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Member Engagement - Sharing Stories

As I was preparing a series of blog posts on member engagement and communications (the #1 issue facing organizations in 2011 according to our Blog Reader Survey), one of January's Nonprofit Blog Carnival posts - Nonprofits and Information: Sharing Our Stories - caught my attention. In this post, Jennifer Hoyer (of the Edmonton Social Planning Council), notes that those of us in the non-profit world often take for granted the information that we work with each day, and forget that those outside of this world usually don't hear about this information unless we tell them.

This is especially true for those of us whose jobs involve monitoring the web and writing about the non-profit world. We can get a little preoccupied with finding something new and interesting or "buzz-worthy" to write about. Since we are deluged by torrents of information daily, we struggle to find balance between relaying what we feel is useful information and repeating information that is already old news.

Don't Assume Your Members Already Know - You Need to Share Stories

Story Book
But non-profits and membership organizations also need to remember that their supporters, members or volunteers aren't regularly keeping up with your association's or non-profit's news. And as Jennifer Hoyer reminds us, a good story has the ability to change lives. "Nonprofits have great stories to share but often lack the means to share them. ... We're making progress, however, as a variety of organizations in the field explore new ways for sharing information. We're trying out different communication techniques and experimenting with convenient, time-saving methods for accessing relevant information. Severl nonprofit organizations are doing a freat job of sharing stories about the sectors they work in."

Sharing to Engage

I recently attended a fundraising event - the Motion Ball gala for the Special Olympics -  that demonstrated to me just how important it is to share stories - not just through social media or your e-newsletter - but up close and personal to a live audience.

Now I should note that I've attended and/or worked behind the scenes of many galas, fundraising and member events over the years. So what was so different about the Motion Ball that prompted me to mention it here? It had the requisite well-dressed crowd, ample bar, a good DJ, great musicians and a silent auction. But what really made the night special for me was the opportunity to meet and mingle with the Special Olympians themselves. Throughout the evening there were great videos and slide shows demonstrating Special Olympics activities, but the highlight of my evening was hearing one of the Special Olympians sing "You Are the Wind Beneath My Wings." She sang  with such feeling and genuine appreciation that I saw many teary eyes during the thunderous applause. Afterwards, I had the chance to talk to this young woman and a number of other Special Olympians in attendance. Interacting with these extraordinary people and watching their glowing faces on the videos made it crystal clear to me why funding this organization was worthwhile.

I know what you are thinking: this sounds so corny (especially for the usually cynical me). It also seems a bit too obvious - having gala attendees actually meet the Special Olympians (for whom they paid their gala fee) and share their stories. But I'm truly not sure how often organizations think to engage their members or supporters in such a direct way. Telling stories may seem anecdotal, but it is a very engaging form of communication and one to which we can all relate.

All of this is to say that it is critically important that membership and non-profit organizations don't make assumptions about what or how much their members, volunteers or supporters know about the work you do or the cause, mission or activity for which you want their support. We are all busy people who are inundated by email messages and tweets, but you need to keep them informed and you need to continually tell your story.

Telling Your Story

In his presentation, Storytelling Best Practices, a few years back, Andy Goodman suggested that it's not that most organizations don't have powerful stories to tell, it's the way they tell them that is the problem. He warns that most non-profits fill their messages with jargon, technical details, acronyms and statistics, rather than demonstrating the human interest story. Goodman notes that stories are the single most powerful form of communication, because they follow a familiar pattern: they involve a protagonist or hero, with whom we can identify; this person has a goal but experiences conflict or barriers; leading to action; and then ending with resolution.

In a guest post on Katya's Non-profit Blog, Robert Dickman and Richard Maxwell, authors of The Elements of Persuasion, suggest that for a non-profit to tell a great story, it needs to have Five Story Elements:

  1. Passion with which the story is told.
  2. a Hero who provides the listener with a point of view to enter the story and see it as their own
  3. an Antagonist or problemthat the Hero must overcome
  4. a moment of Awareness that allows the Hero to prevail
  5. the Transformation that results in the world.

We All Love a Good Story - Why Don't You Tell Yours?

The next time you are pulling together your e-newsletter copy or planning a member update, try to think about the story you want to tell. And remember, just because you and your Board or other key volunteers may have been involved in an activity or dealing with an issue for a while, it doesn't mean that your members, volunteers or supporters have heard about it - if you haven't told them!

Stay tuned for upcoming Wild Apricot blog posts on member engagement and communications.
In the meantime, tell us how you've shared your organization's story in the comments below.

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