Tiffany Lawrence shares examples from her work with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and the United Way to describe how storytelling can drive fundraising.
(3:12) The persuasion business
(5:25) Give, advocate, or become a champion
(7:08) Six children and a grandma
(14:10) Ask strings
(15:04) How to go about the “ask”
(19:58) The Two Brothers from Different Worlds: A story of adventure and reconnection
(23:57) If you watch it, you’re going to cry
(28:00) The daily good
(32:00) We want the organizations to be human
(33:13) Walking the line: Tiffany’s experiences on Appalachian trail
Orion Strategies: www.orion-strategies.com
Danny’s story: http://appalachiantrail.org/myatstory/a-trail-for-danny
Read the Transcript for Episode 101 Below or Click Here!
Transcript – Episode 101 – Storytelling and Nonprofit Fundraising with Tiffany Lawrence
Dolph Goldenburg: Welcome to The Successful Nonprofits™ Podcast. I’m your host Dolph Goldenburg. Today, we’re talking with Tiffany Lawrence of Orion Strategies about nonprofit storytelling and online giving. Storytelling and marketing are two concepts that have always been intertwined, but we’re hearing a lot more about that relationship lately. Tiffany is going to share with us how storytelling can drive your online giving especially for those organizations that are out actively seeking individual donors. Tiffany is a native West Virginian having served three terms in the House of Delegates there, and, prior to that, she also held the title of Miss West Virginia in 2006. Her work with Orion Strategies draws on her expertise and brand development storytelling and fundraising. So, sit back with a cup of tea, and get ready for a great conversation with Tiffany Lawrence about storytelling.
Hey, welcome to the podcast, Tiffany Lawrence.
Tiffany Lawrence: It is so great to hear your voice today and to talk about nonprofit storytelling. It’s always a great topic, and, as I always say, I love organizations who can really share knowledge effectively by creating action and impact, and that’s what we’re going to talk about today. As you noted my background has been pretty vast in the nonprofit world but also in governmental impact and working with clients from a wide array of different industries. So, thanks for having me today, and I have my cup of tea ready to go. I am looking forward to the conversation.
Dolph Goldenburg: I love it. I’ve got a cup of tea with me as well. I know just in looking at your bio that you have held some very public roles. Obviously, you are in the House of Delegates for West Virginia. You are Miss West Virginia, and typically folks that are Miss West Virginia take on a cause very publicly. How have those public roles influenced your understanding of the importance of storytelling?
Tiffany Lawrence: It seems like a while ago. I was in West Virginia actually in 2006 and the House of Delegates from 2008 to 2014. So, both of those experiences just shaped my understanding of how, as I mentioned before, you can create action that impacts with persuasion. As my career has transitioned over the last 10 years, I would say that I’m in the persuasion business. Really three topics come to mind there when organizations or individuals are sharing knowledge: 1) They need to have a constant message; 2) they need to be prepared to be consistent; 3) they must respond in a timely manner. I think those experiences have taught me that as a voice within an organizational structure with a governmental structure, I always have to respond not only in a constant manner but also be consistent with my messaging and then also be timely and topical. Not only those experiences but certainly being the Vice President of Members of the Development for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and also working with Regional United Way as Director of Development and marketing there, I learned a lot about how to respond to public[s] in various capacities and to tell a good story and to weave those interactions in for folks.
Dolph Goldenburg: I know part of your expertise is really in the online giving field. How does storytelling sit with online giving?
Tiffany Lawrence: I think when people get online nowadays, there’s a lot of clutter as we always see. When we’re on our social media sites or surfing for news, you really have to try and break through that. Storytelling is one of these age-old I think cultural experiences where people can really emotionally connect with whatever content you’re trying to convey. Storytelling, long before the study of organizational culture and then in the 1980s, really blew up really in the 70s, and that movement has transpired into what we see online today. Newspapers back in the 70s and 80s did a great job of telling stories. Now, we do it through brand videos. We do snippets on social media, but you can really tell a story in a very short time frame as you see across social media platforms all the time. In 30 seconds, you can garner an emotional response from your audience and get them connected to do something. That’s where the persuasion comes in. You really want to incent action and impact, as I’ve mentioned a couple of times, to get them hooked very quickly to either give, to be an advocate of some sort, or to be a real champion. That goes one step further.
Dolph Goldenburg: Can you give us a real-life example of a client you’ve worked with?
Tiffany Lawrence: I can actually draw from my own personal nonprofit experience on this one so that ATC (the Appalachian Trail Conservancy) for about two years, and, certainly, during that time our marketing and development team launched a campaign that was all about storytelling. So, we had a strategic plan – with five points of our strategic plan always [s]teaming around the work of the trail and the thousands of volunteers that get out on the trail and make it what it is today. We cultivated a large storytelling campaign. It’s still in existence today. I’m sure you can check it out at ATC’s website. Certainly, all around the theme is that individuals do make a difference, and through the eyes of individuals you can really see the organizational impact- the mission, the vision – the true impact that’s being done every single day come alive. The personal stories were those through the eyes of individuals. That is really a real-life example. Certainly, I did it with my experience that United Way. I will tell you very quickly one of my favorite stories that I’ve ever showcased and tied it into online giving was a story of a family that came to me in the heat of the summer here in West Virginia. It was probably 105 degrees when they knocked on United Way’s door, and their grandmother came to the door and said she had her six grandchildren and that she’s living in a van. They would park every single night at the local rest stop. They would utilize what the children were able to garner through the local Community Backpack Program for food rations, basically, and they would microwave their food at the rest stop every night. They had laundry baskets in the back of their van for every single one of the children. They would do their washing at the local laundry mat. While the kids were going to school during the day, the grandmother was going to a local restaurant to make ends meet and get some shift work done. I will tell you one it’s of the most impactful stories ever told. It still gives me goosebumps when I talk about it, but showcasing that story through the eyes of those children that we’re experiencing that but also the grandmother that was providing for them really connected people with the work of the United Way and the partner agencies. So those types of emotional responses are what drives that action and impact on social media to get people to really think about opportunities, to donate, to give them a call to action and a true response. You can do that quickly.
Dolph Goldenburg: Lets, if we can, drill down on that real life and very compelling story. So specifically, how did you tell that online?
Tiffany Lawrence: We created a brand-new video where we launched our initial campaign, and we showed this not only online but through employee giving around our region in companies. Every single day but we took snippets of the video, and we showcased that on social media on our website. It was sort of a teaser engine into the next clip. So, it became a very successful campaign where you saw bits and pieces of the story emerge and people couldn’t wait for the next episode. It’s sort of like what we did at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. When we launched that program a couple of years ago and that campaign ran, we would get literally thousands of social media saying, “When is the next eclipse going to air?”
People wanted to see what was next. They were excited about the stories through the eyes of the individual. There was a chance for them to engage as well. When I worked with ATC, we also had an individual storytelling component where people could share their own stories in conjunction with the themes of our stories that we were running, and they could post through a variety of mediums. Certainly, one of the engagement techniques was to send them to tell their own stories through mediums, which could be anything from singing, dancing, old-fashioned Appalachian storytelling… through the written word or the spoken word. We had people that wrote music and songs that really started to engage in a very organic way. That’s what makes online giving tied to storytelling so impactful and successful. When you have people really engaging in that way and commenting on each other’s heartfelt stories, whether it be from the trail or a community agency that’s doing great work by delivering food or services to people in need… no matter what the nonprofit is doing, the organic stories are what’s really going to move the needle.
Dolph Goldenburg: I’m sorry for some reason I just cannot let this United Way story go. I want to keep digging deeper into that, quite frankly. It sounds like you serialized that. Can you describe some of the videos? For example, [expand on] the video following the mom to the laundromat from the car with laundry baskets into the laundromat or following the grandmother into the restaurant where she worked.
Tiffany Lawrence: I always reference this segment of the video. This was several years ago for me, but the title of the video was ‘What If.’
So, what if the community came together to do certain things? One of the things was to provide assistance for people in need through a variety of ways, whether it be food donations, clothing donations, giving to the United Way annual campaign, or assisting as a volunteer at a local day of caring projects. So, one of the segments that really stuck out, and this kind of tugs in your heartstrings a bit, is a segment that profiled two young ladies who were part of the same grade. They were two ladies that were in second and third grade, adorable. We were actually in the local Backpack Program Food Bank, and the ladies who were profiled actually came up to me before the filming and they said, “Ms. Tiffany, can you let us pick out our own cereal today?” I said,
“What do you mean by that?” They said, “We typically don’t get to pick out our own boxes of cereal. They just stick it in our bag.” So, part of this segment was literally filming these two adorable little girls who were literally jumping up and down, reaching up onto food shelves, picking out their own what they called ‘Fun Cereal’ which was not the traditional Cheerio’s or cornflakes. It was some sort of fun creative packaging and something that they had never had before. I will tell you there wasn’t a dry eye. I don’t think for anyone who really watched that segment because that’s something we all take for granted.
Dolph Goldenburg: Yeah. They also say it’s hard to fake childlike glee.
Tiffany Lawrence: It is. It is.
And you know for kids that are living in a van every day where they’re literally microwaving packed food in the local rest stop, I mean picking out cereal is big, right? We were told that in a very proactive way, and, basically, it as an egg donation to the amount of a cereal box. In our eyes, it was, ‘If you give $2.50, what can you do with that?’ We know that you can buy a box of cereal, donate it to the local backpack program or community ministries here in my area, and they’ll give it out in the best way possible. Quantifying it and measuring it in that way is also a great way to incent people to give online. If they have opportunities to select something that’s more tangible to them, then they’re statistically more likely to give.
Dolph Goldenburg: Let’s drill down into actually how you made that solicitation happen. Obviously, you put together a video. Was the link at the end of the video? Was there a link in an email on the website? Where was the actual link to give?
Tiffany Lawrence: I always say there are ‘Ask Strings’ attached to every single communication piece that I work with through our client services at Orion or any of the nonprofit experiences I’ve had. So, if you are a nonprofit organization looking to connect to the donor, make sure that no matter how you’re telling your story or envisioning your brand you are putting those ‘ask strings’ on the peace whether it’s direct mail you’re doing it through online giving or doing it on your social media but that you are directing them specifically to do something. That’s really the ‘Asks Strings.’ When I say, ‘Ask String,’ I mean “What are they going to do?” We did that in a variety of ways. They could either volunteer to support the initiative. They could give us through a monetary donation. Then we broke down our donations for them in a variety of ways that quantifies the true impact, or they can become an advocate or a champion. It might be that they’re taking action through governmental support. They’re looking at legislation that impacts things like this… food insecurity, for instance. If they’re becoming a champion, that’s one step above the rest because that meant that they were signing up to volunteer, not just one day, not just two days, they were willing to serve on a committee, a board of directors or all year long as a steady volunteer. That really sets up people for success – when you’re asking that in a variety of ways and allowing them to kind of pick and choose what they feel comfortable with. One of the things that you probably know and certainly we see across nonprofit industries is millennials are giving it a very different way than baby boomers. So, when we set up the mastering, we might ask millennials and segment the data in such a way that we’re asking for a one-time donation or a one-time volunteer project or opportunity. With baby boomers, we might ask for an annual campaign contribution where it’s deducted every month so little difference. Certainly, it’s got to appeal to the senses either way.
Dolph Goldenburg: Tiffany, I love that. Thank you. We are going to take just a short break, and when we come back, we’re going to dive into the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and maybe talk about some of the storytelling you did there.
Tiffany Lawrence: Okay great. Sounds good.
Dolph Goldenburg: Your organization undoubtedly has a story to tell, and hopefully it’s not this one. The staff of ABC nonprofit arrived to work one morning and looked all around the office. Where was their executive director? She wasn’t in her office. She wasn’t in the conference room. She was nowhere to be found.
One staffer approached her desk, saw the empty chair and then saw a note in the seat of the chair that said, ‘Moving to Katmandu, leaving today.’ Alas, they had been abandoned. Now, bravely they soldiered on as the board wept and gnashed their teeth, wondering what in the world to do next. Should they sacrifice one of their own to take on the many tasks of the Katmandu bandleader? If only there was some magic force to guide them through this difficult time. My friends, there is a guide to just such a situation. It’s not magic, and it requires work.
It requires work now. It’s called an Executive Transition Plan, sometimes called a Succession Plan. An Executive Transition Plan allows you to develop guidelines that will keep your organization functioning regardless of whether your executive directors be loved or hated, regardless of whether they give a year’s notice or swept up into the witness protection program. Regardless of the situation, I suggest you check out my Bonus Break series on succession planning. You can find it at www.successfulnonprofits.com, and please do not let your organization’s story become a tale of woe for failure to plan for that transition.
Dolph Goldenburg: Welcome back to the podcast. Today I’m speaking with Tiffany Lawrence of Orion Strategies, and she is sharing her wisdom about the importance of nonprofit storytelling and how it drives online giving. Part of what I love is she is sharing that wisdom through the lessons that she has learned. Tiffany let me switch gears, and let’s talk about the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. Can you give us a strong example of using storytelling there to drive online giving?
Tiffany Lawrence: I’ve worked with a lot of clients but also past colleagues who really wanted to understand how storytelling serves a purpose for their organizations. I always say you want to talk about communicating a positive message, whether you’re trying to undo the mistakes of the organization has made, want to see a new possibility that the organization is taking on, want to be inspired by something, or want to pass on a different perspective, storytelling has that opportunity. For the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, when our marketing team and our development team got together and sort of brought this vision to life, one of the things that we wanted to communicate was that the Appalachian Trail could take you in a new direction. So, adventure was one of those things that we wanted to communicate in a very real and organic way. One of the stories that I go back to constantly is the story of two brothers, one who literally lives in the wilderness and has a very wilderness friendly job and one who lived for most of his life in New York City. The brothers had not seen each other for many years, probably since they were they were children. They decided to go on a journey up the Appalachian trail together. The brother that had done some hiking in his past life was pretty familiar with the outdoors and [persuaded] I think the brother who lives in New York City to get on board and they met right outside New York City on the 18th. We told this story about how their journey evolved- how they not only incented each other to connect with nature and to find themselves but how they really reunited as brothers, friends, people who enjoyed the outdoors and how they were able to connect on a very personal level.
The shots were so incredible in the video footage, and the b-roll we ended up showing was shots of the gentlemen… his dreadlocks coming out of a stream that they had taken sort of arrest that and how one brother was pulling the other brother out. If you can envision the Appalachian Trail and the great expanses and several of the waterways that are connected through the trail, it was an incredible shot. Just that story kind of moves mountains. It’s how people can really convene to find commonality, find new adventure, and connect with you know lost friends lost family. What an amazing story to tell for people who really thought that maybe they weren’t hikers. Maybe they weren’t outdoorsmen. Maybe they couldn’t get out there on the trail, but they wanted to find themselves and maybe reconnect to someone else.
Dolph Goldenburg: Very cool. You know I’m going to follow up with. How did you tie that into online giving?
Tiffany Lawrence: I mentioned that we really put together a phenomenal organic storytelling component. It was a contest of sorts. That was really played out on social media specifically on Facebook. We got our corporate partners involved to be sponsored. What I would consider to be swag packages for the people that were deemed as the winners of this social media contest and storytelling contests. We share that video by saying, “Tell us about your latest and greatest adventure. Where have you connected? Who have you connected with? Share that event adventure in your own way. When people started talking on social media, we shared links to online giving. Now, the use of the funding was obviously to protect the trail and to support the trail and the maintenance of the trail, but we wanted to share the adventure side of things so that people would know what the trail meant to them prior to understanding that twenty-two hundred miles in the woods takes some maintenance takes some daily work. Really, they got connected in a very emotional way before they understand what the operation looks like. Then, if they had ever seen – whether it be a picture of the trail on social media in a book… they’ve seen guidebooks or maps or if they had just envisioned walking on the trail or if they had actually walked a few miles or hundreds of miles – then they really understood what it meant to maintain and protect it. So, connecting those two pieces, I think really worked. Another story that we told – and if you watch it you’re going to cry I’ll tell you I saw the first cut in my office today to see and I sat with my door shut just sort of in tears – there was a young man who had actually gone through mental health issues and depression for some time. He was a young 20-something. His parents are now heavily involved in ATC. When he was going through depression, he had told his parents that he wanted to walk the Appalachian Trail to really provide a sense of solace and escape for himself. So, they let him walk as. I think it was an 18 or 19-year-old young man. So, he walked the whole path, and shortly after his journey ended, he committed suicide. And people looked at us when we told that story, and they said, “Why would you tell such a horrible tragic story like that?” We said, “Well, it’s the part that you don’t see on the trail that he’s experienced, and what his parents… [have] told us was that that is the only place in his life for many years that he found refuge and solace and that he connected.” So, they got many letters throughout his journey. They say they received text messages when he could get phone service. They saw lots of pictures. They heard all the stories of his trail friends and the trail names that they all had. When he left the earth and passed, they actually took the same journey, and his parents walked the Appalachian Trail in honor of Danny. That was his name. Certainly, they continue to tell that story, and they’re huge advocates for the trail and what it means to people. We wanted to find out the other Danny’s. Who really found that refuge, that solace, that inspiration? People told us very loud and clear. I will take that with me. When I worked with clients, I know I certainly draw upon that instance. What you can do is turn a negative story into a positive one, build from that, connect with people and then turn that into an online giving campaign. Like I said, the operations of the trail are what the money is funding and supporting, but certainly, the stories that are behind the Appalachian Trail – or really any other nonprofit for that matter – are the true impact in action.
Dolph Goldenburg: I have to share with you I got goosebumps when you were talking about Danny’s parents walking the trail as a way to honor him. I almost feel bad asking this question, but I’m going to ask it anyway. The online campaign for the ATC – so the entire storytelling campaign, not just Danny – what kind of dollars are we talking in terms of what are raised?
Tiffany Lawrence: Well, the annual campaign is around 5 million, and, since I’ve left the organization, I don’t know if they’ve updated that budget, but Danny’s parents – I don’t think they would mind me saying this – have also set up a foundation a day in his honor. People had the opportunity to support you know Danny Foundation and support projects that he would have supported through their eyes, but also just the goodwill of the annual campaign.
Dolph Goldenburg: That’s incredible. Do you have any tips for organizations that are interested in doing this type of online storytelling as a way to support their fundraising efforts?
Tiffany Lawrence: Absolutely. I always say that the story has to be genuine. You can’t make these things out, but they don’t have to move mountains. They can be simple everyday stories. You can talk about people that are doing good every single day. I know I use a lot of community volunteers in brand videos when I was at United Way. I certainly do it with clients now. It’s sort of a daily good mentality. What are people doing to support your organization every single day? They don’t have to be the Danny’s of the world to really tell that story, but it has to be authentic. It has to be genuine. I think the story really has to engage the audience in such a way that they feel an emotional connection. Humanize the story. Make the event come to life through various scenery. Change the b-roll… Change the scenery up, so you see different segments, different characters in that story.
But we also want to do through storytelling and certainly when you’re doing a brand video or series of brand videos that align with your mission, you want to create a sense of community. Online giving is only effective if you can create that sense of community. If you’re tying your brand videos into social media and online giving, you want to give them something to talk about. You want to engage them through action. As we did at ATCC through a contest of sorts, give them a hook. Allow them to talk and engage freely. Don’t stifle that on social media. Create excitement. It’s important to share the norms and the values of the organization, whether that’s through past history and to look at where the organization is going and incent your audience to be part of it. That’s a pretty important piece I always talk to clients about looking future forward, capitalizing on the past and telling these incredible stories and having those moments of impact like we did with Danny. Look to the future. So, why is it so important that you carry these messages forward? That’s the key hook that I want people to take away.
Dolph Goldenburg: Nice. [I have] one last question really around kind of technology. Whether this is a United Way or ATC, how most of these videos shot? Were they professional videographers or were they people with just their cell phone video cameras or something in between? What was it?
Tiffany Lawrence: Sure. They can be a variety of things in this day and age. I always encourage organization because I’m a public relations professional now and because at Orion Strategies our firm can conduct these types of brands video that we can we draft, edit and make look incredible and exciting. The message is consistent and very robust at times. I always encourage them to put together at least one of those. As we know those things can be costly, and they can be time-consuming, and a lot of nonprofits don’t have the budgets to really go that robust. I think that if a story is genuine and authentic and then it does align with the mission of the organization, it can be as low-budget and budget-friendly as you really want.
I always encourage our clients as well to take their iPhones or Androids everywhere, and make sure that they are capturing everything. I had a client just the other day. They were having an employee dunk fest. [They] were dunking the CEO in one of the dunk booths. [He asked,] “Should I be capturing that?” And I said, “Absolutely, give the employees’ reaction. What does that mean for them? How does that build their morale?” Storytelling is as much about your internal environment as your external environment. So, what is that doing to create that culture, engagement and sense of you know excitement? How does that look future forward for your organization? So, capture those moments. Then if you have someone who has some low budget skills – they can montage that together very easily, and that can become one of your Social media posts you know whether it’s 30 seconds or 60 seconds provide a series of you know those things are a lot of fun. They create excitement, and they also let the public know who your audience is that your organization is human. I think sometimes we forget that. I will tell you as a PR professional sometimes we even forget that. We want the organizations to be human, right? We can laugh at ourselves. We can learn from mistakes. We can be emotional in a good way, and we can be strategic in a very proactive way. So, don’t be afraid to share those unedited clips that you might think are a little bit unprofessional. Sometimes those get the best response.
Dolph Goldenburg: Tiffany, speaking of unedited clips, I cannot close out this part of the podcast without asking you the Off-the-Map question, and it’s a question that is tangentially related to what we talked about today. [It will] give our listeners an opportunity to get to know you a little bit better. This question is actually about the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, and that question is: Do you have a personal story about the trail? If so, what is it?
Tiffany Lawrence: Oh, my goodness. I think I have lots of personal stories about the trail. I will tell you my past team at ATC they would always laugh because, with the title as Miss West Virginia on my resumé, they would often joke and say oh Miss America Miss West Virginia is on the trail with us today. Does just have or does she have her hair up? Is her hair in curls or rollers today? Can she survive in hiking boots? I think I always got a little teasing all in good fun about me being able to get out there and really hike in a meaningful way and support the trail in a meaningful way. It was all in good fun. I enjoyed every single minute of that work and getting to know really just the culture that is the outdoor community. What an exciting time in America to really embrace the outdoor community and to talk about those issues that impact their industry and to get outdoors and see new things. I will tell you the most memorable moments I had on the AT were trekking out some of the biggest hurdles, getting to the top of whatever mountain we were on, and looking out and seeing incredible expanses. Some of them are really here in my own backyard. There are four miles of trail that runs through West Virginia, and I happen to have grown up just a few miles from it. One of those places in Harpers Ferry just as magical for me. So, yes putting my hair out, getting on my hiking boots, going out and just communing with nature is part of what I enjoy the escape of it all.
Dolph Goldenburg: That’s a great personal story about the trail. Thank you, and I have so enjoyed speaking with you today. Thank you for making time in your schedule to have this conversation. If folks want to reach out to you and want to get your thoughts or more thoughts on today’s topic, they can do so at your site www.orion-strategies.com. Remember, there is a hyphen between Orion and strategies in that URL. Hey, Tiffany, thank you so much for joining us.
Tiffany Lawrence: Oh, my goodness. You’re so welcome, and I certainly have enjoyed our conversation. If I can ever be of help to any of your listeners or nonprofit leaders that are working towards any of their goals, I’d be more than happy to.
Dolph Goldenburg: Thank you.
Tiffany Lawrence: Thank you.
Dolph Goldenburg: If you’re busy playing the chords from Take Me Home Country Roads because you are so inspired not just by the thoughts of West Virginia but by the thoughts of scrambling up a mountain in West Virginia and seeing the vistas in the horizon just stretch out before you, then go ahead and play on. Don’t worry about writing down www.orion-strategies.com because you will always know you can get it. Had our show notes at www.successfulnonprofits.com. Now, please take a moment to do some storytelling of your own about this podcast, also called a brief review. Your feedback is really important to me. It guides our future episodes, and it helps other listeners find out about the podcast. Now, I certainly think that today’s conversation has raised my awareness of using videos as part of fundraising. It’s not something that I’ve ever really done, but as I think about it, it makes a lot of sense. So, don’t forget to find me on Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter and share with me what your big take away from today’s episode is. That is our show for this week. I hope you’ve gained some insight to help your nonprofit thrive in a competitive environment.
(Disclaimer) I’m not an accountant or attorney, and neither I nor the Successful Nonprofits™ provide tax, legal or accounting advice. This material has been providing for informational purposes only and is not intended or should not be relied on for tax, legal, or accounting advice. Always consult a qualified licensed professional about such matters.