water cooler and horribly dry meetings?

I think about this question in my own company and clients and started asking people in my workshops for their own answers. I recently posed this question at a workshop and received, what I think is, the best answer: “Story is most absent from corporate Powerpoint slide presentations.” 

Boring Your Audience is a Terrible Thing

Organizations with decent internal communication will have great external communication because it’s wrapped in the sheen of marketing. Boring your audience is a terrible thing, and (believe it or not), this begins with how your organization communicates internally.

Think about the last time you were in a grueling meeting filled with buzz words. Did this help or hurt your experience in the meeting? Did that emotion spill over onto your opinion of the person running the meeting or her department?

A boring corporate slide show, when analyzed, actually says a few things. It’s not that corporate slide shows aren’t telling a story…they are just telling a bad one. It’s such a bad story that it’s probably killing morale. When was the last time you got excited about sitting through a stakeholders meeting with each department sounding off on their recent work? We’re missing an opportunity to engage our workplace and create evangelists for our cause.

Storytelling is crucial to survival. You’re going to learn how to not only survive as a nonprofit organization, but how to change the world with your story.

Are you ready?

Your Organization is On a Hero’s Journey

It’s been argued that the Hero’s Journey is the most common plot ever told. Joseph Campbell first explained this idea in his book, “The Hero of a Thousand Faces”, and demonstrated that this plot pervades narratives all throughout history.

The Hero’s Journey is a call to adventure and trials. It is a call to transformation and perseverance. It is a call to change the world.

Taken from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monomyth

Fairytales all have a Hero’s Journey. They are all about a central character on a quest.

If I were to tell the story of your life, I’d bet that it could be classified a Hero’s Journey. Your organization is on a Hero’s Journey, too. You were made to change the world. It’s time to push forward into the brilliance of your narrative.

“Like sands through the hourglass…”

Story resonates with us. Storytelling is a ritual we all participate in, because we long to be known.

Since the beginning of time we’ve related stories to one another. Every ancient text from Hammurabi to Gilgamesh and even the Lescaux cave paintings show that every village had some ideas to express.

In the recent upheaval throughout the Middle East you’ll find story. You’ll find that story is so central to our human experience, such a raw part of who we are, that people are willing to sacrifice their lives to make sure that it ends well. They already know the outcome of the story if there is no action. And that’s not acceptable. Thousands of miles away, we watched as the masses marched, demonstrated, shouted and rioted at the aristocracy. Their collective voice could not be ignored and we were moved by the stories of individuals who would no longer stand by.

Story drives revolution.

Story communicates a huge amount of ideas – both obvious and some hidden (subtext).

Story weaves all of humanity together.

You have a Story. So does your organization. It’s time to Unearth that Story.

Story is really about more than just the words and the actions. Story is the muscle and sinew that ties together the skeletal facts we learn context and unearth hidden meanings. Story is a current so strong that when we hear a great story, we can’t compartmentalize it.

You are telling a story every day with your life.

”An unexamined life isnʼt worth living.”

-Socrates (c.470 BC – 399 BC)

Telling stories is a away of examining our lives. It’s a means to human survival.

If your organization is barely surviving, I would argue that you’ve likely lost the ability to unearth or communicate your true story. You’ve lost the vulnerability needed to take a hard look in the mirror and see the guts of your organization for what it really is.

You are not alone and please understand, I’m not condemning you. There is hope for you and your organization, but you’ll have to enter this story to see it.

All fiction stories are metaphors for truth. In what’s contained here, I’m going to ask you to walk with me not as a development officer, marketing professional or fundraising coordinator, but as if you are the screenwriter of your organization’s story. You know your organization better than I do. It will be your job to translate this allegory into your organization. I’ll also share some principles that I’ve found to be most helpful with the nonprofits I’ve worked with.

The Bare Essentials of Story: Just the Facts, Ma’am?

At its bare essentials, a story is made up of a string of simple facts.

Let’s take the facts from an anti-trafficking organization: Someone has lived a rough life. They were once being trafficked and now they are not.

That is a terrible story. Those are just facts.

However, if you find out that this “Someone” has a name, and you learn the scenario in which they grew up, and the town in which it was set, and what happened that fateful day when they were first trapped into trafficking…and if you learn the horrible details of what their life was like for many years: whether they labored daily in a ninety-eight degree brick kiln, or perhaps in a grimy brothel…

Then… a glimmer of hope, a rescue!  What was that like? What was the stream of emotions, the spiritual implications, what were the things they smelled and tasted in their freedom?

Pushing Beyond the Facts is a Basic Human Need

We find the story when we connect the facts. Why? Because we want to understand humanity. It’s a basic human desire that we want to understand our world.

How can you push beyond the facts? Tell me this: What’s one small truth of your organization?

Are you fighting cancer or building a better life for those affected by this condition? Are you providing clean water to a village that has never had it, or are you giving vision to multiple generations to strive for something they’ve never achieved before? Is your organization providing a night of shelter for a recently evicted family or are you providing the tools for life transformation?

This truth needs to be explored. Grab your senior team and start brainstorming ideas. I bet there are no less than 15-20 truths about your organization from which you could build a worthwhile campaign.

Prepare for Impact

The best part about the ritual of story is the impact that can happen from the process of telling and listening.

The telling and listening happens every day of every week. Think about it in your own life. You’re catching up with people. What’s happening? What’s going on? Are you okay? You want to hear the story and in turn, you want to tell yours.

Think about your family gatherings: they are always laced with story. There’s something familiar about hearing certain stories. They remind us that we are connected. They tell us who we are.

“Grannie, tell us that story again about how you and Pop met and fell in love.” 

Stories give us hope that things can change. They breathe fresh perspective into our lungs and they help us understand the people who are telling it.

This is why it is so important that organizations must ensure that they are effectively communicating THEIR stories.

You Know Far More About Storytelling Than You Think.

You know more about telling stories than you realize. For example: As I write, it’s currently summertime where I live, in Los Angeles. This is a city built on story. Right now the whole area is buzzing with the next big movie. Theaters across America are packed. Millions and billions of dollars are spread worldwide because we want to hear a story. If you’ve ever enjoyed a film, you know more than you think about storytelling.

Even more, you interact with stories constantly throughout your day.

Think about it. What was the best story you heard this week? Did you overhear a good story at the office Monday morning? Your favorite novels? Your favorite non-fiction books? What captures your attention? This tells me about you, it gives me a window into your preferences. What do you prefer: gritty crime drama or psychological thriller? This helps me know more about you and if I frame a story in the way that you like to hear it, you’ll respond.

Let’s think about the difference between good stories and amazing stories. What are the stories that we all love? The ones we don’t mind hearing more than once? Campbell would argue that we love hearing the same story over and over throughout our whole lives.

Case in point: When “Avatar” came out, it was a blockbuster success. Yet some of us kept noticing that we had seen this story before. We’d seen it when it was “Dances with Wolves.” And we’d seen it when it was “The Last Samurai.” And we’d seen it when it was called, “Fern Gully.” But that didn’t stop “Avatar” from making a billion dollars. And why is that? Because that story is the story that we love to see over and over and over again. This is Campbell’s “monomyth”. In the hands of a master storyteller, they don’t have to work hard to open our wallets for an experience.

That’s the ritual of story.

The Sad Reality: If You’re Telling a Terrible Story, No One Cares

There’s a phenomenal difference between good stories and great stories. Let’s think about your organization. The story you’re communicating is probably self-described as “okay”. There are some donations coming in and you’re probably surviving.

If your organization has a website and no one is interacting or engaging with you…I can tell you (with some certainty) that this is because your story is not very good, or at the very least – the story you’re telling on the web is not compelling

Nonprofit organizations weren’t started to consistently ask for money and talk about the troubles of keeping the lights on. Remember, they were started to change the world. This is the story you need to be telling. Tell me about what is catalytic. Tell me about what brings people together. Rattle the saber.

Right now, think about organizations that you like, the ones that are compelling. Which ones are telling great stories? Not just good ones, but great ones. That organization that consistently can do no wrong. The one that puts information out about what it is doing, who it is about, and who it is helping. The response is consistently off the charts. Whether its website is getting lots of traffic, or its Facebook fan page is overflowing with comments, or its YouTube views are rocketing to the atmosphere, it is set up to literally change the world.

Why is that? Because its staff is telling a great story.

Think about it: as you watch the media that they’ve created, and you read their copy, you get caught up in the emotion of what they’re doing. You want to be part of it, and so do I. Why? Because it does something to us, it gives us vision and connects us.

These are the kind of story tenants that we need to replicate.

And that’s what this book is about.

Let’s take a look at some examples of businesses that effectively built their stories through the web.

 

 

Exhibit A: Domino’s Pizza. This is a great story. Domino’s decided to launch a new ad campaign because it caught on that customers were complaining about quality. Customers were basically saying, “We don’t like this pizza much, it’s kind of cruddy cardboard and the sauce is bad.”

So what did Domino’s start to do?

It said, “We can use this, because this is really our key issue.” And it was spot on.

It put together a campaign based on the fact that it was changing things, investing in its produce and customers, and its CEO was sad that the company had disappointed its customers!

In those commercials and in that ad campaign we saw the truth about Domino’s – the truth that it was getting a lot of negative feedback (something we knew) and that the corporation was not happy about it (something we didn’t know). What if Domino’s has said it was going to make all of these changes and then didn’t make it happen? We would have written Domino’s off. Because the story got our attention, but it was a lie.

Principle #1: Build a Story That is True

During the Superbowl every year we watch “the Superbowl of commercials.” You may not have noticed, but the best Superbowl commercials build on a truth. Amazingly, sometimes the best truths aren’t necessarily even related to the product.

 

Exhibit B: In 2011, the clear winner in the Superbowl commercials was the 30 second Volkswagen commercial with the 8 year old dressed as Darth Vader.

The truth in this story was this: Kids have great imaginations. Kids are running around the house in the midst of their grand imaginations, living within their own stories. We’ve all either done it, seen it, or experienced it. This was a truth of humanity that Volkswagen tapped into.

The actual product benefit that they showed was through the dad coming home and activating the remote start with his new 2011 Passat.

The product wasn’t the story! Instead, the story said, “Volkswagen knows that you get curveballs everyday and the Passat will help create special times. ”

Principle #2: Build a Story that Resonates

When Volkswagen released the commercial it went viral. Why? Because it was really well done and we connected with its truth. Simply put, their narrative resonated with us.

When we’re building our story, we have to build on truth and it must resonate with our audience.

The first thing I like to tell organizations is that if they’re going to build a story, this story has to reflect their organization.

Principle #3: Keep the Cookies on the Bottom Shelf

Think through your organization’s story with broad strokes for a moment. What are the points in your story where people can get involved? What resonates easily with your audience? This is the “cookies on the bottom shelf” approach. What are the things that allow for an easy “entry way”?

 

[Side Note]

Of course, we all know that as a nonprofit organization, you can easily build on “slacktivism.” Slacktivism is what happens when someone clicks “Like” on your Facebook page. That “Like” click doesn’t mean that they are getting active in your cause. It just means that they clicked the mouse a couple of times. “Slacktivism” can deliver an opportunity, if the story is great.

Next up, we’re going to go beyond the “broad strokes” and take a look at the fine details of your story. Every story has a structure that is much like its skeleton. Let’s help you build on that skeleton.

 

Takeaways

  • Think of your communication in terms of telling a larger story.
  • You know more about storytelling than you think.

 

Next Steps

  • How is story present in your world?
  • How well are you communicating your story?
  • Look at the Hero’s Journey diagram – how does this compare to your organization?
  • What truth can you build a campaign around?
  • Think about 2-5 nonprofits that are communicating well. Do a quick audit to find out where they are active online and sign up for their email lists.
  • How are you communicating story through your website?
  • Ask your team how well you are communicating internally.
  • Are your communications filled only with facts?

200 Comments

  • Thanks Dan. Jeff and I really enjoyed reading this article.  We will get your book when it comes out as I think it will really help our ministry with Young Life here.  Thanks again for our conversation the other day.  It was very encouraging and inspiring.  🙂

  • Dan, thanks for the link and info. I work for a non-profit and passed it along. I’m sorry I didn’t realize we were at least loosely connected through TheHighCalling.org, but I’m glad for it. Press on.

  • Interesting that you use stories from commercials–ones for well known brands that had a lot of funding behind them. It would have been helpful to have more NFP story examples. Perhaps they are elsewhere in your book. I also don’t think the VW commercial does much for Passat. It’s a cute spot, but how many will remember the brand when they’re done. Maybe that’s why they had to chose a big budget to support it.

  • Melissa, there’s definitely more examples in the book. Thank you for taking your time to read my chapter. I really appreciate it.

    The reason I chose the VW commercial is because it was the clear winner of the 2011 superbowl ads. The kid who played Darth Vader made his rounds on the morning talk shows and Donny Deutsch did an entire segment about it for CNBC. As of right now it has over 52 Million views  The only NFP video that is in that ballpark is the KONY 2012 video. 

    One of my favorite story videos from a NFP is the 2009 birthday campaign from charity:water (Here’s the link – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rphhfy4qCfc )

  • Dan, love the charity water spot. Very emotional. Another point is that it is nice to see NPs getting their stories out in a high quality way. NPs have lots more options for that now than before. Going to be buying your book soon!

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