The Power of Storytelling in Increasing Non-Profit Engagement

once upon a time

When was the last time you gave your money freely, to someone or some cause, for no good reason? I’m going to guess you never have. Or if you did, you soon came to regret it and actively avoided that person or cause afterward, and every time you think about it you’re left wondering, “why did I do that? I just threw money away.” We work hard for our money, and in order to be convinced or inspired to part with it, we need reasons.

We have to feed, cover, and shelter ourselves so we buy food, clothes, and homes. We have to get where we’re going efficiently – in order to work to earn money to buy the things we need – so we purchase cars or transit cards. We have a deep desire to be entertained, so we buy theatre and concert tickets. We purchase goods and services we need to navigate our way through life, and purchase the things we want in order to enhance that life.

Doing Good to Feel Good

But what about the less tangible things? What of altruism? Study after study has shown that doing good makes us feel good, that being altruistic releases endorphins and provides a number of health benefits. But that doesn’t mean we go about willy nilly tossing money into the wind hoping it lands with the right cause, charity, or organization.

Altruism has direction and focus. We give to the causes we care deeply about or that address issues we may have faced in the past. Battling an illness, overcoming poverty, or being the survivor of violent crime are all reasons to give back to the causes that have benefited us in the past. It’s the magical effect of paying it forward. Other times we give to causes that strike a chord in us such as environmental causes or animal rescue organizations. We may wish to support a foundation that promotes a hobby or interest of ours. But in every case, there is a reason we support the causes we do.

As a non-profit development professional, it is my job to give you that reason. It’s up to me to grab your attention, to make you care about the cause I’m promoting, to inspire you to become a partner in our success. I have to tell you a story.

“After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.” Philip Pullman

I recently took the reigns as the Webmaster and Social Media Chair for the St. Andrew’s Society of Atlanta. As a community organization celebrating Scottish heritage in America, SAS membership skews towards the elderly. But things are changing. Our membership is getting younger, and our newly-elected President is one of the youngest yet. Upon her insistence, we now have a (closed) Facebook Group. And in our strategy discussions, I pointed out that in order to inspire growth within the Society we would need to appeal to younger people who expect a digital presence that keeps up with the times, and a certain level of sophistication in our presentation.

Providing the Value Proposition

They also need more compelling reasons to join our organization beyond “it’s good for my career to be involved in civic organizations,” or, “I joined because my parents and grandparents were members and that’s just what we do.” That may have worked in the past, but it’s not what drives giving and involvement in today’s philanthropist. Both time and money are becoming more and more precious, it seems. So we must work harder to convince people to give both. That’s where storytelling comes in.

One of the most important aspects of the Society’s Mission is the Scholarship Fund. We provide financial support to a number of young pipe and drum students so they may attend summer music camps. In the fall, the Society holds a recital where the students perform for the membership and demonstrate what they have learned and the progress they have made.

Over the years, great stories have emerged. Scholarship recipients have gone on to earn music scholarships to colleges, perform in Pipe & Drum Corps and marching bands all over the world, have won medals at Highland games and festivals, and have become teachers themselves. But you wouldn’t know that unless you were already a member.

Storytelling Informs the Elevator Pitch

If we are to inspire new members to join in our Mission, the success stories and the role the Society played in those successes need to be told. If we are to increase funding, a more diligent and focused effort needs to be made. Over the next few months I will be working with our scholarship alumni to tell their stories. And those stories will be published to our newly redesigned website in an effort to inspire current members to take more ownership in the fund, and increase their giving.

It also demonstrates to prospective members and other interested parties that we actually do something. We’re involved in something worthwhile, that helps our community’s youth, that makes a difference in their lives, and keeps alive the traditions we claim to hold so dear. It engenders pride and ownership in the Society. It makes us all stakeholders, deeply invested – financially and emotionally – in the success of the Society and the furtherance of its Mission. It provides a compelling reason to become involved and to give freely of our time, treasure, and talent.

We then have a story of giving and difference-making we can take to the wider community. When we talk to others about being a member of the St. Andrew’s Society and they ask us, “well that’s great but what does it all mean?” We have a story to tell. And new members to attract. And a Society that grows and thrives. That’s a happily ever after we can all get behind.


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