Thursday, April 09, 2009

Non Profit Leaders: Do Your Volunteers Know Your Story?

Non Profit Leaders: Do your volunteers know your story?

Yesterday, on my way into the grocery store, a woman sitting at "animal rescue" table asked me if I would like to donate to their rescue shelter. As I made my way into the store, I had both the time and the inclination to listen to her ask for a donation as my family has been connected to the work of rescue shelters for more than six years. (You can see the website at As well, we have three "rescued" shelter dogs in our life. So, I am open to the idea that these volunteers were promoting. I also know that these impromptu tables are an important non profit funding source.

I asked her, "What does your shelter do?" The volunteer was not ready to answer my question. She did not know the story of the shelter she was representing. Her only answer was, "We do the adoptions at the (name of pet store)." Outside of that, she did not know what to say.

So, unlike most people passing her table, I stopped long enough to actually talk to her. I was a prime-candidate to donate money to her cause. However, she had not been trained in how to talk to potential donors. Either she did not know the story of her group or she had not been trained to speak about her organization.

This, of course, is not her fault. Her lack of preparedness was the fault of the director of her non-profit organization. It is possible that she had been trained on where to find the table that she needed, what to do with the money she collected and where to turn in the forms at the end of her shift. She was not trained in talking about the mission of her organization.

How about your volunteers and employees? Have they been trained to tell both their story of why they volunteer as well as the story of your organization? I am not talking about elevator speeches here. These elevator speeches, also know as unique selling points, are static anecdotes used to snare others. Rather, knowing the multiple stories of your organizations and how to adapt them to both casual and formal situations is a key skill for your staff, both volunteer and paid.

Here are three steps you need to follow to prepare your staff to use the power of story in your non-profit organization.

1. Collect the stories of your group.
There are a variety of techniques available to aid any organization in the collection of their stories. However, the best method is the oldest method: listen. Train your staff to think about stories. Ask them to think: what is happening/has happened that others need to know about? Find a way to share these stories at regular gatherings. Never make story sharing mandatory in any setting. Although many trainers advocate this, the pressure of "I must have a story" results in poor stories shared when your staff is under pressure to come up with anything. Stories should always be gathered in an organic or grass-roots process.

2. Train staff in the essential skills (the how-to) of storytelling.
The best investment you can make in your organization's future is to enlist the help of an experienced storytelling coach to teach your staff and volunteers to tell stories. You want your team to be able to know and tell your core or essential stories in a variety of time formats. For example, the volunteer I encountered outside the grocery store might have known the 20-minute story of their organization but had not been trained to tell it to me in a two-minute setting. She would need to know both the long and short versions. You also want your team to be able to use stories as frames for presentations that require quantities of data and shared information. Teach storytelling techniques first and save the high-level theories of storytelling for advanced classes once your staff has had success with storytelling.

3. All non-profit leadership must use stories at every gathering.
In every public speaking setting, from formal board meetings to casual walk-arounds, the leadership of the organization must fully immerse themselves in the use of story. Despite the glut of storytelling-for-business consultants available, the idea of storytelling for adults in a business setting remains challenging for many. Your leadership team, from the top on down, must clearly demonstrate the importance of story in all settings.

In even good economic times, a non-profit organization must have a strong command of their past, present and future stories. Your potential donors are interested in what their money can do in your organization, assuming your mission aligns with their values. Are your volunteers ready to speak your mission statement, not in overused mission "statement-eese," but rather in the geniune stories of your group's daily experiences?

Expressing your organization's story should be a skill for all of your staff. It is a requirement for business communication today. Consider everyone in your organization to be public speakers. Your experiences, expressed in story, are the unique features of your group. Be sure your donors can understand them.

I did explain to the volunteer outside the grocery store about my family's history with rescued animals and thanked her for the good work she was promoting in defense of abandoned animals. Her work was important and I hope she had some success in collecting funds for their rescue project. However, I knew that she was unprepared for real conversations about the work and mission of her group. I hope that the leadership of her group soon gets a chance to teach their staff to tell the real stories of the challenges and successes of their charity.

Good stories, willing listeners and a staff trained in public speaking skills are tangible assets that every non-profit group must have.

The official blog for K. Sean Buvala, storyteller and storytelling coach.

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