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Category Archives for "Storytelling"

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.

Story Jam with Harvey McKinnon

Written by Sheena Greer


I love when people fiercely and intelligently speak their mind, even if I don’t happen to agree with them.

Thankfully, I agree with Harvey McKinnon. He has been on the side of social justice for his entire career, and continues to strive to do work that truly changes minds and hearts.

He is ferociously intelligent, deeply passionate, and incredibly driven to make change.

He’s also hilarious, another one of my most favourite attributes.

A conversation with Harvey can’t help but make you feel activated. His wit and wisdom are truly admirable, and his desire to teach valuable lessons about the power of storytelling are a gift to our sector.

This Jam took place on Thursday, September 17th.

Story’s Your Uncle

“Have you heard the one about the college kid who walks into a student union’s office and completely changes the course of his life?”

We all have an Uncle Ben.

You know the one.

He’s the one who tells the greatest stories you’ve ever heard. He has incredible comedic timing. He likely isn’t all that politically correct. Most of his stories might not even be factual. He may even tell you the same stories over and over again.

But you don’t care.

Every Christmas, you look forward to hearing the story about that little bar in Dawson Creek. You hold the belly laugh at the edge of your lips waiting for the punch line about Bob Clay’s alligator boots.

“Tell the one about the one-armed lumberjack.”

You know every detail already, but your heart longs to hear it again just the same.

For those of us who have grown up in storytelling cultures, the joy of connecting through stories sometimes feels innate. After all, stories our deep in our bones and marrow. It is only natural for families to come together around the power of the long spun yarn.

But there does come a moment when we realize that this isn’t the only kind of story with emotional value. That it is not only the joyful, raunchy and hilarious stories of our Uncle Ben that wield the power to command an entire room.

There comes a moment when we realize that a powerful story can literally change your life.

A young man attending university, interested in beer and women (and not necessarily in that order), walks into a small gathering of students to listen to two people from Namibia tell their story about living under Apartheid.

In a moment, the entire course of his life is altered. He is awakened to the very real transformative power of story. And he’ll do everything he can over the course of his career to work hard and lead others into a space where they can create societal change with story.

This is not without resistance.

Even the best organisations and the hardest working people can have a complete block when it comes to stories.

Stories are emotional. And emotions are frightening, especially if they are our own.

Imagine invoking emotion in an entire group of people all at once?

For some, it feels all too risky.

For some, it feels the best route is to stick to facts and litany. That’s the way most organisations have communicated in the past, and it is best not to change.

Except that the change your organisation is striving to make in our world will be impossible if you cannot speak to the heart of the matter.

Fact guys don’t win. People don’t give money to facts. They give money through their emotions.

All too often, this is a battle that occurs around a board room table. Litany, the list of facts that keep our board members happy, simply isn’t the story that move donors. Unfortunately, this is a gap that keeps us from connecting to the people who will care most about the change our organisations are making.

The change our donors create with their gifts.

There is no magic formula to changing minds about the power of storytelling.

But a great place to start is around that leadership table. And the greatest way to start that conversation is by storytelling.

No matter where we are from, it is in each and every one of us.

Because we all had an Uncle Ben. Or a Grandma Phyllis. Or a Professor Wilson. Or our friend, Dave. Or a Bronte Sister. Or Martin Luther King Jr. Or somebody who told us a story so profound, so funny, so earth-shattering, so honest, that it awakened in us something we’ve never felt before.

PS – After hearing the stories of two Namibian refugees, Harvey McKinnon started an anti-Apartheid group at Dalhousie University. He went on to volunteer and eventually work for Oxfam, and ever since has turned his hunger for social justice and his belief in storytelling into a business that has helped hundreds of organisations tell stories that matter. And now you know the rest of the story.

More about our character, Harvey

What is your motto?

  • Complete Honesty

What is your most marked characteristic?

  • I’m funny. Or. I think I’m funny.

Historical figure do you admire?

Mandela. After spending a decade doing anti-apartheid work, I have immense respect and admiration for what he did, the person he was.

Which living person do you most admire?

  • Thich Nhat Hanh. Second best known Buddhist in the world after The Dali Lama. Martin Luther King Jr. nominated him for a Nobel Peace Prize.

What is your favorite journey?

  • Going to Halifax.

What is your greatest inspiration when writing?

  • My emotions. If I can feel it, I believe I can convert it into a story that others can feel.

Who is your favourite author?

  • Dave Barry, Michael Chabon, Drew Weston. And I love Miriam Towes

Who are your favourite heroes/heroines in fiction?

  • I enjoy characters from mystery series that you follow through a series. They are great, albeit deeply flawed characters. John Rebus. Philip Marlow.

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

Hearing the stories of all the great people who will be there.

Story Jam – Marc Pitman

Written by Sheena Greer


“What would I have to say about that over Chinese Food?”

I am so thrilled and very lucky that the first Jam in this series is with the renowned Fundraising Coach, Marc Pitman. In explaining to him just what a Jam is, he immediately got it.

“People are always asking if they can pick my brain,” says Marc. “And these conversations are helpful for me to clarify my own ideas. Sometimes I think ‘Wow, I didn’t realize I knew that much about that!’”

Marc has many powerful ideas that have been transforming the way we think about fundraising. Through his books, his blog, his courses, and his coaching, Marc has helps nonprofits passionately connect to their donors through storytelling.

It seems Marc’s approach to his work could be best summed up by something we talked about in our Jam.

In Hebrew, the intensified verb of to learn is to teach.

Marc is an incredibly wise teacher, who is still very driven to learn. I am honoured to have been able to pick his brain, and cannot wait to meet him at the Nonprofit Storytelling Conference this November.

This Jam took place on Thursday, September 3rd.

In Medias Res

“I met this really cool girl in college who turned me on to the power of stories” – Marc Pitman

In medias res. Let’s begin in the middle, because let’s face it. We’re all in the middle of something.

We’re in the middle of that big campaign where we need to figure out how to raise more money. We’re in the middle of a strategic plan that has the potential the change the direction of our organisation. We’re in the middle of implementing a new program that will change lives, but we need to figure out how to rally the community around the people we serve – who are vulnerable in a variety of ways that we are compelled to help.

Your donor is in the middle too. She’s in the middle of getting their kids out the door. She’s in the middle of her work day, maybe sitting at a desk that leaves her physically and emotionally drained, but she’s there because she needs to be. She’s in the middle of a busy life that is filled with ups and downs and sideways turns. And it keeps her wondering – what is my place in this world? In the middle of things, where do I stand?

And in the middle of it all, this donor has a very real choice. Do I read this fundraising appeal, or do watch cat videos?

We’ve all been there. When we’re in the middle of things, sometimes the last thing we want to do is try to absorb the dense complexities of the world around us. We’d rather watch a dog get stuck in a shrub.

But at the end of the day, we all long to be part of something grander. We all want to feel inspired and empowered.

In the middle of things, each one of us wonders what the larger story of our lives will be.

In a world that all too often leaves us feeling like C3PO, Lando Calrissian, or on a really bad day Greedo, we’d like to be able to feel like Luke.

This is what a great story does.

For a moment in time, your donor suspends her disbelief and feels like the hero in the centre of your story.

In sales and marketing, we learn it’s not about our stuff. It’s not about the product. It’s not about cramming our pitch down people’s throats. Fundraising isn’t an exercise in saying nice things because we want an excuse to tell donors how awesome we are.

It’s about the donor’s dreams.

It’s about their very own hero’s journey.

Dear Jayleen, XYZ Hospital Foundation funded the treatment that helped me beat cancer in just fourteen days.

Dear Jayleen, you helped me beat cancer in just fourteen days…

Which story would you rather read?

Great, emotive storytelling isn’t manipulative. It is permission giving. It gives the donor permission to feel, it gives permission to step into what can all too often feel like an unlikely role.

A space farm boy saves the galaxy.

A tired mom of four cures a man’s cancer.

So as fundraisers, what is our role? If our organisation isn’t the Luke of the story, where do we fit in?

Luke saved the galaxy, and the likes of Obiwan and Yoda served as guides along the way.

Obiwan encouraged and challenged Luke to initiate his journey. Obiwan was bold, and his guidance aided Luke in becoming even bolder. Yoda continues this challenge.

We don’t actually find out much about Obiwan or Yoda when Luke’s story is told. The hints we receive only add to Luke’s own journey, which begins in medias res a long time ago in a galaxy far far away.

Storytelling isn’t a fluke. It works. It’s worked for thousands of years, though at some point during the Enlightenment we went off track. Logical arguments are noble, but they do little to give our hearts the permission to care.

So let us begin. In the middle. Right where our donors are, right where they need to be to begin their own journeys as heroes of a much larger tale.

PS – That cool girl in college? She’s Marc’s wife, Emily. Through her love of children’s books, she transformed the way Marc thought of the power of story.

More about our character, Marc

What is your motto statement? 

  • Life’s short, live passionately. 

What is your most marked characteristic?

  • Either my over the top congenital optimism or my bow tie. 

Which living person do you most admire?

  • Michael Hyatt

What is your favorite journey?

  • Bringing coffee up to my wife at six in the morning

What is your greatest inspiration when writing?

  • I get a kick out of trying to connect with people 

Who is your favourite author?

  • At the moment, Lindsey Davis

Who are your favourite heroes/heroines in fiction?

  • Gandalf.

Who are your favourite heroes/heroines in real life?

  • Jesus. He’s motivated me to be the best I can be. I love his ability to be real, to be upfront, in your face. He’s sarcastic, he knew how to cry, and knew when to pour his time into people. 

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

  • The first time around was a bit of proof of concept. Over the past year we’ve seen the results. This is both like an “oil change” and a way to take it to the next level.