This blog will help you win loyal friends for your nonprofit organization. I'm Dennis Fischman, and I approved this message.

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How to Find a Story for Every Occasion

Storytelling is an ancient art that people in communications fields have begun to appreciate.  But how do you find the right story for the occasion?

archery_homeOnce upon a time, a storyteller (the Maggid of Dubnow) was walking along a road when he saw the most amazing sight.  There was a barn, and on the barn was a bull’s-eye target.  Arrows protruded from the target.  Every one of them had hit the bull’s-eye.  And standing next to them, with a bow and an empty quiver, was a teenager, no more than fourteen.

“Young man!” the storyteller called out.  “How did you manage to hit the bull’s-eye every time?”

“Oh, it was easy,” the teenager replied.  “I shot the arrows first, then I painted the circles around them.”

“And that,” the storyteller told a friend later, “is exactly what I do with my stories. I learn to tell them first, and later I find the occasion to tell them.”

Don’t wait for the next time you’re putting together a newsletter or a funding appeal to think about what stories to tell.  Put some stories in your quiver.  Lean how to aim them.  Then, find the right targets.

When Everything Seems Urgent

“Are you serious about doing business with me?”

Diana was a real talent: a former Director of Development for another nonprofit organization who was working part-time these days while raising very young twins. We were lucky she was available. Our nonprofit organization had a lot of grant proposals to write in a short span of time and could not do it all ourselves. But here she was, fuming.

“Dennis, you introduced me to your Executive Director and everything appeared to go well. I sent her a proposal over a week ago. I’ve called and left voice mail messages. I’ve reached out to her by email. She’s just not calling me back. Do you have any idea what’s going on?”

I knew the Executive Director wanted to work with this consultant, and that we were just on the edge of losing her. Never mind that it was 2010, in the depths of the Great Recession, and our anti-poverty agency was working harder than it ever had before. We had not treated this highly professional woman with the courtesy she deserved. It was up to me to win her back.

“Diana,” I said, “I know we have been really, really slow to respond to you, and I want to let you know that we do want to work with you. In fact, we need to work with you. It’s just that we’re so stressed out right now that we haven’t had the time or the clarity to do what would take the stress away. Please forgive us and be patient.”

“Too stressed to do what would take the stress away.” Diana had been there. So have I and, I’ll guess, so have you. Whether it’s hiring outside help for the short term or setting up systems for the long term, we say to ourselves that we’ll get around to that…once we take care of today’s to-do list. Then the day ends, we still haven’t relieved the stress, and so it goes on and on.

There is a way out of this self-defeating cycle. It involves knowing what comes first.  For the way out:

In the Beginning, Our Nonprofit…

creation story

How do you tell your creation story?

One of the stories that nonprofits should know how to tell is what Andy Goodman calls the creation story. This story shares who started the organization, why it was started, and when it was started.

Your staff, Board, and membership can be informed and inspired by the story of “how we got here.” Here’s a creation story that made a difference to me.

When my wife and I came to Temple B’nai Brith in 1990, about half the members were retirees, in their 70’s and 80’s. The other half were people in their 30’s and early 40’s, with almost no one in between. The temple had existed since the early twentieth century, but by the time we arrived, the way it ran was so different, it was essentially a new organization.

We asked the younger generation, “How did you get involved in running a synagogue, in partnership with people old enough to be your parents?”

They told us:

We liked the people. We liked the building. We started spending time here on Saturday mornings. Eventually, the older generation came to us and said, “Look, we’re not getting any younger–you’re going to have to take over this synagogue.”

That came as a shock. It was surprising enough to some of us that we would even attend a synagogue–let alone run one!

The younger generation got together and decided we would present our elders with a demand they probably wouldn’t accept. We said, “If we take over this synagogue, we’re going to count women and men equally for all purposes. Ritual, membership, voting, you name it.”

The older folks thought a bit and said, “Well we’ve never done it that way before ….” (and we thought we  were off the hook!)

And then they said “…but we know a lot of places are doing it that way now, and we know you young women will take it just as seriously as the men, so…okay. What else do you want?”

And we couldn’t think of anything else! So now, it’s our synagogue. And we love it.

Look at what this story told Rona and me about the organization we were joining.

  • It’s based on friendships between people of different generations.
  • Members run it.
  • Members are committed to it.
  • Egalitarian values steer it.
  • Change is a part of its identity.

Because we knew the story, we knew what we were getting into: what we could expect and what was expected of us.

What’s your organization’s creation story? What does it tell the people who work there about why it exists and how they should act in the future?