Michael Kass On Nonprofit Storytelling 101

micheal kass storytelling
A good story is so powerful. 

Nonprofit storytelling is the bridge that connects you to your donors. When working in development, you’re doing incredibly powerful work that can be communicated so well when told within the format of a narrative. 

Fundraising is finding that connection between your work and your donor, and it’s finding that unique connection that drives donations. Michael Kass found that it’s hard for some nonprofit leaders to find that story and he is here to help. 

An expert storyteller with over 15 years of experience, Michela founded Story and Spirit to do what he loves most -  and crafting incredible stories. He joins the show to share:
  • How to create a unique and compelling narrative
  • What makes a great story both on paper and when sharing it in person
  • How to start with your audience and craft the perfect narrative with them in mind
  • How to find what makes you special and share that with your closest supporters

Official Transcript 

Today, we get a crash course on storytelling from the amazing Michael Kass.

Hi, and welcome Driven's Fundraising Superheroes podcast. I'm your host, Sabrina Sciscente, and as an innovator in nonprofit technology, our team at Driven is determined to help you unlock your true fundraising potential.  We can help you and your volunteers, donors and members with an all in one system that is easy to use, efficient and will help you save hours of time.

So please give us a visit at trustdriven.com to learn more. If you've been listening to the podcast for a while, you may have heard me mention the power that a good story will have on your fundraising. People want to connect with you on a personal level. What better way to do that than with a good story? We have Michael Kass joining us on the show today. He is a storytelling expert with lots of experience helping  nonprofits tell  incredibly captivating stories he is the founder, of story and spirit.

And has worked as a facilitator, coach and award winning storyteller. Michael has over 18 years of experience working with staff in the trenches across sectors including technology, social services, health care, arts, culture and education. He joins the show today to share how nonprofits can find their story and package it in a way that both engages donors and turns them into lifelong supporters. So thank you so much, Michael, for coming onto the show with me.

You are so welcome.Thanks for having me.

So stories have been around for centuries. They used to be a way to conserve history, to teach, build relationships. But what is it that makes a story interesting? How are they so powerful?

There's a lot of elements that go into an interesting or powerful story for me, especially with non-profits the most important one actually has nothing to do with story structure, which is where a lot of people get hung up and everything to do with authenticity, with how real you're being with the story that you share. And the reason that that makes such a huge difference is that something I've seen over the past few years is as storytelling starts to take hold in the nonprofit sector, the stories that are coming out are getting a little bit flat.

Or like they come out of a cookie-cutter, and so what happens when we do that is you might have the most beautifully structured story in the world, but it doesn't land because you as the storyteller aren't moved by it. So the thing that makes the story most interesting to me is when the storyteller, whether it's in writing or in person, is moved in some way by their own story, because that allows me as the audience to also be moved.

So it's really connecting to that emotional element

Absolutely connecting to the heart of the story.

And that doesn't mean that a story needs to elicit tears or pluck at the heartstrings in order to be effective. Some of the most beautiful stories I've heard are just straight up inspiring, finding inspiration and really small moments of shift. And those are the ones that you never forget, because if you are allowed or invited to feel something that you've never felt through one of these stories, then it stays with you forever.

Oh, definitely. And I think one of the things that I love, speaking with smaller nonprofits, with founders, is that they were often inspired to start their charity because of something that really impacted them. So when they tell me about their story, it's just so much more vibrant coming from their mouth because it's a lived experience. There's so much emotion behind it and it's really beautiful. But for people who maybe inherited a nonprofit or maybe they founded it and they just don't know how to articulate that story, how should they begin to connect with it?

What are the questions they need to ask themselves or discover that?

Yeah, that is such a great question. So the first thing I always tell people is look for small moments. And the question that I always ask is, well, just what's a moment that resonated with you or moved you just in the last two weeks? It could be something small, you know, a moment with a client or a moment where you realized, oh, my goodness, my staff is really stepping up during a really challenging time. Right.

And see if you unpack that moment and it resonates. What's there, what are the core values under that moment? What is it that made it so impactful? And chances are that as you do that, you'll see a beautiful story start to emerge. What I try to steer people away from is gravitating towards those kind of stereotypical stories of massive transformational shift. Like "Sabrina wasn't doing well, she was in really bad shape. Then she talked to our organization and now she's better give us money" is kind of the traditional structure.

And if we start there, then we're missing all of those beautiful small moments that really make up the heartbeat of our organization. Another great question that I ask people is, what's something that surprised you recently? What's a moment where you really kind of had your perspective challenged or that it shifted? Because any time there's a moment of shift or moment of challenge, there's a story living inside of it.

And I love that you mentioned moving away from the structure, because a lot of the times when especially with marketing, something that I'm familiar with is you get into that pattern and it loses the touch that makes it special.

I know one podcasting talk that I listen to was when you got a guest, what is the one question that only that guest can answer? So I guess one way that non-profits can look at it is when I'm speaking to somebody about my organization, what is one thing that only we can provide? Because I know in my area alone there's like six different humane societies, but each of them has something that makes them unique. And I guess it's just finding that and really connecting with that and telling it in a creative way.


And I love what you just said because it points out that sometimes in our organizations, the things that make us unique are the things that we take for granted because we're living inside our mission and inside our work. Twenty four, seven. We don't recognize that somebody outside of it might find something that we do every day to be utterly remarkable and amazing. And so not shortchanging ourselves, really honoring the work and honoring all of the things that make us unique, even if we don't see ourselves as unique in any way.

Definitely how important, when somebody is connecting with that story and they are going to tell that story, how important is that delivery? We've touched on the idea how emotions play a lot into good storytelling. But how can a storyteller make the world of a difference? How can nonprofits improve those storytelling skills?

Yeah, so there's all sorts of ways we tell stories. Right. And in-person is when that delivery is most impactful. The one-word answer is practice is making it an element of the organizational culture that we just tell stories in our organization. Right. We come together. Maybe every meeting starts with a story so that when it comes time to speak at a fundraiser or on a podcast or wherever, it's not, oh my goodness, I need to prepare to tell a story.

And now I'm very nervous because I only do it once a month. It's just something that we do, just like we make a strategic plan, just like we have our staff meeting its works best when it's just part of the heartbeat of the organization and finding people in the organization to practice with so that it becomes easy. Right, the last thing we want is to be in front of an audience for the first time, telling a story for the first time, because we don't know a lot of things.

We don't know how it will land on that audience and we don't know how we ourselves as the storyteller, will react to the story, particularly if it's an emotional story. And there's nothing more uncomfortable for an audience than watching somebody have a breakdown while telling a story because it doesn't feel right. So you're now worried about the storyteller, right.

As opposed to being invited into the story and invited into the world of the organization.

Oh, yeah, that can totally pull you out of it when you start to see somebody sweat often, you know, when we're growing up, I took dance classes and they said if you mess up on stage, you just keep going. You pretend like you did it on purpose. And I guess the same applies here. You know, if you have a blip in the story, maybe make a joke on it or maybe make it a part of the story itself.

It doesn't have to be an embarrassing experience.

It doesn't have to be embarrassing and it doesn't have to be perfect. You just made me remember a time where an executive director was working with was telling a story, was super nervous and just stopped about a minute in and went, you know, I'm going to pause for a moment because I want to honour this story. And if it's OK, I'd like to take a couple deep breaths together, just all of us together, and then I'll continue the story and it totally reset the energy of the room.

And it was a really brave thing to do to instead of muscling through to reset and go, this is not going how I wanted it to go. These are all potential supporters and friends in this room. Let's enlist their support to go forward in a better way, and it was stunningly powerful.

Mm hmm. That's a great tactic, I think ignoring it and is not, the way to go often most of the time, just really embracing it. It's like when a comedian tells a joke and then the joke fails and then they make a joke about the joke failing. I think that really builds respect with the audience because they know that there's kind of like the stress and their sustainability and it goes beyond this perfect idea of the storyteller. Do you think that confidence plays a lot in good storytelling or is it more personality?

Both and, I think it's both and confidence is interesting because confidence can be something that you project externally and it's also something that can come from a deep connection with the story you're telling. So something, especially with nonprofits, is powerful, is for the storyteller to think of themselves as a servant of the story as opposed to pushing the story out there, especially if folks are nervous. A lot of my clients have found it really useful to go, how can I best serve this story?

How can I best connect with this audience? And in that way, suddenly they appear much more confident because their story is now attached to a really deep sense of service and purpose as opposed to, OK, how do I say this part in a way that's going to get a laugh, or how do I appear confident? It comes from a much deeper, more grounded place?

Connecting with the audience is crucial. You know, you have to build a relationship, you know, even if it's not back and forth, you have to go off their energy and you have to read the room. How important is the audience to good storytelling? How does the type of audience you have affect the story itself?

I would say the audience is the most important part of the story. So any time you're doing sharing a story, whether it's in person or writing or whatever. Right. There's really three elements of all of the story itself. And then you have the storyteller and then you have the audience and the three are in relationship all the time. And so. I always start with thinking about who my audiences. And not just who they are and where they live and what they're interested in, but also try to think about well before I share this story, where are they like what are they thinking?

What are they doing in relation to my mission? And then where do I want them to be after the story, what's the journey I need to take them on to get them fully engaged in my cause and to get them to do something, whether it's volunteer or contribute financially, whatever that might be. And then what I find is when I really have that sense of where they're starting and where I want them to end up, the story almost writes itself because then the stories job is just to be a bridge between the two.

So it's extraordinarily important and really highlights the fact that no story will work for all people all of the time, and so the idea that we're going to find one story to rule them all is not not accurate. Right. And so tailoring the story to the audience is so, so important and also being open to the fact that you may get a completely wrong and you'll know because you'll feel the room get cold and you'll feel the audience kind of cross their arms.

And then you'll know whoops I miscalculated a little bit. Let me go back and see what happened and try again.

And I don't think the goal is ever to appeal to everyone. I love that you mention that, because when I was learning about marketing, they told us that if you have an ad that applies to everyone, you're doing it wrong because it's too general. If you're not going to speak to somebody on that level that you want to if it's this like cookie cutter, that's it. Which is kind of going to what we were talking about the beginning of the conversation.

So I think that coupled with the idea of you really have to think about what you're leaving people with, whether it be a call to action or a feeling could be so powerful at planning stages of the story absolutely.

In another way to think about it is at the beginning of the planning of the story, thinking about, well, what do I want my audience to think? What do I want them to feel and what do I want them to do? Exactly as you just said. The other thing that I love about what you just said is it points out that when when I'm developing a story I don't even develop with a general or a specific audience in mind. I develop it with a specific person in mind who is a real person, not somebody I've made up.

So I'm going to be talking to Sabrina. Here's the journey I'm going to take her on. Great. And then other people get to benefit from that. But I find that that level of specificity in the preparation really helps the Storyland at a deeper level.

And I think that personalization has become even more important, especially with all of us indoors. I think people are consuming media way more than they were compared to this time about a year and a half ago, which is incredible because it often like it offered a whole new landscape of digital storytelling. I see nonprofits go out of the box with the events that they were planning out of the box of the campaigns they've had, which is phenomenal. But in such a digital age, how can organizations use stories to connect with an audience, especially when so many people feel alone?

That's such a great question and it's even more challenging because we are so saturated by media and story right now and there's so many in the nonprofit world, organizations like vying for attention, almost desperately going like, look at this cool thing I'm doing. Hey, everybody, come to my Zoom, whatever the thing is. And. What I've seen work really well comes down to two things. One is authenticity, right? That idea, again, of inviting people into a very real emotional experience without needing to put lots of bells and whistles on it.

Although bells and whistles are great, if we lead with those, then chances are missing that deeper human element. And the other element that I found really key to helping folks get through these feelings of isolation is inviting audiences into a sense of creation with you. So instead of it having it be unidirectional, meaning, OK, we're going to share stories with you now. You will enjoy them. It's hey, let's. Create a container for an experience where our audience gets to be a part of it, whether that's them sharing some of their own stories or whether that's them contributing in some way to the event, whether that's financially or otherwise helping people feel, especially now like there's something out there that they can be a part of that's greater than themselves to so much in story is such a beautiful, simple, powerful way to help achieve that.

I love that you brought up that collaboration piece because now more than ever, like it's so I don't say it's easy to do because there is some challenges, but it's a lot more accessible. I know that there's a lot of nonprofits out there who for forgetting to say that's a great example. What are the local ones in my community had this campaign where they invited people instead of them. Sitting there and explaining why they should donate, they said, why do you donate?

Why have you donate in the past? What is your personal connection? And my page was flooded with all these people sharing how that organization helped a loved one or how they were really struggling with personal concepts in their life. And that organization helped them feel less afraid. And it made me as somebody who was already suffering before even more involved with the organization because I found like four or five more people that had stories just like mine. And I thought that was a beautiful way to open the stage and offer a platform for other people to share their love for your motivation.

And also, it really speaks of the power that your organization has, that it touches other people in such a good way.

Exactly. And it really it's it's such a great way of inviting people to own their connection with the organization and to be of service in a way that really feeds them as well as supports the organization. Because when somebody has done something powerful for us, an organization or an individual, it's so beautiful to be able to offer your story in exchange rate. It's a form of reciprocity instead of treating our. Contributor, community or organizational community is like a checkbook or just a static audience is really saying, hey, we are a community that's rallied around this mission.

How would you like to help us move this forward? It's such a beautiful way for people to participate.

Before we wrap up today, I would love to get your final thoughts and the one piece of advice you'd give to maybe all your clients when they come and start working with you or just any nonprofit leader that you meet on kind of honing in on that story.

Absolutely. I'm going to cheat and give to the first is that story. Can and should live at every level of your organization, so removing it from that fundraising and communication silo and finding ways to incorporate it into the culture of your organization. And the second is what we talked about at the very beginning of this conversation, which is celebrate the small moments, because that's where some of the most powerful stories are that will not only help you reach your audience and raise more money, will also help you build and even transform the culture of your organization and create a much stronger connection between your work and your staff and your board and your contributors and your leadership and the folks that you serve.

So those two things are usually what I what I ask people to start with.

Well, thank you, Michael, for coming on to the show. If you want to learn more about effective storytelling or work with Michael, give a visit, at storyandspirit.org, very concerned about the services he offers, like storytelling and career coaching, as well as free resources like his e-books. And if you want to stay updated on everything Driven and Fundraising Superheroes, you give us a follow up on social media. I have the links to that in the description box.

We'd also love for you to check out our website, trustdriven.com, we have all of our information on there, including more about what we do, very passionate about. And as always, thank you so much for listening. We'll see you next time on  Fundraising Superheroes.

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By Sabrina Sciscente (RA) on Apr 21, 2021, 12:00 AM


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