Story Jam Archives - Nonprofit Storytelling Conference

Category Archives for "Story Jam"

Story Jam with Tom Ahern

Written by Sheena Greer


Maybe I’m getting a bit carried away, but to say I’m a huge fan is an understatement. In my mind, Tom Ahern is to fundraising what Martin Atkins is to music (if you’re not sure who Martin Atkins is, the title of his book will give you a quick introduction.) Tom not only speaks (his mind), teaches (the facts) and shares (the truth), but he still does (and is very, very good at it.) He’s not just passing time on the speaking circuit – he still sits at his desk everyday, writing letters and case statements, figuring out what works and what doesn’t. He is infinitely devoted to his craft, and deeply invested in the sector.  He knows his shit.

Tom says he was a writer before he knew how to read, a detail we bonded over. I always say that I wanted to be a writer since I was old enough to hold a pen. Tom has been a writer since birth.

This gives Tom a unique insight into the field of fundraising. He’s not a fundraiser, he’s a writer, and this gives him the unique ability to approach his work. He’s an outsider and an insider. And he’s dynamite.

Though I think the thing that I admire most about Tom is his eclectic, no bullshit approach. A quick wit, a sharp intellect, a deep intuition, and a silly heart. He has the experience to know what will work, and the curiosity to discover what will work even better.

This Jam took place on Friday, September 18th.

The Double-Edged Sword

There are two common questions about storytelling for nonprofits.

The first: how do we tell stories?

That is, how do we as organisations move from litany to narrative? How do we dip our toes into the pool of storytelling?

To begin, we must break down the word storytelling itself. Strip it bare – past the layers of colourful tropes, past the sexy ideology, right down to the bones.

Beginning, middle, end.

Problem, solution.

Show, don’t tell.


Of course, it’s not exactly this easy, but if you cannot recognize this as a fundamental starting point, your stories will fall flat. If we separate the idea of telling nonprofit stories from the idea of solving a problem and making a sale, we’ve missed the point.

We all grew up with the broader idea of stories. We read them as children. As we grew, we encountered literature. We were swept away by theatre and film. And we are pummelled daily by stories in the news.

But the core of storytelling for nonprofits can’t be lumped in loosely with these kinds of stories. Not really, anyways. And this is perhaps the difference between approaching storytelling as a fundraiser and approaching it as a copywriter.  It all comes down to persuasive problem solving.

Finnegans Wake is a profound and challenging piece of literature, but it isn’t likely to solve anyone’s problems.

And it isn’t likely to make you more money.

Most nonprofits fit comfortably into the role of problem solver, and this requires a specific kind of storytelling. The kind that will make the sale.

Begin with a stark realization: nobody really cares about what you do or how you do it. That’s it. They don’t. They care about the impact, and they care about themselves.

Are you telling your donors all about what you do and how you do it?

Or are you showing them the impact that their gift could make?

Next, replace the word donor with customer. Just try it.

Because the more you see your donors as customers, the more you can focus on the customer experience. When you do this, you realize that it has nothing to do with you. And you can stop talking about yourself.

Are you making your customer happy?

Are you writing towards audience gratification, feeding their emotional appetite for entertainment in a way that sticks with them, all the while allowing them to absorb ask after ask, and convincing them to say yes.

This isn’t easy. But it’s a much easier place to begin than aspiring to turn your direct mail appeal into a Dickensian masterpiece.

But that was just the first question.

The second question is: now really, how do we tell stories?

And this problem is entirely different than the first.

This question hits a vein of a much larger problem. This question is no longer about the craft, but rather the place of storytellers in our organisations. This question is actually a much deeper problem: how do fundraisers get the autonomy they need to tell the stories they need to tell?

“How can I convince my boss that we should be telling stories?”

Fundraisers are eager. They want to change the way things are done. They want to raise more money. But they are too often told that they can’t do it the way they want to. The way they’ve been trained to.

Even when the conventional ways of fundraising aren’t working.

Organisations will continue to hope to raise more money doing the exact same things, but that’s not going to work. And until fundraisers are granted more autonomy over the work they do, this will remain a wicked problem.

There is no easy answer to the question “how do we tell stories?” It’s not magic – in developing the craft or evangelising the practice.

But the answer is close when you gather in a room with other fundraisers, other writers, other thinkers, and explore the question. The solution doesn’t reside in any one person’s head, but many.

We have much to learn from each other and our experiences, as storytellers who are all too often not allowed to tell stories.

So let us gather. In November. Next year. In person. Online. Anywhere we can. And continue to ask the double-edged sword of a question – how do we tell stories?

More about our character, Tom

What is your motto?

  • My professional motto, which I utter at the beginning of every project, is this: “What if everything I know is wrong?” Context: one of the most important couple of training hours I ever spent was with a top ad art director, Tom Monahan. He offered “creativity training.” I recommend such training for everyone, starting as young as possible. Creativity training shows you how to have 20 ideas rather than just one or two. A typical exercise: “What’s the worst idea you can think of to solve this problem?” Creativity training is meant to move you away from the predictable.

What is your most marked characteristic?

  • My family tree is blighted with depression. I’ve struggled with that all my life; it’s baked in. And yet I am a hopeless optimist. I think the world gets better all the time. Though I don’t discount that the human race may well be the first species to successfully arrange its own extinction.

What historical figure do you most identify with?

  • Right now, it’s Abraham Lincoln. Not because I feel presidential. Just, I’ve been working on a case for support for the Gettysburg Foundation; President Lincoln made his famous Address there at the battlefield, to consecrate the Union burial ground. I ended up re-meeting the man. Lincoln was deeply kind, deeply modest, and not all that tolerant of incompetent egotists. Which seems about right.

Which living person do you most admire?

  • In fundraising? Ken Burnett. I don’t know a more important pebble in our fundraising pond. In life: doctors. Personally: Simone Joyaux, my ridiculously principled wife.

What is your favorite journey?

  • Every flight to France with Simone at my side, headed to our falling-down little house there. This is the most amazing gift of all for me, thanks to her: another world to explore and enjoy and wrestle with.

What is your greatest inspiration when writing?

  • Behind my desk are bookshelves holding over 450 how-to books. I can never repay that debt. I stand on the shoulders of a thousand mentors.

Who is your favourite author?

  • No can do. I read a new book every few days. My favorite crime writers are Tana French and John Burdett.

What are you looking forward to most at the NPStorytelling Conference?

  • I look forward to the smells of sea and coffee and drive and humor.

Story Jam with Vanessa Chase

Written by Sheena Greer


I’ve been incredibly lucky to know Vanessa Chase Lockshin for a few years now. When I first stumbled on her site in search of some great resources for fundraising, I felt happily at home. Vanessa’s approach to fundraising, and really the entire sector, mirrors my own and always offers insight. Her work is thought provoking, and conversations with her always leave me wanting to dive deeper into the more philosophical questions surrounding our sector.

What I like most about Vanessa – and there truly is a lot to admire – is how her approach to work never just accepts the status quo. She asks good questions and does the hard work necessary to find better answers – for the people who works with, for the sector, and for herself.

The best fundraisers are interested in way more than just fundraising – they are curious about the world and about what it means to be human. Vanessa is deeply curious, and this makes her a powerful asset to those who get the opportunity to have a conversation with her.

If you are attending the Nonprofit Storytelling Conference this November, I encourage you to have a conversation with her. You won’t regret it!

This Jam took place on Thursday, September 17th.

The Humanity of Storytelling

“The best people possess a feeling for beauty, the courage to take risks, the discipline to tell the truth, the capacity for sacrifice.” Ernest Hemmingway

To story is human.

We have something to say. Each and every one of us.

And we also have the need to listen. And participate. And connect. These are fundamental reasons why storytelling is woven into our humanity.

This is why storytelling is such a fundamentally important tool for nonprofit organisations. Great organisations tell great stories, and the most successful organisations tell stories that weave the audience in.

Storytelling by its nature is participatory. We need our audience to listen. But even more so, we need them to act.

For all the talk of how social media being a conversation, not many organisations are engaging in actual conversations.

Our audience needs more. To be a player in an ever-unfolding drama where they are at once both the hero, the supporting cast and the observer.

But in order to be successful, our stories need to have some kind of moral. A point. A theme. A set of values and beliefs which distinguishes our story from someone else’s.

In order to stand out, our stories need to take a stand.

For many nonprofits, this idea causes some hesitation. The conundrum of many organisations is though each and every one of them stands for something, and yet want to remain neutral in order to please a broad audience.

To create a strong brand requires that you take a stance and have an opinion. To clearly articulate who you are and what you do. To boldly announce what you stand for. If your organisation cannot commit to and act on this, you’re going to be telling really watered down stories.

But the desire to appeal to everyone leaves organisations in a sea where it seems impossible to differentiate one from another. There continues to be fear around using strong language, heaven forbid you lose a few followers or donors who likely weren’t all that committed to your organisation anyway.

Individuals communicate from a place of values. This is inherently an emotional act. This is why in the political realm you see politicians making strong statements and invoking strong language. They know who their audience is, and how to speak their language.

They know what story will resonate, and this is not and cannot be a neutral one if it is to be successful.

A neutral story is not a compelling one. Perhaps it is not a story at all.

Philanthropy is also an expression of values, and the language we use to talk about our organisations needs to mirror these values. Ultimately, as we tell stories, we are building a community of individuals who share our values and beliefs. We are connecting the humanity and urgency of what we do to individuals who see themselves in our story.

But to be successful storytellers, we must be prepared to take risks. To take a stand is a polarizing act, a vulnerable act.

Storytelling is humanity. Philanthropy is the love of humanity.

Be bold. Be vulnerable. Be human. And tell stories that matter.

More about our character, Vanessa

What is your motto?

  • Work hard and be nice

What is your most marked characteristic?

  • I’d like to say it’s being personable. I enjoy meeting people and hearing their stories.

What historical figure do you most identify with?

  • I think if you asked me 5 years ago, I would have said Hemmingway. I’m not drinking as much and I’m much less melodramatic! I’ve recently been reading Anais Nin – she’s so fascinating!

Which living person do you most admire?

  • My Dad, Johnathan Fields, Anne Lamott.

What is your favorite journey?

  • I always really enjoy the journey from Vancouver to San Francisco. When my husband and I were dating long distance, it was one of my favourite trips to make. I’m not a good flier, but heading there to see him was always exciting.

What is your greatest inspiration when writing?

  • Often my own life, as I connect emotionally to the world this way.

Who is your favourite author?

  • Favourite today? Hemmingway, Lamott, Fields, Mindy Kaling, BJ Novak

Who are your favourite heroes/heroines in fiction?

  • First one that I loved a lot was Brett Ashley from the Sun Always Rises.

What are you looking forward to most at the NPStorytelling Conference?

  • Meeting people – hearing about their lives and their work. I love to just sit and chat. I always end up having the most interesting conversations that leave me feeling inspired.

Story Jam with Leah Eustace

Written by Sheena Greer


When I first met Leah Eustace for coffee a few years ago, I left that little coffee shop with one thought:

This is the kind of woman I’d like to drink a box of wine with while we solve all the problems ever.

Leah a wildly knowledgeable fundraiser (she has her ACFRE, people!), but this isn’t what most stands out about her. Between her keen wit and her giant heart, she has a way of bringing the kind of excitement to conversations that can’t help but leave you inspired. She is a thoughtful speaker and listener, the mix of which seems increasingly rare these days. She is also an avid learner, a characteristic I admire almost above all others. Even with her depth and breadth of knowledge and experience, she remains fiercely interested in the world around her. This makes her one of the best leaders in our field today.

You are absolutely going to love listening to and learning with Leah at the Nonprofit Storytelling Conference.

This Jam took place on Thursday, September 17th.

Baby Steps to Neuro-Stories

“The cat sat on the mat is not a story. The cat sat on the other cat’s mat is a story.” – John le Carré

We know we need to tell stories. We know that stories raise money.

The proof is, as they say, in the pudding.

But for some reason we still aren’t sure if we should take a bite.

Somehow, thousands of years of emotional evidence isn’t enough. Somehow, our tendency to appreciate rationality above all else lends itself to an irrational disbelief in the power of story.

And yet when faced with the massive problems of our world, we continue to connect with the story of Baby Jessica stuck in the well, and we remain unable to comprehend statistics and rational arguments around world hunger, disease, poverty and catastrophe.

The detailed circumstances of the masses leave us in a state of paralysis.

But pull from the huddled and hungry masses one little girl whose tattered clothes and dirty face juxtapose just so with the glimmer still aflame in her eye, and we will stop in our tracks.

It works every time.

And there is nothing logical about it.

Though now, more than ever before, we have the science to back it up.

The fields of behavioural economics and neuromarketing have already deeply affected the way we tell stories. We are beginning to understand the science behind the emotion.

We can watch in a lab how certain parts of our brain light up when we hear news of Baby Jessica in the well, and how this is deeply attached to the ways we come to understand the world, make decisions, and take action.

It is incredibly fascinating, and certain to help convince the naysayers of stories, who would prefer to communicate your nonprofit’s mission through lists of facts, historical timelines, and charts.

Stories have always given us “the feels.” And beginning to understand the science behind it will help us tell better stories.

It’s no longer about “do we tell stories?” The answer must be yes. We have to. But we are starting to discover how to tell the best stories. What are the best stories? What makes them the best?

How do you hit the right note, for the right audience, at the right time?

And we can take baby steps to figure it out together.

If you are just starting, you now have the research to back up your wild and crazy idea to tell emotionally-compelling stories to your donors. You can show your CEO and board members lists of facts, figures, diagrams and even brain scans to prove it.

If you’re already telling stories, we can learn to tell them better. We can roll up our sleeves and get creative. We can try bold things and see where it takes us.

We don’t have all the answers yet.

We’re still learning.

But we know it works.

Deep breath. Baby steps. We’ll figure it out together.

PS – Leah’s fascination with what makes a great story has been honed over years of mixing science with gut feeling. Her continued excitement is two-pronged – in helping people move beyond the cat on the mat, and understanding why we’re so intrigued by the other cat’s mat.

More about our character, Leah

What is your personal mission statement?

  • New year, new me. My work life should satisfy me, my personal life should satisfy me. Sometimes I need to focus on myself to make it all happen.

What is your most marked characteristic?

  • I’ve got a huge heart. People at work laugh at me. I will burst into tears for every single cause!

Which living person do you most admire?

  • I could probably think of 30 people on any given day. They’re usually not famous. They are people who have overcome something and become stronger through their adversity.

What is your favorite journey?

  • Any journey that takes me somewhere I’ve never been before. That could be down the block or across the world, but I love learning and seeing something for the first time.

What is your greatest inspiration when writing?

  • The person on whose behalf I am writing. I do my best writing after I’ve spoken with the person I’m writing for. In that moment, it’s like I’m that person and feel their feelings.

Who is your favourite author?

  • I’ll read anything. I’ll read a phonebook. I’ve been known to read a phonebook. I’ve always really enjoyed Richard Wright & Nicholas Kristof.

Who are your favourite heroes/heroines in fiction?

  • I get really inspired by older people who don’t take any shit from anyone. I love seniors, I admire them deeply.

What are you looking forward to most at the NPStorytelling Conference?

  • It’s not going to be a bunch of talking heads. It’s going to be everyone working together to make fundraising and stories better. Every single participant.