For Impact


Storytelling Challenges

Story | | Nick Fellers

I imagine that fifty years ago, organizations – on the whole – had simpler missions and easier stories to tell.

  • “We feed the poor.”

  • “We educate youth.”

  • “We care for the sick and infirm.”

Today’s landscape includes complex missions, blended business models, and diverse program offerings. Nonprofits used to have to explain the annual fund. Today, for impact organizations (inclusive of not-for-profit and for-profit) have a world of new concepts to translate and sell. In writing this I did a quick survey of conversations I’ve had in the past month alone!!! social-impact bonds… artificial intelligence… machine learning… social enterprise… community-driven solutions… economic divide… ecosystem resilience… venture funding… individual practice units…

It’s no surprise that social entrepreneurs and nonprofit leaders say telling a succinct and compelling funding story is really difficult!

Here are two observations and a diagnostic framework we’ve been sharing with clients.

First, the funding market is very fragmented, and any language around these new concepts is – at best – emerging. If you use the term ‘impact investment’ for example, it probably means 17 things to 10 different people.

Second, if you have a storytelling problem that’s standing in the way of funding, START with sales training. When it comes to funding, I don’t believe we can separate the story from the approach. How you’re using the story is just as important as the story, or message. For example, if you’re not in front of a qualified prospect, then what’s perceived to be a storytelling problem could be a prospecting problem.

Storytelling Diagnostics

When people talk about ‘storytelling’ they often focus on the words used in a narrative, or presentation. Instead, let’s focus on generating an outcome — in this case, a funding commitment, or an investment: storytelling is really the sum of these three things:

Story + Approach + Audience = Storytelling

“Story,” or how you choose to FRAME your message, never lives outside of the context of the total approach, and the context of the person receiving it (the audience).

Here are five insights to help you diagnose and fix your storytelling. 

  • Simplification. Straight up, sometimes we need to simplify the story. Here are some ways to do that. See also: The iPhone – a case for oversimplifying and Social Innovation by Analogy.

  • Story + Storyteller. Story is how you frame is something but you also have to frame it in the context of WHO you are and HOW you’re telling your story. John Oliver could never deliver Jim Carrey’s material or vice-versa.

  • Style (audience engagement). You still have to learn to tailor that story to your audience — in the moment. For some of you, your story is NOT the problem, your prospects are NOT the problem… it’s that you’re presenting and we need to flip things around so that you’re engaging (by asking questions) and creating a solution to the prospect’s perception or problem.

    This is a HUGE point! It means you don’t have to simplify EVERYTHING you do… you only have to deliver points that make your story relevant for each prospect.

    See: Example – How to use one question to simplify engagement.

  • Prospecting. Some of you are not with qualified prospects. You think you have a storytelling problem, but you’re just in front of the wrong people. You’ll need to dive deeper into QUALIFIED prospects – and how to find them. (Read For Impact Guide: On Prospects.)

  • Process. Most organizations have never really defined a true sales process (storytelling 1:1). This is important. Your story might not be the (only) problem; perhaps it’s a problem with predisposition, which sets the CONTEXT for the story. You can change your story 15 times but without a good process to make the approach, you’re going to keep trying to solve for the wrong part of the equation.