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8 Steps to Improving Your Development Storytelling

Guest post by Kristin Hanson


Photo courtesy of the University of Alberta 2018 Donor Impact Report, filled with brilliant stories.

Stories are a foundational building block of development communications. We can’t create effective newsletters, solicitations, or reports without them. The problem? Stories are often an afterthought. Finding these stories – much less producing them – can be a headache, and the finished product often doesn’t meet our goals or expectations.


It doesn’t have to be that way. With some advance planning and strategic allotment of resources, you can create an editorial infrastructure that supplies you with a pipeline of story ideas ready to come to life. Here’s how:


Start with your audience

Your specific audience may differ based on the kind of project you’re working on – alumni vs. parents, annual donors vs. major gift prospects – but you have to keep them top-of-mind. Although you’re telling stories to serve institutional fundraising priorities, you’re creating content for your audience, not your institution. This sounds obvious, but it’s a common self-own. It’s how you end up seeing the same story about “Donor X gives $Y thousand to Z center” over and over – while knowing virtually no one except “Donor X” is reading it.


Build a network of organizational sources

An annual questionnaire to gift beneficiaries across your institution will get you the basic statistics and anecdotes you need for an annual report. But it won’t get you the kind of meaty ideas that yield stories that inspire your audience not only to give but to share the story with others. Frequent, focused communication with the “boots on the ground” – such as gift officers, communications staff, faculty leaders, or student life staff – will help you discover that promising project, rising-star researcher, standout student whose story illustrates why your institution is worthy of investment.


Know what kind of stories you want to tell

Your sources need to understand what kind of information you’re looking for – which means you need to know what you’re looking for. Have a handful of story structures that you can share with your network as a launching point. These might include donor profiles, outstanding faculty, impressive students, emerging departmental priorities, or general news. Share these story types with your network so when news items that fit those parameters cross their radar, they can reach out to you or share during a meeting.


Meet with your sources more than once a year

Meetings can be in person (if/when you’re back in the office) or by phone or Zoom. These touchpoints are critical because they give you a finger on the pulse of what’s going on throughout your institution. The meetings also serve as a reminder to your sources that you’re looking for timely information, not just a data dump once per year. Quarterly or three-times-yearly meetings are usually sufficient. Pro tip: Schedule the next meeting at the end of your current one – that way neither you nor your source forgets and you go a year before you reconvene.


Accept all ideas, but don’t promise publication

Although you’ll provide your sources with examples of the stories you’re looking for, don’t restrict yourself – or your sources – to those categories. It’s always better to have more ideas than fewer, and sometimes a story that doesn’t fit a particular category can be woven with others into an impactful narrative. So let your sources talk. That said, never commit to pursuing any specific idea. Your job in these meetings is to collect information, not make editorial decisions on the spot.


Share the load

Building and maintaining a source network is time consuming, especially if your institution is large and decentralized. Appoint one person to be the organizing force of your system but share the responsibility of information-gathering among a group, if possible. You don’t need any particular communications training or experience to do this work – just an interest in talking with colleagues. Bonus: This is a valuable task to offer to entry-level or other young staff as a development and networking opportunity, and it helps them develop a holistic understanding of your institution.


Set up a regular editorial discussion

Carve out time on a regular basis to discuss the story ideas your team has gathered. This can be a standalone meeting or a segment of an existing one (For example, when I worked at Johns Hopkins, once per month we dedicated one of our standing weekly meetings to editorial discussion – that way no one was adding another meeting to an already busy schedule). Ask each member involved in information-gathering to come ready to share their strongest three or four story ideas. As a group you can poke, prod, and determine whether each story should be told – and how.


Create a repository for green-lighted story ideas

Whether it’s a Word doc, an Excel spreadsheet, or an Airtable base, create a living document that organizes all the story ideas your team OKs in the editorial discussion. This can be basic (a list of story names) or intricate (a grid including fields like story name, department represented, content type, due date, status, etc.). Once created, you’ll be able to refer back to this resource to choose the right story for the right purpose, be it your annual report, alumni magazine, or giving day solicitation.


The hitch?

Developing and implementing an editorial infrastructure takes time and patience – resources fundraising shops don’t typically have in abundant supply. Yet even a partial investment in this kind of organization can elevate the quality of your communications products, whether they’re 20-page impact reports or a series of tweets promoting Giving Tuesday. Start small by reaching out to a handful of sources across your institution for a conversation about what’s going on in their world. You’ll be surprised by the great stories you discover!


Kristin Hanson is an award-winning writer, editor, and communications strategist specializing in higher education and nonprofit development. Over the past decade-plus, she's plied her trade at Johns Hopkins University and Medicine, the University of North Carolina Wilmington, and her alma mater, Elon University. Learn more about Kristin's work on her website and via LinkedIn. You can also follow her on Twitter for, among other things, witty sports banter and a running commentary on the trials and tribulations of "young" parenthood in your late thirties.