Telling Stories When You Help Indirectly

Several great questions have come in via Facebook about storytelling, including this one, which I hear just about every time I teach a storytelling workshop:

How can I use stories if we are several steps removed from the people receiving the help?

This is a common question from organizations like United Ways and other fundraising federations, from nonprofits that are technical assistance or support organizations for other nonprofits, and from research and national policy organizations. Staff at nonprofits like these would love to use storytelling, and envy their peers who work at nonprofits that provide direct services to people or animals.

Here are three suggestions for how to use “on the ground” or “client” stories in these situations.

1. Ask your partners to share.

You probably work with partner organizations, or organizations you consider your clients, who do work directly with people on the ground. Explain that you want to tell stories that help demonstrate the real-world impact of your work, and ask them to share.

That’s what One Warm Coat did with the story I blogged about yesterday. One Warm Coat helps other nonprofits and individuals organize coat drives. So they asked some of their local community partners to share stories they could use nationally. One Warm Coat is based in the San Francisco Bay Area, but Albert’s story takes place in Thoreau, New Mexico. Sylvia and Sherri didn’t give Albert’s family the coats directly, but they are an important part of the infrastructure that created the change for this family. Sure, the social service agencies that work with the families who received the coats are more directly connected, but there’s no reason why One Warm Coat shouldn’t tell those stories too.

Yes, some nonprofits will be too “selfish” to share good stories. But if you ask around enough, I’m sure you can find someone who will share. It’s just a matter of finding the right partner who values you enough to cooperate. You don’t need cooperation from everyone. A few good stories is all you need.

2. Connect the dots yourself.

You probably come across stories all the time in the news or via the grapevine where you think, “We’re a part of that, and no one will ever know.”

Use those stories as a launching point to talk about your work. It might go something like this . . . “Did you see the story in the New York Times about the women who (fill in the blank, recount the story.) Did you know that when you donate to our organization, you are helping people like her? Here’s how . . . (then explain how your work helps others who help that woman).  Don’t let complicated relationships get in the way of helping your supporters really understand the value of the work you do. Connect the dots between what you do and something more “real world” that they can understand.

3. Use a testimonial instead.

I get it. You don’t want take credit for work done by others. But what about if they give you the credit themselves? Ask the executive directors of some of the nonprofits that your organization supports or helps in some way to talk about your value.  Ask them to complete sentences like these:

“Thanks to the help of (your organization), now we can _______”

“If (your organization) wasn’t here for us, we couldn’t __________”

Hopefully those blanks are filled in with stories too!

Have some examples or other tips to share for telling the story when you are connected indirectly? Leave them in the comments.

P.S. We have three storytelling webinars this month:

March 10: Three Stories Every Nonprofit Should Be Telling

March 24: Telling Powerful Stories about Everyday People

March 30: Storytelling for Fundraisers

I’m also offering storytelling consultations.



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  • Andrea

    Thanks for this post. I work for a coalition of non-profit orgs, so this is an issue we deal with. One comment I would add to suggestion #1 is that by sharing the stories of your members/partners, you are giving them publicity by sharing their story with a wider audience than they would reach on their own. (In fact, being featured in our newsletter is a benefit of membership in our coalition.) So it can be a great win/win situation.
    Andrea

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