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What to do when the stories aren’t pretty…

Ah, the transformation story! Someone was hurting. Things were all wrong. Then your donors stepped up and your organization was able to do life-changing work. Those stories are powerful and effective, and we love to tell them!

But you and I know it’s not always that clear.

What if you don’t know whether your intervention worked?

How do we tell a story when it’s just the beginning of a long process of change?

How do we tell stories when we don’t know the ending?

I believe some of our internal conflict over these stories is our fear of giving donors a not-so-perfect picture of our mission. On the one hand, we’re seen as the experts. But really, there are so many factors beyond our control. We cannot fix it all.

I’m not talking about taking responsibility when we mess up (more on that another time). I’m thinking about those interventions where we did our best, and it seemed like things were okay. We saw change. We may have shared a story from a beneficiary who made a radical turnaround because of our work.

But a few months later, they were right back in that unhealthy situation. Do you tell that story?

You probably don’t want to (or need to) highlight that person’s personal setbacks. But there are stories you can tell around the experience:

  • Explain the process of change your beneficiaries go through.
  • Focus on one aspect of the change process and help supporters understand why it’s such a hurdle.
  • Share a story about the setting that causes difficulties in the change process.
  • Feature something in your work that deals specifically with one of those hurdles.

When you tell stories like this, you show that you’re the expert. You’re giving donors one more reason to trust you to tackle this problem.

Have you told stories like this before? What response did you get?

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