How to Tell a Compelling Impact Story by Vanessa Chase

Have you ever been told or read that you should be communicating your non-profit’s impact to donors?

Penelope Burk wrote about this in Donor Centered Fundraising a number of years ago and suggested that maintaining on-going communication with donors helps improve donor retention. Her research specifically cited that donors are interested in knowing how their gift was used. In other words – what impact did their gift have?

Communicating this for the average non-profit is no small feat. When you have multiple programs and a big mission, it can be challenging to succinctly communicate the impact of it all to someone who is not at the organization 5 days a week.

In this post, I want to show you a few ways to define your organization’s impact and how to tell a story about it.

Defining and Communicating Impact

How would you respond if I were to ask you, “What impact do your donors have?”

When I have asked fundraisers this question, I tend to get very broad answers. Frequently I’ll hear things like, “Our donors are making a difference in the community” or “They are helping our organization achieve its mission.”

To avoid this pitfall, I encourage you to pull out your organization’s mission statement, then make a list of the tangible ways that your organization working towards achieving it.

For instance let’s say your mission statement was: to elimintate homelessness in our community through employment programs and career counselling. Some specific ways that you might be working towards that mission include: offering job training programs for welding and electricians, providing 50 career counselling sessions per month, hiring an additional career counsellor, providing clients with support during the first year of their job to increase job retention and thus ability to afford housing, and helping 100 people find stable housing each year.

That’s a long list of was the organization is working towards their mission statement. The good thing is that each of the things listed are very tangible examples of how they are doing the work.

The challenge now becomes how do we explain this to a donor? This is where stories can be especially useful.

Storytelling is one of many communications tools at our disposal. But what makes storytelling more effective than say a paragraph of factual information, is that a donor can more easily understand it. When we present our donors with factual information and a plain description of what we are doing, we often do not account for our donors’ context. But that I mean, how much do donors really know about our work and could they easily understand what we have sent them? More often than not, the answer is no.

By instead telling them a story about our work and it’s impact, we are giving them one small, tangible example of the work. This example is easier to understand and ultimately helps donors understand their impact more than a description of the program.

3 Qualities of a Compelling Impact Story

Telling a story may seem like a daunting task, but I want to simplify it for you. If your goal is to communicate an impact story, there are 3 things you must include:

1) A person, place or thing who was helped – An impact story much be about helping someone or something. You may have a long list of people that you’ve helped, but just pick one.

2) The before and after – In order for donors to really understand the impact of their gift, we have to paint them a before and after picture. The story should tell donors about what that person’s life was like before your organization helped them. What problem were they facing? Why couldn’t they solve it on their own? Then, you have to tell the donor what happened when your organization was able to help them solve it.

3) A thank you – At the end of a great impact story, thank the donor. Your donors may not put the pieces together that they were partially responsible for making that story possible. Remind them of that and thank them for their generosity.

Looking for an example of an impact story? Check out the YMCA of Greater Vancouver 2013 annual report and Ecojustice’s victory reports.

There are many places that you can use impact stories. Thank you letters and newsletters are a great places to start regularly sharing them. When possible look to see if you are receiving feedback from your donors about the stories. This is a good indication that your stories are well received and are growing the relationships you have with your donors.

Vanessa Chase is the President of The Storytelling Non-Profit – a consulting group that specializes in helping non-profits raise more money through communications. You can find out more about her and non-profit storytelling on her blog.

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