Nonprofit Storytelling


Ok, I’ll admit it.  As I writer, I confess to not wholeheartedly embracing the age old adage “a picture is worth a thousand words”.    Everyone sees the world through their own pair of rose tinted glasses colored by their own personal experiences and sprinkled with a large dose of social conditioning.   Perception.  We all possess it.  Question is:  should we trust it?

Merriam-Webster defines Perception:
: the way you think about or understand someone or something


One of the most effective ways to influence or change other people’s perception is by telling them a story.  I could babble on and on and give  different scenarios to drive the point home further but I would rather just tell you a story.

Several years ago I worked with a nonprofit company whose mission was to help drug addicts overcome their addiction and put them on the road to recovery.  My mission was to help them increase their donor base and other revenue streams (grants/fundraising).  Although I didn’t admit it at the time I walked into their world with my own perceptions of “what” a drug addict must look like rather than “who” is affected by drug addiction.

Not only did I need to re-evaluate my own negative stereotypical thinking I had to overcome the perceptions of the community at large.  The community we were asking to help us help these people.  When asked the question “what do you think a drug addict looks like” most people conjure up an image of a homeless man or woman in tattered clothing, dirty, and sleeping under a bridge.  In reality the majority of people addicted to narcotics are gainfully employed as nurses, lawyers, accountants, and even politicians.

These are people that typically came from stable homes where they were nurtured and encouraged to do their best and often afforded the luxury of a college education to boot.  This is not to say that someone from a poverty stricken chaotic childhood where drug abuse and domestic violence was their normal can’t succeed in life.  But the chips are stacked against them.  We are not all dealt the same hand in life.

The silver lining here is that stereotypes can be broken and that people with drug addiction do recover and succeed due in large part to the tremendous efforts of compassionate souls and committed social service agencies who give them a hand up.

So how do we eradicate negative social perceptions, instill compassion, educate, and subsequently gain support of the community? We tell “their” stories, not our own.  Not “Our agency provides substance abuse help for homeless individuals” but “Joe came to us last year homeless and fighting alcohol and heroin abuse.  Joe’s early life was…….., and after completing our program Joe is no longer living on the street.  Joe is now pursuing…..”    You have now given Joe a voice.  Much like a fictional character in a novel the author gives you the “backstory” of the character which helps you identify, understand, and feel emotionally connected to that character.  You want to read on and see how he or she fares.  It’s the same in real life.

It was while working at this agency that dealt with one of the most unpopular social issues that I urged the Executive Director to let me interview some clients, tell their story, plop it in the newsletter and on the website and let’s see what happens.  What happened was an influx of new donors with local community members eager to participate in fundraising sponsorship.  It also didn’t hurt to slip a story or two in with a foundation grant application (when appropriate).

Portrait of Success (below) is the first client story they published.  One lady was so moved that she included a note with her donation that basically read “I never gave a second thought as to why or how anyone would ever try drugs.  Why can’t they stop?  I feel ashamed by this thinking especially since I have been unable, or unwilling, to give up my daily chocolate bar even though I have diabetes.  Maybe I can now.  Blessings, M.”

This is storytelling at its finest.

Portrait of Success

Meet Sarah.  Sarah’s childhood was fraught with trauma and confusion, raised by a mother with a long-time methamphetamine and heroin addiction problem and an alcoholic, absentee father.  Fate seemed to have dealt Sarah quite an unfavorable hand.

By the time Sarah was a “legal” adult at the age of 18, she was using methamphetamines on a regular basis.  Her teen years were shrouded in drugs; smoking marijuana, cigarettes and consuming alcohol.  She eventually dropped out of school in her freshman year.  Without any positive role models or support she moved in with a boyfriend and became pregnant with her first child.  Sarah considered her mother her best friend and they frequently went on long “drug runs” together – consuming methamphetamines and staying awake for days at a time.

At the bequest of the Department of Health Services (DHS) Sarah entered ______ women’s residential treatment center at the age of 21, pregnant and caring for a 19-month old son.

Sarah was adamant about not wanting treatment and expressed herself by having frequent temper tantrums and bouts of crying and yelling.  Sarah did not possess any sense of what a normal healthy relationship entailed and was devoid of any practical parenting skills.  She summoned her young son by yelling commands at him.

Despite her incessant pleas to leave treatment she eventually started to build trust with her counselor and other staff members.  Slowly, Sarah gained insights into her relationships and developed an appropriate nurturing relationship with her son and gave birth to a healthy little girl while in treatment.  Through treatment Sarah began to learn parenting skills, relapse prevention techniques and other “life skills” that she was never taught, let alone exposed to.

Sarah’s progress steadily climbed completing her GED and successful graduation from _____’ residential treatment program.  Sarah secured housing with a drug and alcohol free family member.  Her counselor helped her find a job in a large retail operation and Sarah experienced her first understanding of independence and confidence that comes with realizing your full potential.

Today Sarah continues to attend outpatient treatment services as a result of her own desire to continue improving upon her life and gather more tools that will contribute towards a healthy and bright future.  One that she, and every child born into misfortune, should not be denied.

Help break the cycle of generational alcohol and drug problems.
Treatment Works – People Recover.



One Response to “Nonprofit Storytelling”
  1. Ron says:

    I like the “Don’t sell, Tell” motto.

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