How to Get Started in Storytelling for Fundraising – Cara Jones Interview

Rob Wu
Rob Wu

I firmly believe that strong storytelling leads to more donations. Storytelling is the substance that fundraisers need to use to be more effective online fundraisers. Because of that, we interviewed Cara Jones, Founder at Storytellers for Good and an Emmy Award recipient. She shares her expert advice in how non-profits can use storytelling for fundraising, how they can get started, and tips on how to craft the most compelling story. This is an invaluable read. Check it out below.

Tell us a little bit about who you are
In addition to being a lover of life, family, friends, stories, and ice cream,  I am an Emmy Award winning writer, reporter, and producer with a great passion for using video to tell compelling, inspiring, human-interest stories. I have more than a decade of experience in broadcast journalism and have reported for network affiliates in Southwest Florida, Boston, and the San Francisco Bay Area. Having been frustrated by the tragedy focused and negative nature of local news, I started Storytellers for Good in 2009. It is basically the job I was told didn’t exist in the broadcast industry that allows me to  to be able to tell the inspiring stories I love most.  Besides work, I have been a Big Sister since 2003, speak Spanish, and have back-packed through South America, Europe, and India. I continue to love travel and try to fit it in whenever I can. I am also a life coach, yoga instructor, and teach part-time in the Multimedia Communications Department at the Academy of Art University.

What is Storytellers for Good?
Storytellers for Good is a team of passionate journalists and videographers who aim to tell and promote stories of people and organizations making a positive difference. Our specialty is telling nonprofit stories through a personal lens to move and inspire potential funders and volunteers. We also promote these stories to a broader audience as part of our mission to shine a light on all the positivity in the world.  It is our belief that whatever we choose to focus on, grows. So, as our tag line goes, by promoting goodness, we hope to inspire people to greatness.

Why is storytelling important?
Robert McKee calls stories “the creative conversation of life.” They are what allow people to make sense of their lives and share that meaning with others. We’re all looking to see ourselves in others, to find nuggets of wisdom, inspiration, and connection to others through stories. As human beings we are also hard wired to remember them. Remember Cinderella, Robin Hood, Bambi, the hilarious tale from your buddy’s barbecue back in 2005? Chances are yes! As Maya Angelou so eloquently sums up, “People will forget what you tell them, but never forget how you make them feel.” Stories have the unique power to inspire feeling, connection and action.

How have you seen storytelling impact fundraising?
In early 2009 my brother and I had the idea to use our talents to tell some non-profit stories…just for fun. So we found this organization called A Good Idea that was doing random acts of kindness for people on the streets of San Francisco and spent the day with them. The project was completely pro-bono so we sat on it a few months and finally decided to put it together after I kept randomly running into the nonprofit’s founder Jared Paul. We created this video. The overwhelming appreciation I got from Jared in a five minute long voicemail made me cry and realize I was onto something. When the video soon after helped them win $25,000 through a Chase Community Giving contest, I had marching orders…and Storytellers for Good was born. Ever since, we’ve seen similar results through online and in person fundraisers garnering tens of thousands of dollars at a time. It has been our experience time and again that when you can open people’s hearts and make them feel a connection to your cause, they open their wallets.

What are your favorite examples of excellent storytelling and why?
My three favorite stories we’ve done so far are Mama Hope, Mandela Marketplace and Each One Reach One. All are examples of whittling an organizational story down to people that audiences can relate to. To better understand this, consider each of their mission statements, and then the story we chose to tell:

Each One Reach One: diverts incarcerated youth from a life in prison to become productive community members through mentor-based performing arts and academic tutoring programs.

Our story: An incarcerated teen named Angel turns his life around through a one-of-a-kind play-writing program that got him out of the juvenile detention system and into college.

Mandela Marketplace: works in partnership with local residents, family farmers, and community-based businesses to improve health, create wealth, and build assets through cooperative food enterprises in low income communities.

Our story: A group of teenagers troubled by the lack of healthy produce in their community get on their bicycles to bring fruits and vegetable to liquor stores and make positive change in their community one meal at a time.

Mama Hope: dedicated to building self-sufficient communities in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Our story: A San Francisco woman dedicates her life to serving communities in Africa after the tragic loss of her mother creates unexpected and, now, unbreakable ties to Kenya.

Which version do you want to watch? We hope you’ll check out the videos! Mama Hope, by the way, recently got nearly 10,000 hits on Karma Tube and was retweeted by the likes of Deepak Chopra and Anthony Robbins!

How do non-profits get started in storytelling? What are the typical steps?
One thing I’ve noticed about non-profit leaders is that they do such great work, with such little resources, that they rarely take the time to take a step back and, as I call it, “take in the view.” The view, in this case, is the broader picture of the lives they are changing through the work they do. Often times they don’t realize how profound the work they do is, until they see it in one of our videos…and proceed to call or email us to say how they were moved to tears to see it how we see it. Obviously it can be prohibitively expensive to turn every one of your stories into a video, but making storytelling a part of your organizational culture is absolutely free. So have a monthly event where you gather your employees to share inspiring stories across the board: of founders, clients, other employees, donors, community members, or themselves. You can also create an organizational story bank to record these stories. You will be amazed at how many inspiring stories start coming to light when your organizational culture encourages employees to both notice and celebrate the view.

What would be your top three tips for nonprofit storytelling?

1) Aim for the heart.
Again, people remember what they feel. When you’re trying to figure out which of your stories accomplish this, think about the ones that give your heart that little zingy feeling, bring a tear to your eye, or make you laugh. Humor evokes some of the most powerful of all emotions. Dan Greenberg sums this up well in his take on what makes videos go viral: “Sharing feelings is a basic human need. If your videos capture an emotion that resonates with its audience, users will share it, because they are not just sharing your content — they are sharing the feeling your video has created.”

2) Find a compelling character to wrap the story around.
As mentioned in our favorite examples, if you’re telling a story about a broad issue, find someone to personalize it. As Mother Theresa says, “If I look at the masses, I will never act. If I look at one, I will.” Give your audience someone to care about. Ideally your central characters should be what Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute calls “COOL”: colorful, outgoing, opinionated and lively.

3) Remember structure and length.
Tell a story with a clear beginning, middle and end. Remember to structure your story in a way that feels like it comes to resolution/completion. If you can, build a surprise in for added impact. Also, in video, remember length. 1-2 minutes is ideal for online, 3-5 minutes for events. Modern attention spans don’t support much beyond that. A quote we keep in mind for every video we create:  “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Where can they find resources to help them tell better stories?

Some books I’ve loved:

  • Story:  Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee
  • Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip and Dan Heath
  • Storytelling as Best Practice: How Stories Strengthen your Organization, Engage your Audience and Advance your Mission  by Andy Goodman
  • Believe Me: A Storytelling Manifesto for Change-makers and Innovators by Michael Margolis (a free download!)

Where can our readers go to learn more about you and your organization?

Any last thoughts?
As you know, I come from a television news background where I experienced, on a daily basis, the power of stories to uplift people..or bring them down. The media plays such an important role in our world but much of what I see I call “junk news”. Similar to junk food, it’s cheap, fast, and it tastes good. But overtime, too much of it can be toxic. I truly believe that our culture is defined by the types of stories we choose to tell. So whether you’re at a board meeting or around your kitchen table, make it a habit of telling positive, solution-oriented stories…and discover how they can change you, your organization, and the world.

Simplify and grow your fundraising

It honestly felt like using CauseVox expanded our team by another member.

    Easy-to-use Free to get started Cancel anytime
    But wait, there's more!

    Get the latest free fundraising tips + resources, delivered weekly to your inbox.

    Copy link
    Powered by Social Snap