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The Art of Storytelling for Successful Donor Cultivation

I often find that many people struggle when trying to relay their nonprofit's story in 30 seconds or less. Maybe they are not good salespeople or maybe they assume everyone knows their organization's story already. I do not know, but I see it time and again. I do know, however, from 30 years of experience in the nonprofit sector, that a good story is key to successful donor and funder cultivation.


According to the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE), donor cultivation is a four-step process: (1) Identification and Research, (2) Cultivation, (3) Solicitation, and (4) Stewardship.
All four steps are necessary to keep a donor engaged, appreciated, and interested in the organization they are supporting. Furthermore, for a successful donor relationship, CASE suggests exercising the "four R's": Research (25% effort), Romance (60% effort), Request (5% effort), and Recognition (10% effort).
If you want to practice your storytelling, here are three tips to help you. Good luck!
  1. Begin with the elevator speech: Every nonprofit has a mission. Is your nonprofit's mission clear, concise and easy to explain? Practice your 30-second long elevator speech about the organization you represent and try to include the who-what-when-where-how-why with a clear, interesting summary. Repeat for each project or program and be ready to share it on the phone with a donor/funder or prospect.
Example: The Magic Horse Farm's mission is to spread joy to children through therapeutic horseback riding and other activities. We live to see children's eyes light up when they come to visit the horses. The programs benefit children ages 5-21 with special needs, including physical disabilities, mental illness, emotional issues and substance use disorders. Families pay on a sliding scale so money is not an obstacle to participation.
  1. Find a Success Story and Share It: Be ready to share the heart of the organization through a specific success story that involves the organization's beneficiaries. The success story should be a snapshot demonstrating the power of the organization's existence and it should include emotion, visuals, and action.
Example: When I visited the Magic Horse Farm for the first time I was not expecting to feel the excitement I did from the children. They were all smiling and visibly happy as they participated in their activities. Some were in wheelchairs drawing pictures of the horses around them, others were petting horses from their wheelchair. Others were mounted on the horses, and I could see how proud they were sitting up there on top of the horse! It brought an unexpected feeling of warmth to me when I caught the eye of one young girl with Down Syndrome on a horse, beaming from ear-to-ear. It may be hard to conceive without being there, but I could feel her joy!
  1. Include Hands, Head, and Heart: When you develop your stories try to balance your hands, head, and heart. This means that you want to balance the behavioral, emotional and intellectual aspects of the story because different people look for different elements before they engage in a relationship.
Example: One person might relate to the emotional aspect of a story (heart), while another might want to know all the facts (head), and a third person might look for evidence-based programs or examples of success (hands).
Do you have the great stories you need to engage and capture your audience?
Maura Harrington, Principal of MJH Grant Consulting based in the Boston Area, provides high-quality proposal development and writing services worldwide.

GPC Competency: 08 - Funder Relationships