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Help Nonprofits Sell Better with Stories

Tips for using success stories to show a nonprofit's value

If you heard that a certain type of fox is endangered, would you be moved to act?

How about if you heard that a mama fox was trying to keep herself and her litter safe as their forest disappears?

Now that's different. There's a story there with actual individuals being affected.

Such was the storyline for a campaign by Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), which told a universal tale of survival to communicate about the kit fox problem in Northern California.

Information in the context of a story is dramatically more compelling than straight facts. Yet, many nonprofits fail to tell stories to illustrate their challenges and successful outcomes.

"If you look at the web sites of fifty small nonprofits, you would be hard-pressed to find written stories or pictures that tell a story," says Katya Andresen, author of Robin Hood Marketing and Chief Operating Officer, Network for Good. "You should never be communicating without stories - pictures, examples or full-blown stories."

Most nonprofit staffers know they need to tell more success stories, but just don't have the capacity.

Whether you work for a nonprofit, are an independent writer, or board member or volunteer, here are some tips for helping nonprofits integrate stories more frequently and effectively into communications.

Leverage praise letters

Nonprofits that serve their beneficiaries well inevitably get praise letters from time to time. Make the most of this unsolicited praise.

Immediately ask the submitter if and how you might use their comments. Even take a few minutes to collect a few more details about their story if possible. Can you reprint their comments and stories in your newsletters, blog, annual reports and brochures, or read them at events? Can you use the person's full name or just first name?

Ask the people you serve

Encourage those that the nonprofit serves, or family members, to submit their own stories. Include a "share your story" page on your web site, ask on surveys, or hand out "share your story" forms at live events that they can fill out right there and hand back.

Be sure to collect contact information in case you need to follow up, and let them check multiple-choice options on how you can use their stories publicly.

ID story witnesses

What individuals - paid or volunteer - are in a position to see successes firsthand and relay those back to office staff or someone handling communications? Identify your potential story witnesses.

Make it easy for witnesses

Communicate to story witnesses - in regular communications - specifically and frequently where to share their positive accounts.

Should they email a specific point person? Fill out an online form? How about a success story box in your office for staff or volunteers to write down a few words?

Also solicit stories in staff and volunteer meetings.

Share within the team

Everyone in the organization that communicates with internal and external audiences should have access to your latest success stories.

Your communications person or a volunteer may produce your newsletter while others are creating donor letters, annual reports or grant requests, or training new volunteers and staff. Email stories among the staff to ensure everyone has access to them, or post them on an intranet site.

The president of EDF holds fireside chats annually to tell stories and build team spirit with new employees.

Stay positive

Andresen urges nonprofits not to tell tales of doom and gloom. Rather focus more on the positive outcome to avoid depressing your audience.

Mix your media

Tell your stories in various ways - audio, video, written, in photos, and verbally in meetings with potential supporters.

Find a talented volunteer

No time to interview beneficiaries and write or video success stories? Engage freelancers, or even talented journalism, film or public relations students.

But remember, quality does matter. You want to look professional, so hire the best you can.

Vary story perspectives

Don't just tell beneficiary stories. Make-A-Wish Foundation also features wish-granter, volunteer and sponsor stories.

Remember, always use stories in all internal and external communications to connect with your various audiences.

As for EDF's kit foxes, as a result of the campaign, farmers signed a safe harbor agreement to help protect them.

More Stories By Casey Hibbard

Casey Hibbard is the founder and president of Compelling Cases, Inc. and author of "Stories That Sell: Turn Satisfied Customers into Your Most Powerful Sales & Marketing Asset." She has helped dozens of companies create and manage nearly 500 customer case studies and success stories over the past decade. Casey is featured in numerous books, articles, and teleclasses. She consults with organizations one-on-one and conducts online customer-story classes.