How to Tell a Story Your Donors Will Love

Do you remember ol’ Uncle Bill (or in my case Uncle Jim), the craggy-faced uncle who always seemed to pull a family story out of thin air, like a magic trick? We all had one in the family, it seems.

“Your great-grandma,” he might say, “I remember the day she marched down to Mr. Waring’s and told him off because he yelled at us kids for playing in his yard. She didn’t let the guy have a word in edgewise. But the next day, she made us take him some cookies. He let us play there all afternoon! You know, you remind me of her.”

Right there, he made the connection, from past to present, cause to effect, problem to solution, beginning to happy ending. More important, he compelled you to listen and connected you to something larger than yourself, all with these simple words: You remind me of her.

It’s the power of stories, people. The power of connection.

Storytelling isn’t new. In fact, at last year’s National Conference on Philanthropic Planning, John Trybus, deputy director of the Center for Social Impact Communication (CSIC) at Georgetown University, shared findings from a 2013 study by CSIC that revealed storytelling as the #1 business skill of the next five years!

Storytelling has been around since the cavemen. Passing down stories of families, famine, wars, triumphs, seasons and more served to do more than elicit Hallmark moments. They taught us life lessons, inspired us to choose the right path, persuaded us to feel feelings, and compelled us to swift action. And despite the rather insular nature of this brave, new digital age, we still crave stories—connection—community. Facebook, anyone?

Telling your story builds your tribe. It moves people to your camp. You’re in this thing called life, together, because of shared stories.

At Stelter, we’ve been helping clients craft their nonprofit’s stories for decades. In that time we’ve been able to pull out a few key points about the elements that make a story fall short and what makes it fly. What are some pieces of a great story?

  • First and foremost, it’s got to be authentic. Doesn’t matter if you speak it or write it, your organization’s story has got to be real. Never fabricate or speak loosely about the details for dramatic effect. Go one step further and get the person’s permission for use, if it makes you feel more comfortable telling the story. If you can’t share it without conviction, your audience just won’t buy it.
  • Build your story around people. A singular story is more relatable—most anything over dozens, hundreds or thousands becomes nothing more than an anonymous statistic. Give your people faces, names, personality. Make them a grandparent, co-worker or kid down the street. What’s a more compelling story:

With your help, we’ve been able to give more than 700 neighborhood children the gift of books and reading through your generous gift to our new summer reading program.


Tony loves to read. In fact, he spent his entire summer devouring the Magic Tree House series of books and likes to tell anyone who will listen that he’s nearly finished with the 10th book, in just three short months! Thanks to your gift of new and gently used books, we were able to stock Tony’s backpack, and give him and nearly 700 neighborhood children just like him exciting new books for summer reading. Now, thanks to you, they can take off in their love for reading—and get grounded in their lifelong quest for learning.

  • Tell us about the trials and tribulations along the way. Life is not traveled in linear fashion. Most of us find ourselves going in circles at some point toward the final goal. Tell us about the bumps in the road and the challenges you overcame—how your organization persevered and changed course, if necessary, to achieve success—and why your donors should be along with you for the journey. It also tells us that despite any challenges, your group is capable and committed to see the program or initiative through.
  • Tailor the story to your audience. To be clear, we’re not saying be false. This means finding the nugget that connects your story with your particular audience—tell them the “what’s-it-got-to-do-with-me” piece of the story. Make it relatable to them, addressing their concerns and ultimate hopes for their “tribe,” whether that tribe is family, cause or community.

Here’s one simple example of how a nonprofit, National Society Daughters of the American Revolution, asked their loyal supporters to tell their “My Patriot and Me” story.


How have you shared your story? How have you asked your supporters to share theirs?

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