Storytelling for Advancement

For those not in the know, Advancement was formerly Development, and Development was formerly Fundraising. And so fundamentally, when we talk about storytelling in advancement, we're talking about activities that help support fundraising. But names are important, and these name changes are meaningful in terms of what fundraising has come to mean over time. In the long term, fundraising means creating strong relationships and networks of relationships between people with different kinds of resources (time, money, information). These relationships are based on shared values, and the way we know that we share values is to tell each other stories.

In order to tell stories, you have to find stories. Over several years, I've come up with several kinds of stakeholders who may serve as sources of stories that advancement professionals and professionals in nonprofits more generally can try to find in, around, or about their organization.

And to hear a great story, you have to ask a good question. In campus fundraising, or perhaps for any program where people go through a process of enrollment/affiliation, learning, and departure/graduation, I've found that there are a range of questions that tend to elicit interesting stories.

When you ask those stakeholders about their positive experiences in the past or their aspirations for the organization for the future, you have an excellent chance of hearing really interesting stories about how organizations have real impact in people's lives. You have to get permission from the source of the story, of course, but retelling people's stories can be the most effective and efficient way to share the meaning of your work.

Here's a full set of slides on storytelling and advancement from a presentation from October 2016:

With big thanks to Hilary Pope ( who is my amazing graphic designer!

Ira Glass on Storytelling

These links are here as viewing shortcuts for my storytelling courses, but let me say that if you are interested in telling stories well, then this 4-part 17-minute-total set of videos featuring Ira Glass of This American Life is well worth your time.

Finding Stories to Tell

For the tenth year, nearly rounding out a decade, I am preparing to teach a graduate seminar in Storytelling. This course requires many kinds of skills, from public speaking to understanding audiences and much more, but the first skill that every student must acquire is the ability to find stories to tell. Specifically, for their first stories, each student must acquire the ability to find folktales. You could head to the local public library and browse the 398.2 section, or you could start online

With the task of finding folktales at hand, my students find that there are fewer excellent online resources for finding folktales than you might think. Those linked here offer good starting points because they have reasonable information documenting origins either as source notes or as annotations or because they situate tales in relation to each other.

You know you're ready to tell a story when you have found and read several versions of a folktale, understood its origins, considered the meaning(s) you hope to convey, and have begun to practice adapting the story in your own words and voice. If you can't find several versions of the same tale, it's still wise to seek out other stories on similar themes or collected from similar times and places or perhaps the same cultural group. Storytellers always hope to find tales with excellent source notes. A good source note tells you where the story comes from, gives you some sense of who owns the tale--culturally or individually--and lets you know where you could find out more about the story. It also gives you enough of the story of the story that you can borrow this information as you introduce the story you are telling.

Here's an exemplary source note:

Excerpted from Nursery Tales Around the World, selected and edited by Judy Sierra, illustrated by Stefano Vitale (for book contents and cover illustration, see
Source:  Americo Paredes, Folktales of Mexico.  Collected by Stanley L. Robe in Tepatitlan, Jalisco.  Told by Maria del Refugio Gonzalez.  Slightly retold with permission.
    Aarne and Thompson indicate variants of Tale Type 201555, The Goat who Would not Go Home, from Finland, Sweden, Norway, France, Spain, Holland, Belgium, Italy, Hungary, Slovenia, Yugoslavia, Russia, Turkey, and Spanish America."  (Sierra 107)
Sierra, Judy, ed.  Nursery Tales Around the World.  Illus. Stefano Vitale.  New York:  Clarion, 1996.

And here's an example of a story shared online that comes from Virginia Hamilton's book The People Could Fly, but is shared without any citation or source note:

So research your stories, find the best source notes you can, attribute them to tellers or cultures of origin or any information you have about where the story comes from. It's fine to say "this story come from China," but it's so much more meaningful if you can indicate that "this story comes from a collection of stories called Stories from China that lacks any further details about origins." In the latter case, even if you leave off the explanation and just cite the source, you will be showing audience members who may be far more learned in the cultural origins of this story than you are that you are doing your best to cite sources and give acknowledgment to the sources of stories.