Nonprofits: Which Story are You Telling?

by Ken Mueller on May 3, 2012 · 7 comments

pupil is reading a book

I want to share two stories with you, both of which are fiction, but could be real.

Story One – Debbie

I went to work yesterday and spent the first hour of my day going through emails and responding to the important ones. My work at the homeless shelter is rewarding, but somewhat frustrating. The 8 a.m. meeting about the $250,000 shortfall for the year went longer than expected, forcing me to re-schedule my 9:30 meeting for the following day. How are we supposed to raise that kind of money in just one month?

On my way back to my office, I had to walk through the housing area to get the latest tally on clothing donations and what was needed. I would need this list to send to all the local news outlets, and I also knew we were running low on canned goods. In the hallway I saw Rita and her little boy, Charlie coming my way. They were regulars here and I’d heard she was doing well with her job training. Rita smiled at me and said, “Hi!”, while Charlie limped over and gave me a big hug. It made me smile.

I got the information I needed, and headed back to the office. I spent 45 minutes updating my fundraising spreadsheets and re-calculating my projections. The numbers weren’t good, so I knew I would spend my afternoon in more meetings, trying to come up with strategies for getting the needed money.

Story Two – Rita

Charlie bounced into my bedroom yesterday morning…well, as much as kid with a bad leg can bounce. He had a big smile on his face.

“Mama, let’s go! We have to get to the center!”

Today was our weekly visit to the homeless shelter where we would pick up some food, and I would have my weekly computer class. While we were there, Charlie would get to spend time with his friends and get some help with his reading. He always looks forward to Wednesdays when we head to the center. We don’t get out much and it gives him a chance to socialize and really feel loved by others.

When we got to the center our first stop was the food pantry, where we could stock up for the week. Charlie wanted to make sure he could get some Spaghetti-O’s, which are his favorite. In the hall we bumped into Debbie who works in the office at the center. I greeted her, while Charlie sped up to give her a big hug. He always went out of his way to find her. She had once given him some extra candy at the center’s Halloween party, and he never forgot that.

As we moved on toward our destination, Charlie said, “Miss Debbie makes me so happy! I wanna be like her when I grow up. She’s so nice!”

When Charlie is happy like that, it makes the days so much better. We don’t have a lot of happiness in our lives, but Miss Debbie and the center really do make a difference.

If you work at a non-profit, which story are you telling?

The first story, Debbie’s story, is the one we get buried in on a day to day basis. It’s what we see, what we do. And when asked to tell our story, we look in the mirror, and just spit it out. But according to Dan Portnoy, that’s not the story we should be telling. In his book, The Non-Profit Narrative, Dan reminds us that our non-profits exist not to raise money, but to change the world.

In a very small way, Charlie and Rita’s world was changed, rocked even, by that chance encounter with Debbie from the first story. Those little moments, wrapped up in the larger work of the homeless shelter, will change both Charlie and Rita forever. The paths of their lives have been changed, and that’s a story that needs to be told. In fact, there’s yet another story; an alternate story for Debbie. If she would just open her eyes, that same encounter in the hallway can and will change her life. Not only is she the central character in her own story, but she has a supporting role in the stories of countless others. There are plenty of stories, all filled with important characters.

I continue to tell others about Dan’s book, because I think it’s an important work, and gets to the core of what we should be doing, both in the non-profit and the for-profit sectors. You can hear more from Dan in How Stories Can Save the World, a podcast he recently recorded with my friends at Brand Fast-Trackers, as he helps you identify the story that you should be telling.

How are you discovering and telling your story? Do you know which stories you should be telling, and which stories your audience wants to hear?




@BeckyGaylord thanks for sharing, Becky!


It's so easy...and sometimes so allow ourselves to be diverted  from our mission by the day-to-day demands of our job. This post does a wonderful job of putting everything into perspective and reminding us to keep our focus on the mission.


When I was Communications Services Director for the Blood Bank of Hawaii, frequently one of the  donor room nurses... probably having taken note of the sour look on my face when I came in the building in the morning...would call my office and say, "Kirk...I have a donor  you need to talk to."


I would go downstairs and spend 10-15 minutes chatting with this individual about why he or she had become a blood donor.


Never failed.


I would walk out of the donor room and go back to my office totally reinvigorated and recommitted to our mission of helping the patients in  hospitals across our state who needed the "gift of life."


"My" story (annoying accounting issues, recalcitrant reporters, cranky supervisees) faded quickly into the background as I rededicated my efforts to telling "our" story of saving lives.


Thanks for a great and refreshing reminder, Ken.


Such a good thing to remember!!! Looks like I need to change the focus of some of the stories I'm posting for work. Thanks Ken!

KenMueller moderator

 @KirkHazlett Kirk, thanks for stopping by and sharing your story. A lot of my thinking in this area has been rekindled by @danportnoy 's book, The Non Profit Narrative. He really "gets it" and I'm sharing it with all of my non-profit clients. And I'm sure I'll be blogging from it more down the line. 

KenMueller moderator

 @RebeccaCicione Thanks, Rebecca. I think you do a good job, but we can all do better. Your organization has some great stories. Tell them. And I highly suggest getting Dan's book. It will help you work all that out. 

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