Why should you Tell a Story in your Cover Letter?

The Virtual Fundraising Career Conference

Vanessa founded The Storytelling Non-Profit in 2012 to help not-for-profit organizations articulate their impact to donors in a new way, using narrative techniques to generate greater personal interest and accountability, thereby improving their fundraising success. Today, The Storytelling Non-Profit provides consulting, training, and coaching to non-profits around the world.

Mazarine Treyz:Hello, everybody. This is Mazarine Treyz with Wild Woman Fundraising, and I’m so psyched today to be interviewing one of our presenters for the Virtual Fundraising Career Conference, Vanessa Chase. The conference is right around the corner, so if you haven’t gotten your ticket yet, please do. I’d love to see you there, and tickets are running out. So hurry, by March 31st or the price will double to $36 so I really hope I can see you there. It’s only 18 right now, and we’re going to have three days of incredible presentations about creating a culture of philanthropy, about how to get your foot in the door for a job, as well as how to become a consultant and leave a toxic workplace, with Tom Ahern and Linda Lysakowski and Joanne Oppelt, and, not the least, with Vanessa Chase. And Vanessa will be talking about telling your story in your cover letter. And actually I love that she’s going to be talking about this, because in my experience one of the most successful ways to do a cover letter for any kind of nonprofit job is to tell your story with either that cause or why you’re so passionate about this particular role before you ever get into it.


So a bit about Vanessa. Vanessa is ideally poised to talk about this topic because she is the president of The Storytelling Non-Profit, and she founded it in 2012 to help charities articulate their impact to donors in a new way using narrative techniques that generate greater personal interest and accountability and thereby improving their fundraising success. And so today The Storytelling Non-Profit and Vanessa provide consulting, training, and coaching to nonprofits around the world. So she started at University of British Columbia, her alma mater, and other clients of hers have included the Union Gospel Mission, British Columbia Children’s Hospital, Cancer Care Connection, Universal Outreach Foundation, Hope For The Nations, Boucher Institute of Naturopathic Medicine, Love Global Foundation, A Rocha Canada, Kokua, The Wellman Project, and SHARE Family Community Services. And to date she’s helped raise these organizations over ten million. And so she’s also spoken at NetSquared Vancouver, Artez Interactive, UBC Impact Labs, Association of Donor Relations Professionals, The Storytelling Conference, which is coming up again this year. You all should go to that, and the Blackbaud Conference for Nonprofits. And so, Vanessa I love this that you’ve done so much to help nonprofits in the last few years, and I love that you’re so focused on storytelling. I think that’s really important. So I wanted to ask you, you’ve had these clients, but what is your business about and what have you done for your clients? You’re The Storytelling Non-Profit, so what does that really mean?

Vanessa Chase: Such a good question, Mazarine. I get asked that a lot because I think that storytelling, of course, is a very popular term that’s thrown around a lot right now in our sector and more broadly in corporate marketing as a communications technique. But people often wonder, well what does that really mean when you help people with storytelling? So I kind of boil it down into a couple of different ways. The first is that we provide training and coaching to nonprofit professionals who want to learn how to tell better stories. So we do that through webinars, through workshops, and also speaking engagements that I do at various conferences. And then the other way that we often help organizations is we actually come in and work alongside them to create stories for their fundraising appeals or for donor communications, and that will include everything from developing a key message to integrating that with their branding, understanding how their audience fits into that, and ultimately developing a story-based communication that they can then share with their donors.

MT: I love that. So when they share that story-based communication, what happens?

VC: You know, that’s a great question. So oftentimes it’ll depend on what the medium is. So sometimes it’ll be something like their donor newsletter or maybe it’ll be something more specific like a fundraising appeal where they’re really trying to get results from that, so they’re trying to raise a certain amount of money. We had a client last year who told a story in their direct mail appeal for the first time ever. They’d never used stories in any communication, and they found that their average gift doubled in size when they took a different approach to their year-end appeal, which was pretty amazing. And that’s not the only client that we’ve seen that with. So, I’m a firm believer that stories do definitely get people the kind of fundraising results they’re looking for and that donors are more responsive to them because they’re more inspiring and it’s easier to really connect with the information. I think so often we see statistics, or at least when I read direct mail letters, a lot of times or even emails will throw four or five or maybe even more statistics in one sentence or in a paragraph. And all those numbers start to become really meaningless, and you’re like, what do those really mean? How do I understand what those number mean to me, to this cause, to the people they serve? And stories help to contextualize that and help people to understand what the work is really about and what the value of that work is.

MT: I love that, so it’s not really about how people are helping ten people or ten thousand people or a hundred thousand people because eventually the numbers become meaningless. It’s really about that story that connects the donor to the mission.

VC: Absolutely.

MT: What draws you to storytelling?

VC: So many things, I feel like I’ve been on a lifelong journey to becoming a professional storyteller. I think from early on in my childhood probably from about the age of six I’ve been kind of a manic writer and keeper of journals and have always been interested in kind of personal narrative projects. I can remember times as early as like ten or eleven years old telling people I wanted to be a writer when I grew up, and I think that’s certainly taken a lot of different forms than I thought it would. I think when I was younger and even when I graduated from university a number of years ago, I thought that being a professional writer meant you had to be a journalist or somebody who wrote novels, like very normative views of what writing and storytelling was. And I was really glad actually that in my first fundraising career I worked at an organization that really valued narrative communications and stories as a part of how they fundraised. And it really helped me to see how storytelling could be applied in so many different ways and how I could really still kind of live out that childhood dream I had of being a writer in an industry that I really love.

MT: I love that, I love that. So speaking of the stories, what will you be speaking on in the conference?

VC: I’m going to be talking about telling your personal story in a cover letter, which is such a great topic, and I’m really glad you asked me to speak on it, Mazarine. I think from my own experience of both applying for jobs and also hiring people, cover letters are often, at least for work candidates, really can fall short or either stand out significantly. And when my company went through a process of hiring someone last year, that was one of the big deciding factors for us and when we shortlisted candidates was the candidate’s cover letter. And oftentimes the ones that stood out the most for us were the ones that told us a really compelling personal story about why they were interested in the job and what brought them to apply, ultimately. And they were the ones that really hooked my attention, and I think in many cases they’re often the ones that will hook other hiring decision makers’ attention.

MT: I love that, I love that. Yeah, and I know in my experience with my fundraising meetup that I do here in Portland, Oregon, I know you’re in Vancouver, BC. What has happened for people that I’ve worked with in this meetup, one of the people bought my book, “Get the Job! Your Fundraising Career Empowerment Guide.” And she read the piece, I just sat down with her as she bought it, and I said, “Look, read the piece about the cover letters. Don’t read anything else, just read that piece.” And she looked at the sample cover letter that I had in there, and she said, “Wow, I never knew that you could write cover letters this way.” And so what I’d done is I’d written a story in this cover letter about the future of news, and it was a cover letter for NPR. And it got me an interview when I was 3,000 miles away. And so that story really worked, and they wanted me, but I’d already taken a job by the time they’d reached out to me. So it didn’t work out in the end for them. But she use that model, and then the next time I heard from here she was leaving meetup, and I was like, “Oh, no. I’m sorry. Why did you leave?” And she’s like, “Oh, I got a job in Colorado. I’m going now, bye.” So, it’s like, oh that’s wonderful, you look for a job for so long then you figured out how to twist your cover letter the right way, and then suddenly you got what you wanted. I know it’s anecdotal as evidence, but I think from both of us, stories are more compelling than just someone tried to answer all the different little pieces of the job description, right?

VC: Absolutely, yeah, and I think the other thing is, too, is that when you think about the pieces of applying for jobs, so your cover letter and your resume, your resume really speaks to your skills and expertise, which is great. But a cover letter is where somebody can kind of get to know you better and feel like maybe you’ve had a great chat over coffee or they’ve finished reading that letter and feel like, “Oh, I have a real sense of who this person is and what their personality is like.” And I think when you can kind of make that connection with somebody through your cover letter, you’re probably more likely to get that interview and hopefully be the successful candidate for that job.

MT: Yeah, that’s the ideal situation. And I’ve really found that, you know, when you do get that personal story, people really do respond. When I was still interested in getting jobs, I did that with a acupuncture school here in Portland, and they called me for an interview right away. It was so wonderful.

VC: That’s great.

MT: Yeah, I told the story about how my cousin’s life had been saved by acupuncture. And they were hanging at the edge of their seats when I told it in person. It’s a nice way to not have to talk about how great you are, like braggy, but more like – you know what I mean. More like this is why you say the word story and people’s ears perk up. Like, oh this is going to be more interesting than I thought this was going to be, you know?

VC: Absolutely.

MT: So any little tips you’d like to share as a teaser of what people are going to be learning at your session?

VC: Good question, well, one of the things we’re definitely going to talk about is what makes a great cover letter and how can you bring your personal story into an outstanding cover letter. And so one of the things that I always like to do is to encourage people to ask themselves very self-reflective questions to really determine what their angle or hook is for that cover letter. And just to give you an example, so here’s one question that we might talk about in the webinar, which will be, is there a personal reason why you’re applying to this job? Or another question you can also think about is, what’s your connection to this cause and why does this cause matter to you? And so getting people to dig a little bit deeper and think about those reasons why this is really an attractive opportunity for them and how that might be able to organically evolve into a story that you can then tell.

MT: I love that, I love that. Yeah, it’s got to be personalized. I totally agree. It can’t just be just trying to send out as many cover letters as possible, because, as tempting as that is with the Internet the way it is these days, a lot of people are already doing that. So if you really want to stand out, you’ve got to give them something a little extra, a little something more. Would you agree?

VC: Absolutely, yeah. And I think one of the other common mistakes people often make is they’ll really make the cover letter about them and about the benefits that they’re gaining from potentially having this new opportunity. I’m sure you’ve probably seen that too in some of the folks you’ve worked with on career counseling.

MT: Oh, yeah.

VC: One of the interesting things that I’ve thought about that I think can help fundraisers sort of wrap their mind around this concept is that you almost need to bring in this idea of being donor-centered into your cover letter, except in the case of writing a cover letter, it’s being really employer centered instead, and so making it about them and what value you bring to the table and how you can help them with their work.

MT: Yes, yes, 100% yes. That’s exactly right. You know, I’m glad you brought us back to that Vanessa, because that really brings it back to your expertise, which is writing a story the donor will connect with, which his like writing a story the employer will connect with. So that makes total sense. I love that. So for any Canadian listeners of this interview, we are going to be having a Canadian toll free number you can also call to learn from Vanessa when she gives her presentation April 13th at 12:00 p.m. PT. And if you can’t make it, we are going to be recording everything. Everybody who registers will get all the recordings. Vanessa, thank you so much for being interviewed today. I really appreciate it. I’m really looking forward to your session, and I can’t wait to learn from you. And if people want to learn more about you, where can they go?

VC: Well, I’m looking forward to it, too. I think it’s going to be a great session, and I’m looking forward to meeting everyone who’s going to be at the conference. And in the meantime, if folks are interested in learning more about me and some of the work I’m doing, they can go to

MT: Wonderful I have that link here, and anybody’s who’s interested in telling a better story for their nonprofit and raising exponentially more money and doubling their donors’ gifts, you should connect with Vanessa right away. All right, thank you again Vanessa, and have a wonderful rest of your week. And see you at the conference.

VC: Thanks, you too.

MT: Okay, bye.

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