“Let me tell you a story.”

Sharing data with your supporters is a great way to communicate the nuts and bolts of donor impact. But never underestimate the power of a story in connecting a donor emotionally to your cause.

Giving is driven by both emotion and logic, observes Capacity Partners Consultant Nancy Leopold. “Stories bring nonprofits’ impact to life. They hit people emotionally and intellectually. They make it real.”

Leopold saw first-hand the impact stories can have when she served as a founder and long-time leader of CollegeTracks, a nonprofit whose mission is to empower first-generation-to-college students and students from low-income and immigrant households in Montgomery County.

At “friend-raising” events, people were invited to hear directly from CollegeTracks students, which Leopold terms “the highlight of the evening” for attendees. One particular student was a natural in terms of charisma and storytelling acumen. He also had a great story to tell, having stumbled into the CollegeTracks office at a Montgomery County high school mostly because of the free candy available.

He told listeners that he and his single mother had no expectations that college would be an option. He since has graduated from Goucher College and is enrolled in a Master’s program. “The way he told his own story was so compelling,” she recalls. “By the end of the evening, people wanted to volunteer and give.” She adds, “A good story creates instant community.”

There are some caveats that apply to the first-person, in-person approach. “Authenticity is critical. That means the closer you can get to the voice of the speaker, the better off you are,” says Leopold, while noting this is not always possible.

For direct social service organizations particularly, asking a client to relate their story in person (or even via a video) has the potential to feel coercive and raises ethical questions. Depending on their circumstances, it also could invade their privacy or even jeopardize their safety.

It is essential to have a standard procedure for seeking the subject’s informed permission, including a full explanation of all of the ways the story may be shared (website, social media, etc.). A signed document can work well. It can and probably should include details such as whether a subject wants their real name used. Also consider establishing a policy for reviewing and archiving old content.

Other Options

Of course there are many ways to share powerful stories that protect and respect the needs of the subject. These include using the written word in settings like a campaign letter or as a website testimonial. You also can incorporate an audio recording of someone telling their story as part of a video that provides images showing a nonprofit’s work but never sharing an image of the client who is speaking.

No matter what the platform or format, every communication that includes a story must offer an opportunity for a supporter to take that next step. A story serves as an emotional touchstone, but it also is a means to an end, Leopold notes. “You must present the opportunity to be closer to the nonprofit” through financial support or volunteering, Leopold notes. “A story can open that door.”