Expert Interview Series: Vanessa Chase Lockshin of The Storytelling Non-Profit on Member Engagement & Donations

Member engagement

Vanessa Chase Lockshin is President of and author of The Storytelling Non-Profit: A Practical Guide to Telling Stories That Raise Money and Awareness. We recently sat down with Vanessa to learn more about the challenges facing non-profit organizations today and discover how good storytelling can improve donation levels.

Tell us a bit about your fundraising background. 

member engagementI started in fundraising right out of college, raising money for my alma mater, the University of British Columbia. I got my feet wet in direct response fundraising, which I discovered married my love for writing and philanthropy. After that, I was hooked! I went on to work in monthly giving, mid-level giving, and major gifts.

One thing that I consistently saw at many of the organizations that I worked for was that they really struggled to communicate their impact and steward donors. This led to high acquisition costs and problems with donor retention. Seeing this problem over and over again, I decided to start a consulting practice that focuses on helping organizations communicate their impact to donors through stories.

In a sense, it seems intuitive for a non-profit to talk about where donors’ money goes and whom it helps. Why does this approach not always work like as well as it should?

There are two ways that this approach goes awry. First, non-profits haven’t spent enough time defining what their impact is. If you don’t have a clear internal explanation of what donor impact is, it’s hard to externally communicate that.

Second, organizations will often focus their explanation of their impact on facts and statistics. The trouble with this is that donors don’t have the context or knowledge level to make sense of this data. Instead, they need something they can connect with more easily—like a story. Stories are able to create connection through emotion, life experience, and values.

For many years, charities have relied on the “This is (blank). Your donation of (blank) will help him/her (blank)” approach to fundraising. Does this approach still work? Or do other “stories” need to be told?

What was described above is a very simplified story. In order for that to work, there has to be compelling emotions and details added to it. I define storytelling as a series of facts that are told with emotions and details. If the emotions and details are absent, then it’s just facts.

In order to tell an effective story, non-profits need to know who they are communicating with. Having a clear picture of that audience enables them to make strategic choices about their stories and messaging that will in turn resonate with their audience. Information about a non-profit’s audience might also impact what kind of story they tell. For instance, a story about a donor and a story about a client are different and have different functions. Making the right choice comes down to knowing your audience.

Since your website mentions “asking tunnel vision,” could you define this term and explain how to avoid it?

I used that term years ago when I was working for an organization that was so focused on its direct mail program that it was losing sight of other important things like stewardship, retention, and data management. “Asking tunnel vision” describes a fundraising program that is not taking into account all the components of a successful, sustainable fundraising program such as communication, stewardship, and cultivation. Instead, it’s focused on bringing money in the door. In my experience, this leads to a culture where donors are not valued by the organization. Avoiding “asking tunnel vision” comes down to prioritizing philanthropy over fundraising to take a holistic approach.

Once volunteers or non-profit staff tell their story to potential donors, do you have any suggestions on how to spur the donors into giving?

Make an ask! This is the number one mistake I see non-profits make with storytelling. They tell a wonderful story, but then they don’t make an ask. They wrongly assume that the story should be enough to inspire action, but it’s not. Donors need to be given clear next steps if you want them to do something.

How important is it for a non-profit to have effective association management software in order for the organization to help improve and nurture donor relationships?

It’s hugely important to have good tech tools to manage your data. As a non-profit grows and evolves, so does its fundraising program. You need to be able to track past giving, key information about donors, and so on. Additionally, as you hire new staff or have turnover, a database management system will maintain important institutional knowledge.

Is it possible to get “storytelling” ideas and approaches by closely examining a donor list or database of potential donors?

Yes, you definitely can get storytelling ideas from your data. The key is to look for patterns and trends in what people have responded to in the past. This will give you an indication of what has resonated with them that can inform a future story.

In the future, what will separate successful non-profit groups from all of the others?

One thing that I often think about are organizations that are telling compelling stories about who they are and why they do their work. Many are able to do this to the point of creating incredible brand loyalty, such as Charity:Water. My hypothesis is that future successful organizations will be prioritizing narrative and using that as a tool to create not only donor loyalty, but also community loyalty.

Want to know more about member engagement and how to measure it? Download the Scoring Member Engagement eBook today.

Scoring Member Engagement

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