Three “R’s” For Your Storytelling

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Your story must resonate with your donors

You’ve no doubt observed firsthand the power of storytelling in your efforts to convey the importance and urgency of your cause. 

And while there are many resources available to guide you in the art of storytelling, I find it useful to remember three overarching “musts” — I call them the three R’s — for sharing stories with donors in a way that leads them to a deeper engagement in your mission.  They are as follows:

1.  Your stories must Resonate.

Another way of saying this is that your story must ring true.  And quite frankly, the key to telling a story that resonates is to tell a true story.  Please do not be tempted to simply develop a composite story and think you’ll get the same results.  Yes, you must work deliberately to gather the stories that will be meaningful to your donors.  But it’s worth the work.

There are two important reasons why composite stories are not the way to go. 

One problem is that composite stories tend to be void of the details that will make someone care about the issue you’re trying to solve.  They are flat … generic.  For example, you could tell the story of a homeless man who lost his job and needed the help of your organization to get back on his feet again.  There’s your generic story.  But what’s the real story?  What is the man’s name?  Why is he homeless?   Where’s the back-story?  Where’s the whole story?  Where are the details that make me care? 

If you ever try to develop a composite story (and I hope you won’t), you’ll be tempted to simply make things up.  Which leads to the second reason why composite stories are a bad idea — you risk losing credibility with the donor.  And you don’t ever want to put yourself in the position of having to admit you made up a story that “could be true.”

Occasionally you’ll need to protect the identity of the individual whose story you’re sharing.  You can change the person’s name, as long as you let the donor know that the name has been changed to protect the individual’s privacy.   But by using real stories, you’ll be able to include a level of detail that ensures the story will Resonate with the donor … and make her care.

2.  Your stories must be Relevant.

Obviously you want to share stories that are relevant to your organization’s core values.  That’s a given.  But how is the story you’re telling relevant to the donor who’s reading, or listening to, your story?  This is perhaps the most overlooked aspect of powerful storytelling.

Think of it this way.  As the donor reads your story, he might be thinking, “What’s this got to do with me?”  If you tell a great story but don’t make it clear that the donor plays a significant role in your story, you miss an opportunity to deepen the donor’s commitment to your cause. 

As you develop your story, think of how the story links to the donor’s values … to the things that matter to him or her.

Let’s say you’re sharing a story for a veterans’ organization.  You could begin with: “Jerry is one example of a young man who courageously signed up to serve our country … and paid a steep price.”  Or you could begin by pulling the donor into the story and reminding her why she cares: “When someone you love goes off to war, everything changes.  You constantly remind yourself: no news is good news.  Yet you wonder…”

As you describe the impact that your organization is making in the lives of others, make sure you credit the generosity of the donors.  The donor is the hero of your story so be sure to tell it in such a way that you make this crystal clear.

As you read or review your next appeal letter or email, make sure you ask the question: “Where is the donor in this story?”  If the answer isn’t clear, then keep working on it.  It will be worth the work!


3.  Your stories must be told in such a way that they convey Respect for the donor.

This is another point that should be obvious.  Yet I find it must be said.  Be sure the language you use in your storytelling is clear, friendly, conversational, invitational, affirming, passionate and authentically urgent.  Again, be truthful, and do not create false emergencies.  I would encourage you to read your stories aloud to make sure the prevailing tone that results from your word choices is one of deep respect for the donor.  These generous men and women deserve no less.


Each story is unique.  You may find that one approach to the narrative works well for one story, but not so much for another.  I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way to tell a story.  But no matter how your story unfolds, please remember the three R’s of nonprofit storytelling: Resonance. Relevance. Respect.

John Payne