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Storytelling for Nonprofits

Written by Juliana Torres-Mason

And so, the storytelling begins…

Email from:

Welcome to Storytelling for Nonprofits!

I imagine this email finds you in a less-than-quiet moment. 

Perhaps you’re about to run out the door to meet a new donor or say a few words at a community meeting. 

Or you’ve just sat down to focus on a report that delicately balances the vision of your organization against the un-ideal reality of right now. 

You’re busy. I get it. 

Therefore, I will immediately capture your attention with the magic of a story! 

Once upon a time… 

A man walked into Walmart, stuffed bags of goldfish down his pants, and attempted to walk out. 

He was caught on the security tapes immediately, because his behavior was so very odd. 

Because no, it wasn’t a bag of snacks that he tried to steal. 

We’re talking live fish, swimming in tiny baggies of water. Think of that ill-fated carnival prize your mother never wanted you to win. 

Bags of fish. Smuggled in his pants. 

I encountered this uncanny gem of a story while working as a newspaper editor in Tampa Bay (you guessed the state), Florida. 

There’s one very specific reason why my home state has a reputation for strange, fish-in-pants types of stories. 

It isn’t because the swamp air makes us all crazy. 

(Though I know that’s what you non-Floridians were thinking. 🤨) 

Actually… 

“Florida man” has grown into a cultural icon because talented storytellers (journalists) have unencumbered access to a treasure trove of raw story material. 

You see, Florida has an open records law that grants journalists the right to peruse through police records shortly after the crime has occurred. 

In a classic Daily Show segment, Tampa Bay Times columnist and Florida-weird novelist Craig Pittman explained this as the primary reason for the Florida man phenomenon. (I’ll give the link to that interview at the end of this email; it’s great.) 

I agree with his assessment because I’ve experienced it myself. 

In my newspaper days, I’d swing by the police station once a week and pick up a stack of stapled police reports. More often than not, I’d find myself flipping through the pages at stop lights. 

Those poor police officers did their best to make each arrest sound boring: Subject appeared intoxicated as he gesticulated with the object. 

But, a storyteller can easily weave those black and white details back into a colorful narrative. 

Sometimes it wasn’t even that hard. I mean…  he’s holding a fish in a baggie, right?!? 

So… Why am I fixated on fish? 

Because every nonprofit has its own treasure trove of black and white stories just waiting for a bit of attention and a splash of color

Stories are magic. They capture our attention and convey meanings without trying very hard. 

Stories help us connect the dots. We’ve all felt the clouds of monotony part in the middle of a boring explanation when the speaker suddenly adds: 

“Let me tell you a story…”

If you’re reading this, you have a to-do list that grows with every phone call. But you also have stories popping up like dandelions in places you least expect them.  

Dandelions — I mean stories — that prove your organization’s value in the community. 

Stories make presentations easier, donations bigger, enthusiasm for the mission wider, and all those reports more interesting. 

So start gathering them. Your first step in telling stories is as simple as that. And the method of gathering should fit your lifestyle. 

Open a Word doc, a text file or a spreadsheet. 

Create a new section on your to-do list. 

Label a notebook “Stories we must tell.” 

Start recording voice notes with ideas. 

The goal is to capture a snippet of the story as it happens (or as you remember it) to save for development later. 

Then, when you’re writing out a letter to convince the board to fund a new project, you have a treasure trove of real-life examples at your fingertips. 

As you build social media content, you’ll have ideas for hooking in a new audience. 

When you’re preparing a speech for a fundraiser, you won’t be racking your brain for something to say. 

You’ll have stories to fall back on. 

Don’t worry if you don’t know what to do yet with all the story ideas. We’ll continue to explore ways to capture and develop stories every week.

Until then, stay curious! 

Juliana Torres-Mason

~ The Nonprofit Storyteller

(and spinner of goldfish tales)

P.S. I promised that Daily Show segment featuring Desi Lydic on her quest to uncover the mystery behind the “Florida Man” phenomenon. Here it is!