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Creative Methods for Aspirational Storytelling

Sondra Dellaripa, Jenny Drescher, Thomas Hanley and Robert Nolan
Published:  06/02/2017
once upon a time


Of all the tools in a fundraiser’s toolbox, a compelling story can be the most important. We tell stories to connect, to inspire, to warn, to educate, and to document. A good story will linger in the minds of your donors. Best of all, a good story will be repeated many times over, multiplying its impact on others you may never meet.

What makes a good story?


The Two Things That Make a Story "Stick"

1. Showing not telling

Telling what you’re doing in a story is not as impactful as showing the reader or listener what you are experiencing or trying to achieve, as Tara Harper noted. Using emotional qualifiers indicates when someone is telling and not showing. An emotional qualifier tells us, the reader, the author’s experience: “I felt anguish. She was distraught.” They do not allow the reader or listener to fully develop their own feelings and respond to the character’s experience. Place your reader in the first person so that your audience experiences the character’s emotions through her thoughts and actions: “I put my head in my hands when I realized the dog had been euthanized despite our best efforts.”

2. Expressing internal and interpersonal struggles

The audience’s personal experiences connect them to what they are hearing. Let’s face it, there are situations that most of us may never fully be able to relate to: how it feels to have a mental disability or to be a starving child in the Sahara. But we may be able relate to the context of the struggle: isolation, abandonment, feeling helpless. It is these internal and interpersonal struggles that build empathy, and without empathy, your audience will never take action.

To uncover internal and interpersonal struggles, get personal and intimate in your story development interviews. Relationships must be built with the subjects of your stories before you can write about their experience in a meaningful way.


Take a Page from Improv Theater to Find Your Best Stories

How do you find the stories in your organization, and how do you get your team on board? Our approach? Applied Improvisation!

To apply improvisation is to leverage the principles and techniques of improvisational theatre to tap into creativity and tangible solutions for individuals and organizations. When stage partners perform improvisation in the theatre, we engage the audience through the stories we create on stage. When you tell the stories of your organization, you engage your audience in why your mission matters. You bring them into your world with the same elements used on stage; characters, environments, emotions, relationships, and plot.


Start with the Story Spine

Playwright and actor Kenn Adams created this simple structure that we use to help clients identify and craft stories. We’ve found it particularly useful for employees and volunteers who serve as ambassadors for their organizations, so it’s a great fit for AHP members. You can plug in your story to share with others, creating a deeper level of connection and conversation between you and the people you want to engage in your mission.

The Story Spine by Kenn Adams

Once upon a time...(statement of fact about self/setting) And every day...(status quo/state/problem)
Until one day...(discovery/pivot/instigating event)
And because of that...(result/consequence)
And because of that...(result/consequence)
And because of that...(result/consequence)
Until finally...(pivot/change/climax)
And ever since then...(next step/resolution/conclusion)


Play the Story Game with Your Team

You can try this method right now. Grab a notebook and pen and corral a few folks from your team.

Rules of the Game

  1. Have fun and relax because laughter and play generate learning.
  2. Listen well to one another so you can co-create the stories.
  3. Make it a judgment-free zone so everyone can be a little daring.
  4. Treat it like an experiment; that's where the discovery occurs.
  5. Celebrate all efforts and applaud one another.

First, Tell a Fairy Tale

First, plug in a fairy tale to the structure to see how easy it is. Next, take turns telling the next line of a story you will co-create with your friends. Important: At this stage, it’s essential to be 100% fictional, playful, and imaginative in the process. This allows your team members to relax and get that creativity warmed up!

It might look something like this:

You: Once upon a time, there was a bear named Larry.
Friend: And every day, Larry climbed a tree to get the honey.
You: Until one day, Larry discovered the honey was missing!

You get the picture—follow all the lines of the Spine. Do it a few times and let the laughter be your guide. Remember, it’s just an exercise to support engaging your group and to mine for stories.


Then, Tell Your Organization's (or Donor's) Story

Once you’ve warmed up with some fun fiction, pick a real incident that occurred in your organization, and plug that into the Story Spine. Then as you dig deeper into the tale, shift your wording away from the language of the Story Spine so that you’re using more natural vernacular. Remind your group of the “Rules of the Game” to keep the ideas flowing. Once you have a few on examples on paper, decide how to best use the content in your communications. The applications are limitless. Let your stories out and see what happens.

About the Authors

Sondra Dellaripa is a 23-year veteran in the nonprofit sector, with executive leadership for healthcare organizations representing ten of those years. Her experience in all aspects of nonprofit leadership: financing, marketing, resourcing, and programming, gives her clients a balanced and sustainable approach to improving their capacity to be more sustainable and meet their mission more effectively. As President of Harvest Development Group, BLOSSOM Virtual Incubator, and The Boardroom Association Management, she is a multiple entrepreneur focused on improving the 1.5M nonprofits standing in the gap for families across the U.S.

Jenny Drescher is the co-founder of ConnectAnd Improv, LLC, a Business Improv company dedicated to helping mission driven organizations build capacity at the individual and team level. ConnectAnd teaches volunteers, staff, and board members to connect authentically with others and to communicate their mission with courage, clarity and power.

Thomas Hanley, APR, brings more than 35 years of PR and writing experience to the public relations consultancy, HanleyStory, LLC, to help clients tell their story in ways that connect with customers, inspire donors and engage employees and the community. He tells clients, “I know you have a great story to tell."

Robert Nolan brings more than 20 years of healthcare experience in clinical, marketing/PR and philanthropic development experience to his current role as Senior Director of Corporate and Foundation Relations to Loyola University Health System in Chicago.


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Meet The Author

Sondra Dellaripa, Jenny Drescher, Thomas Hanley and Robert Nolan

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