Storytelling Mantras That Move Funders to Act: My Advice to Nonprofits - Exponent Philanthropy
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Storytelling Mantras That Move Funders to Act: My Advice to Nonprofits

Last month, Exponent Philanthropy CEO Henry Berman spoke on storytelling at The Nonprofit Summit, a gathering sponsored by six organizations, including our members the Ausherman Family Foundation and Helen J. Serini Foundation, that provides the Frederick County, MD nonprofit sector with quality, affordable educational opportunities.

If you represent a nonprofit, we hope you find this excerpt to be helpful. If you are a funder, we encourage you to share this advice with your grantees and carefully consider your role as a consumer of nonprofits’ stories.

I’ve come to think of myself as a storyteller. Not in the sense of a professional who can weave a tale, but rather someone who listens, observes, reflects, and then shares.

My first life—the one before nonprofits and philanthropy—was in film, video, multimedia, and communications. I also studied education, and my success was found at their intersection—fusing the disciplines of communications and learning to change audiences’ behaviors.

As I moved into the world of nonprofits as a board member, fundraiser, and, in one instance, a museum founder, I’ve brought a film director’s perspective of considering the entire script first, before pushing in for the details and intimacy of the close-up.

When I was given the gift allowing me to add foundation trustee to my resume, the same skills I honed as a storyteller became infused in my work, as I hope they are in yours. Perhaps more than anything, a good story has the power to make us think and act.

As you work with funders, volunteers, board members, and colleagues, you want your story to shine. Which means that you need to tell it the way you want, lest someone else tells it for you.

How then do you do this?

If you read up on storytelling, you’ll find many techniques and lots of “how to” advice for crafting a good story. I encourage you to find and study those resources, keeping in mind that not all of them will work for you every time. Find those that resonate and build on them.

In my case, I keep returning to two basic mantras that for decades have served as my guide and kept me grounded: (1) take the audience from the familiar to the unfamiliar, and (2) always make sure they can see themselves in the story.

Let’s unpack those from a nonprofit’s perspective.

Take the audience from the familiar to the unfamiliar

Imagine for a moment your nonprofit provides programming using art to support the social and emotional growth of children with autism. Now also imagine you want to explain your work to someone with no understanding of this kind of treatment—or perhaps even autism.

Too often we tend to jump directly to speaking about the results, without any context. We arrive at the destination, but our listeners miss the richness of the journey.

Now think if you craft a story that begins by asking if anyone in the audience has been involved in creating art. Painting or photography, perhaps. Or spent time admiring art—maybe while visiting a local museum. Then you might ask how they felt. Did it calm them? Did it allow them to express feelings in reaction to the experience?

In doing this, you’re directing them to the path you want them to follow. You’ve focused them on what they know and possibly experienced: the opportunity art offers for expression. And, from there, it’s a few short steps to showing the parallels to your work.

Make sure the audience see themselves in the story

Making sure your audience can see themselves in the story involves a similar way of thinking. Let’s use the same example and assume you’re asking funders to support your organization.

As you tell your story, keep your audience front of mind. Think about how your story can become their story. Think about it as the gateway into their imagination where they can see potential. Where they can dream, think, and go beyond boundaries to consider new possibilities for support, cooperation, involvement, and more.

I suggest you include the thoughts of someone whose child or grandchild has benefited from your program—ideally someone similar to those in your audience. You want your audience to hear their own voices.

Film director and storyteller Sidney Lumet (think 12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, Fail-Safe, and Serpico among many others) said,

While the goal of all movies is to entertain, the kind of film in which I believe, goes one step further. It compels the spectator to examine one facet or another of his own conscience. It stimulates thought and sets the mental juices flowing.

Isn’t that exactly what you want with your stories? To prime others to engage with your worthy cause?

One final note to my fellow funders reading this post: A compelling story told in a way that engages requires an audience willing to listen. Open your eyes, ears, and mind to the stories of your community and consider how hand-in-hand you can craft the story’s next chapter.

Henry Berman became Exponent Philanthropy’s CEO in 2011, previously serving as acting CEO, board member, and committee member. Through his experience as a foundation co-trustee and Exponent Philanthropy member since 2003, he brings a firsthand understanding of the needs of members to his role.


  1. Scott Brazda

    Tell PEOPLE stories, not organizational history stories full of data, figures and fancy graphics. You want a donor to open the checkbook? Give them a point of reference, someone to whom they can relate, someone who looks like that man, woman or child down the street, perhaps maybe right next door.

    Touch their hearts and open their minds, make them smile or perhaps shed a tear or two; get them to feel something. Buildings don’t do that; neither does 501-c-3 designations.

    Human beings do.

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