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Tell Me Your Story

Tell Me Your Story

August 3, 2016
Doug Kohl

“You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.”

These words, penned by Mark Twain, begin a story that has lasted the test of time. They begin the story of Huckleberry Finn and pull the reader into caring about a moment in time that only exists in our imagination.

Every cause has a story.  Every not-for-profit organization starts with a dream to take the world to a better place.  As lives are changed, a story evolves behind each success.  These are the stories of lives transformed by one person saying, “I’m going to make a difference,” and then leading others to do the same.

Recently an organization said they had no stories.  They just didn’t have any.  My response was that they had stories; they just hadn’t collected them.  If you have no stories you must be doing work with no results. With no results, how can you measure the resources needed to serve?

Without stories, you’re just another organization with a noble idea.

Stories are the most basic way we justify our cause.  You share your story, you pull people in. You tell your story and the community begins to understand how your work transforms lives.

Every story told pulls a potential caring person from being casually connected to your organization to being better connected and committed to your cause.  Every non-profit needs people who are committed to making a difference in the lives of people and communities.  Most want to know how their contribution will transform the community.

There is no short cut.  Stories are told to develop committed friends.  Stories share information.   They describe where you used to be, where you are today and where you intend to go in the future.

During my first capital campaign, I met with a donor regarding the importance of our project.  I explained what we needed – we were going to add a gym and a pool and make improvements to our day camp site.  He said, “but I don’t want to build a pool.  I want to change lives.”  I had to re-think my pitch to better describe how many lives would be changed, not how much money I needed.

It was only then that I started to tell stories about families coming together, life-long friendships established, a step-parent could cement a life bond in a blended family – it was then that the donor felt their gift would make a difference in the lives of children and families.

Once we started telling our story, support increased. People would learn the compelling stories and the response was always the same – “I never knew.”  How many people do you think know your organization but “never really knew”?

If you have no story, your cause falls flat.  Donors want to know what difference their support will make in the life of their community.

  • Be intentional. Record stories, write them down or use audio and video recording. Build this into your culture from new staff and volunteer orientation to your trustees. Everyone identifies and looks for stories.
  • Share stories face to face. This takes time, but produces extraordinary results.  Explain where you were, where you are now and where you intend to be in the future.  Nothing can replace taking the time to share stories face to face.
  • Include stories in all communications, including social media and electronic sources.
  • Train others to tell stories. Multiply the doers.  Many will say they can’t and yet they do it in their everyday lives without thinking about it.
  • Tell the story again. Donors want to be kept abreast of the difference their gift makes.
  • Author John LeCarre was quoted, “I’m in the business of storytelling, not message making.”  We aren’t trying to share a message of how much we need a donation.  Communications experts will tell you that there are two ways to share information.  You can push information out or you can pull people closer to your organization with a story.

    In the world of not-for-profit development work one thing is certain:  the organization that tells their story the best, wins.  They win the support of those who care and are determined to make their caring count.


    Doug Kohl

    Doug brings more than four decades of experience working within the YMCA of the USA. He began his Y career in camping services at the Honolulu Y in 1971 and since then has worked at branches in Cleveland and Chicago. He was executive director of the Arthur Jordan Branch in Indianapolis from 1985 to 1991 and was CEO of the Akron Area Y. Under Doug’s leadership, the Akron Y raised more than $2.4 million in annual support and $40 million for capital improvements, and its annual operating budget has grown from $3.7 million to $19 million. He is currently the Chief Development Officer of the YMCA of Greater Cleveland.