People-powered storytelling with Olga M. Woltman

November 2, 2023
10 minutes

There are well over 1.5 million nonprofit organizations in the US, and every single one is looking to tell their story in a way that compels donations and converts donors. But when the fundraising push comes to shove, how do you do that? For many, crunch time means intense pressure to find a poster child for your organization, tell their iconic story, and then spread it far and wide in every format possible to maximize donations.

That sounds (and is) exhausting. But good news: there's a better way to tell stories, and you're about to learn all about it from Olga M. Woltman, storyteller extraordinaire, and David Schwab, Funraise's Director of Growth Marketing. Olga is a digital fundraiser and marketer, as well as the founder of LemonSkies, a strategic nonprofit agency that takes communications and turns them into conversions. She's also a leader at the ALS Foundation and serves on the board of directors at her local chapter of the Special Olympics.

Recently, Olga sat down with David to talk about ethical and empathetic storytelling that balances impact with authenticity. Here are some highlights from their conversation to help you tell stories that captivate and convert, persuading donors to give time and time again.

And, of course, if you want to hear every captivating detail, you can listen to the full podcast here. Note that we've taken some artistic license in our edits below to ensure everything is clear and concise. 

David Schwab: Today, I'm excited to welcome our guest, Olga Moshinsky Woltman. Olga has a wealth of knowledge when it comes to storytelling, fundraising, and people leadership. 

Olga M. Woltman: Thank you, David, for having me here. My professional expertise is entirely in the nonprofit sector, with a focus on storytelling, messaging, and communications. Marrying those with empathy and people is my specialty.

David Schwab: So, starting off, what is it about the nonprofit world that brought you in? You've been in the sector for a long time now, so I also want to ask not only what brought you in, but what has kept you in?

Olga M. Woltman: I ended up in the nonprofit sector almost accidentally. I moved to Washington, D.C. after graduation, and that was where I got my first job, not surprisingly, out of college, and I just really enjoyed it and appreciated doing it. As for why I stuck around, once you start working for a nonprofit and you're seeing an impact, and you're tying your day-to-day work to outcomes and the impact you're making, it's really something that just keeps you coming back. So, I can't imagine doing anything else.

Why focus on the people side of nonprofiting?

David: When we first met, you told me about your background and your experience, and you mentioned that you spent a lot of time on the people side, specifically internally, at nonprofit organizations. As you've built your career, what was it about the people side of nonprofit leadership and management that got you interested in focusing your efforts there?

Olga: First, I think some of it is my natural inclination to relate to humans and try and see why we do what we do. Second, when it comes to the work of nonprofit organizations, I believe that technology and strategy matter greatly. But it's ultimately the people that are the fuel that drive outcomes. When you don't lean into that aspect of nonprofit work, it just seems like missing a pretty huge, pretty critical piece of the puzzle. So, I've embraced that by focusing on how we work together and how we motivate people, and how we engage constituents that we work with. To me, it's sort of one continuum. It's not delineating employees versus the people we serve. It's really applying that emotional intelligence to the work we're doing.

What is "people-focused storytelling?"

David: I want to dig a little deeper there because you've got this great ability to tell stories but also this empathy for people, and to me, that's translated into your ability to uniquely communicate the impact that an organization makes. The way that you often refer to it is "people-focused storytelling," and I'd love to have you define that. 

"It's not a linear telling of what happened; it's the journey of the individual that's impacted along the way." Olga M. Woltman

Olga: When we think about stories and plotlines, it's really about the human experience. It's not a linear telling of what happened and what happened next; it's the journey of the individual that's impacted along the way. When I talk about storytelling and when I sit down to write, whether it's an email communication or messaging points or the overarching strategy, it's really about seeing it from that human perspective and leaning into those emotions as you go through the process. Doing so tends to generate the strongest, most authentic outcome. Anybody can string together a narrative, but to make your audience feel, you need to focus on what compels you and what touches you.

David: This is perfect timing for this conversation because, in a couple of weeks, I'll be going to the Nonprofit Storytelling Conference, where I'll be presenting a session on storytelling and communicating. And the topic we'll be presenting is "Stories Move, but Numbers Prove." And I'm a performance marketing guy; I hyperfocus on the numbers. If you show me change over time or impact through numbers, that's what gets me motivated. But I also realize that's not the only way to tell stories and the only way to show impact. So, how can focusing on the people element of storytelling make a difference when you're communicating your organizational impact?

Olga: When I think about measuring the impact of storytelling, obviously, it matters. If we tell a great story, but it generates no return, you have to consider why you're doing it in the first place. But I do think focusing on the human element of storytelling pays off when you take a longer view; it's about how we're connecting donors and constituents to the larger cause and mission. Because it's not going to be "You tell the story, and you see a spike in giving." I mean, sometimes you might, but the point is to build that affinity and that connection over time, and storytelling that focuses on people does that.

But also, when we think about making a compelling case for support to engage somebody in the organization and their mission, numbers only tell a partial story. Our brains are really wired for storytelling, so stories invoke stronger emotions. We're rooting for the outcome. We're much more invested. Stories are really an illustration of that impact. So, the numbers on their own simply do not connect with us in the same way. You need to combine both numbers and storytelling to build that connection over time.

How do nonprofits know which stories to choose?

David: Absolutely. For instance, nonprofits have to write fundraising appeals. That's how they generate revenue and the ability to grow impact. But it's so important to remember that you can't sacrifice the core of your organization and the core message and the core story that your organization is telling just for the sake of driving revenue for one campaign. You have to be mindful of whether this campaign, or this appeal, or this message ladders up to your bigger brand story or arc.

Ask yourself, "Does what I'm saying here connect to what I've been saying all year? And, if not, am I making a choice to break away from how I normally talk about what we do?"

David: Right now, a lot of organizations I'm talking to are hyper-focused on writing their giving season fundraising appeals. They're heads-down because it's almost Giving Tuesday and we're going into the year-end fundraising season and the holidays. Some organizations are going to raise as much as 50% of their revenue in the last six weeks of the year—which is mind-boggling, but that is a different conversation entirely. But as organizations set their minds on that, it's really easy to get focused on doing everything you can to drive numbers right now. Revenue now, impact now; I've got to create urgency. I've got to create a need. I've got to connect the need. I've got to tell stories. There's so much that fundraisers have to do when it comes to telling good stories as we approach that core six-week cycle of fundraising. I want to dig in to that a little bit because I think you're going to have a unique perspective.

My first question is, how do we pick the stories to tell when we know it's game time and it really matters? When we have to tell our most powerful stories, when we have to show our biggest impact, when we have to convince someone that they should give to us now but every other organization is trying to do the same thing. Within that context, how do we pick the right stories for the right time?

"A fundraising story is a vignette; it's a snapshot, not a full view. What you say matters, but also what you leave out matters." Olga M. Woltman

Olga: I'm going to cite the Supreme Court [Justice Potter Stewart] here: With an impactful story, you know it when you see it. There are some stories that just stick with you, and you can't quite pinpoint if it's a particular word or something about the individual that's been featured. But there's something about it that just stirs emotion. And that story may be different for you than it is for me, but I tend to work best with the stories that I personally feel compelled by and connected with.

And then I think the other piece to look at is redefining what a story is. It's not a traditional definition where there's a very clear introduction, a sequential series of events, and a very clear conclusion. A fundraising story is typically a vignette; it's a snapshot, not a full view. What you say matters, but also what you leave out matters. You need to take that little snippet and use it in a way that illustrates your point. You want to craft something compelling for the donor or constituent without having them lose sight of why they're hearing the story in the first place. So, I think picking the right stories comes down to making sure that there's a strong connection to the mission and to why someone should make a contribution. You want to tell a story that logically leads to only one next step, and that's contributing to the cause. 

How long can a nonprofit use one impact story?

David: Often, people tell me, "We don't have stories to tell." And I always think: What do you mean you don't have stories to tell? You're literally changing lives. It doesn't matter what type of organization you are. You are impacting lives in some capacity. And the response to that is, "We've already told all the stories we've captured this year." As a fundraiser, you think, "I told that story. I can't use it again." We're trained to think that way.

What I want to get is your take on repurposing good stories and building resonance with a story, maybe through approaching it in different ways. On the advertising side, we talk about frequency: how many times has someone heard this message or seen this ad before it fatigues? So, in your experience and with your expertise, what is the correct resonance or cadence of telling a story? How many times can you tell a story before it fatigues or before you have to move on to something else?

"The greatest stories start with uncomfortable questions." Olga M. Woltman

Olga: I love this question so much. First of all, if you feel like you don't have enough stories, go get some. Whenever somebody tells me they don't have stories, I think it's time to do a training for staff on how to gather stories in the first place. The greatest stories start with uncomfortable questions. When you're interviewing a subject or you're talking to an employee on the front lines, once you start asking questions about how they feel in the moment or what something meant to them or what their dreams and aspirations are—that's when you start identifying the true gold threads. It's about digging past the surface and going a little bit deeper.

Acquisition

Additionally, I think there is this undue pressure on what a story entails. Resistance to collecting these stories usually stems from thinking that it's a huge undertaking, but sometimes a simple 20-minute conversation is all you need to get that nugget that you're looking for. So, if you don't have a story that's working for you, go out and get one.

Frequency

In terms of frequency, I think once somebody starts being recognized because their story is particularly unique, that's when it can feel like you're saturating the market a little bit because it starts feeling like poster child syndrome. And that's why you need to mix things up. But I think it's less about a particular schedule and more about taking different elements of the story and spotlighting different aspects of it or changing the angle.

Freshness

The other piece to consider is how long a story has been in rotation. Especially with organizations that may be working with children's populations, I've encountered situations where the story of an eight-year-old is wonderful and resonant, but by the time that child is 15 or 16 years old, they may not want to be the poster child for the cause. So, there is that ethical consideration.

Basically, once you start removing the pressure of every story being this epic telling, and it really becomes a small vignette or a small insight into what something means or how your mission is put into action, it feels like a much more surmountable challenge.

What's the secret to getting a great nonprofit story?

David: I think that really gets to the crux of the issue because fundraisers, marketers, and storytellers at nonprofits feel like they have to go out and find this captivating, iconic, amazing story. And so even getting started means lining up 15 interviews and taking a whole day to find the right people and record them. It's blocking when you approach the process through the lens of getting a specific quote or uncovering this one incredible story. In reality, you just have to be ready to engage with people and listen well. Then, you're just taking something that your donors, constituents, volunteers, and supporters already care about and conveying it.

"...if you just share what happened, it's just reporting. To tell a story, you need to go beyond that." Olga M. Woltman

Olga: Absolutely, and I would just add, if you just share what happened, it's just reporting. To tell a story, you need to go beyond that: This happened and this is what it meant to me. This occurred and here's how my family was impacted. So, I think it's going that little bit further. And I don't know why we're so uncomfortable asking about feelings and asking about emotions and asking about people's aspirations. But that's where you really generate the story as opposed to a report that's very straightforward. 

What are the ethics of telling one person's story?

David: Going back to what you said previously: you mentioned the poster child, the one story that becomes the anchor of an appeal or a campaign or a season. But if you're not careful, it becomes your whole fundraising identity. You live or die by one story. There's a lot to unpack there, but specifically, I want to get your take on how we tell an impact story from the perspective of the person who is impacted. How do we tell that story well, ethically, and in a way that is respectful and responsible?

Olga: I think it's about not tokenizing and trying to let the subject's voice shine through. Some organizations will actually use a first-person narrative, which is a great approach, but I think it's just about the empathy piece and not telling the story as you would as an outsider but in a way that's true to that particular person. For example, if it's the story of a child, they sound different than a grown-up fundraiser. So, it's just making sure that you're allowing some of that to shine through, whether it's the entire narrative or a single quote.

And it goes without saying that permission is always vital. Your point on ethics is a very important one; we need to make sure that we're capturing the stories of people who want to share them and want to make a difference for the organization or cause that helped them. And, at the same time, we need to make sure that it's true to how they see it.

How can a nonprofit strategically use stories across multiple fundraising appeals?

David: Now, I want to redirect us back to building a year-end messaging strategy. Getting super tactical, let's say we have four appeals planned for that Giving Tuesday, December, and year-end timeframe. We've got four appeals planned, and we have two stories; we want to make the most out of the stories that we have. How would you go about using bits and pieces of the stories and intertwining them with impact statistics and mission updates and things like that? How would you go about building that messaging strategy for that timeframe, knowing you need to make your biggest impact yet?

"the story serves not as a reason but more as a validation to contribute." Olga M. Woltman

Olga: Year-end is a little bit unique because it is the time during which we've conditioned donors to contribute. So, in this case, the story serves not as a reason but more as a validation to contribute. During the last few weeks of the year, people are a bit more primed to think about giving, so we need to give them just that: a little piece of emotional information. If you have a finite number of stories to work with, I can see just pulling out a really compelling quote and using that as one of your appeals to reiterate it. So, the appeal itself focuses on the impact, but that testimonial of how the work is supporting individuals serves as an illustration. And maybe another version has a more expanded story that takes you through the process.

I also like to thread stories into overarching narratives. So it's not an introduction, then the story, and therefore, you should contribute. But it sort of meanders in and out of the conversation, including information about the work you're doing.

How can nonprofit storytellers use impact stories to motivate their internal teams?

David: So far, we've talked about storytelling, crafting good stories, capturing good stories, using stories responsibly, and applying stories. But now, I want to switch gears to this LinkedIn post I saw recently that has stuck with me. It was about using stories to motivate internally as much as you use stories to motivate externally.

As fundraisers and as marketers, we often hear a good story and think, "That's really interesting! I'm going to tell all the people—all my donors, all my constituents, all my volunteers, and all the people I serve—I'm going to tell everyone about that story." And yet, that isn't communicated internally. That internal communication to the people who are actually delivering the services and doing the work often gets neglected. How do you approach motivating teams internally with the same type of storytelling that we often are so good at doing externally?

Olga: That's an excellent question, David. I don't know why we delineate between employees and donors and constituents because we're dealing with the same set of humans. And if anything, these individuals chose to work for your organization and your cause. I believe it's very easy to lose sight of why we do what we do, just being busy and trying to get things done in the course of the day. And that's where it's crucial to tell stories and take that pause to reflect on the difference you're making. It's incredibly motivating for staff to just be reminded of that. I mean, you read so many articles about people looking for professional lives that have meaning and building the alignment behind the mission. Well, that's a built-in feature of working at a nonprofit organization! It doesn't have to be your one and only cause that you personally are most compelled by, but you obviously have to be a mission-oriented individual.

So, sometimes, rather than doing the storytelling yourself, ask colleagues and staff members to share their own mission moments. Allow others to reflect on moments that might be meaningful to them and validate that experience. Again, coming back to the fact that a story doesn't have to be this epic tale with beginning, middle, and ending—it's a moment, it's a snapshot, and hearing your peer, your colleague, sharing something can be incredibly compelling.

I'll never forget this Zoom call when one of my coworkers was telling a story, and she got choked up while sharing the impact of the work they were doing on a family. She almost had tears in her eyes in sharing it with her colleagues and peers. And that raw emotion, that very real connection, just impacted everybody on that call to an extent like nothing else could—nothing that somebody could put on a piece of paper and plan around.

David: So, going back to giving season, we know that all of our friends working at nonprofit organizations are running around with their hair on fire. It is the busiest time of the year for fundraisers with massive amounts of appeals, marketing campaigns, galas, special events, dinners, meetings, and delivering services. How can we use good storytelling to keep our nonprofit peers motivated and engaged?

"...success begets success. It's motivating to see your peers and colleagues align. It creates this sense of being together in it and making a difference." Olga M. Woltman

Olga: There are a few pieces to this equation. Your fundraisers on the front lines may not always be the ones that interact with the people that you're supporting. So first, you can equip them with stories so they can share that impact with donors or volunteers, and that can be phenomenally helpful. Some of it will depend on the culture of the organization; what works for one organization may seem a little bit contrived somewhere else. You have to stay true to your organizational approach to things. So, in one organization, maybe it's an all-staff conversation where a series of stories are shared. Maybe you're sharing those stories in your internal Slack or internal teams chat.

Then, it's also sharing in the victories. I think when we talk about stories, we need to make sure that we don't pigeonhole them in the journey of an individual; it's also about telling the story of the impact that we're having. It's incredibly compelling when a colleague shares something like a legislative win or a particularly compelling achievement in a service area. So, stories can take a little bit of a different form. And furthermore, success begets success. It's motivating to see your peers and colleagues align. It creates this sense of being together in it and making a difference. I rely on the sharing of those moments as well.

And then, finally, it's celebrating the people at your organization and the moments in our work lives. It may not always be these grand gestures, but that's what we do day in and day out. So, you can just say, "Hey, here's a thing that happened. I just wanted to share it with you." Creating a culture where sharing is not only accepted but welcome is a motivating thing for people.

What can nonprofits do to maximize the accessibility and value of a story?

David: I couldn't agree more. Going way back to the beginning of COVID—I don't want to sit there too long because I don't want to remember too much of that time—I was working with a ministry, and it was March, so we were putting the final touches on their big Easter campaign. Their two office headquarters are San Francisco and New York, so they were in the epicenter of the epicenter for COVID, and no one really knew what was going to happen. It didn't feel authentic to just try and push through with what we were doing, so we knew the campaign, events, and efforts that we had planned weren't going to happen at this point.

At that time, the executive director and the president penned an internal memo and basically said, "We don't know what's going to happen, but we can trust that God is going to carry us through this. And all we can do right now is pray. So join me, join your peers, join us together to pray for our organization, pray for the people we serve, pray for our donors, our constituents, our supporters. Pray for the people around us, our communities." And we stopped and said, "Hey, this is really true and authentic. It motivated your staff internally. Can we take this story that you told and send it to everyone because we're all moved, and maybe it'll move them?" And it ended up being the most successful fundraising campaign that we ran for the entire year.

Now, that was COVID, and everything was different. I'm not saying to send every internal memo from your executive director to everyone. But what I'm trying to get at is that this really moving story that was told, this thing that happened authentically, we were able to repurpose it and use it in other channels to communicate and engage authentically. So, as we're neck-deep in planning for Giving Tuesday through year-end strategies, I want to know, when you find that really juicy story, what are some good ways to compound the impact by telling it uniquely through different channels?

"...it's equally important to not be afraid to not use something if it doesn't fit. Even if it's wonderful, if it doesn't fit, you shouldn't try to shove it in there." Olga M. Woltman

Olga: The word that you kept coming back to, and I appreciate that, is authenticity. And the beauty of authenticity is that it really connects us. But the tough part about authenticity is that you can't plan for it, right? It happens very organically. So, I think increasing your impact comes down to having that lens of: does this sound real? Does this sound authentic? Or does it feel contrived? And not being afraid to walk away from something that doesn't feel really true to what it is.

In terms of channels, the answer is it depends. If you have an executive who is very passionate and a great storyteller with a very strong presence, maybe it's video. If you have a message that's best conveyed in writing, maybe it's in writing. But I think it's equally important to not be afraid to not use something if it doesn't fit. Even if it's wonderful, if it doesn't fit, you shouldn't try to shove it in there because it is so terrific. LinkedIn is a wonderful space for those types of stories that feel a little bit more internal, and even though it's an external communications channel, it's also motivating to internal staff because that's who sees it a lot of the time. 

But being able to tell a story uniquely and impactfully is really about looking out for those moments, those nuggets of gold, because they happen all the time. So, it's a question of capturing them and it's a question of paying attention and listening and then being thoughtful about it. Walk in with an open mind. And in the example you described, everything just aligned in the right way, given the context and everything else. It's being open to that but not being afraid to walk away if it doesn't fit.

David: The critical piece you just touched on is having the courage to lean into a story but also having the courage to walk away if it's not resonating or if it's not the right message for the right channel at the right time. And understanding that particularly with today's donors, constituents, and the people that we serve, the expectation from an organization is to communicate like any for-profit organization, where messaging moves at the rate of a news cycle. But it's so important to be able to have not just the insight to know when something isn't landing, but the authority to be able to say, "Hey, this isn't working; let's pivot."

What's the one thing that will inspire donors to give?

David: So, I have one last question for you, and it's really practical: what's one thing someone can do if they're listening to this and thinking, "I need one idea to get me through fundraising season." What's your go-to? If someone came to you and asked, "What should I do right now to win this fundraising season?", what's that one big idea that you would share?

Olga: Just one, huh? I think it's keeping focus on why you're doing what you're doing and not getting too attached to how you've always done things. It's not innovation for the sake of innovation, but as you know, if we hitch our wagon to how things have always worked, we're giving up the ability to think critically and innovatively. So, I would say take everything with a grain of salt. Everything is up for discussion; everything is up for negotiation. Really ask yourself: What is the best course of action? What do I think will produce the best possible outcome?

So, nonprofiteers, sit down at your keyboard, grab a pen, or dip a quill into your inkwell if you're feeling fancy. We have a feeling you have a lot of stories to tell, and a lot of folks who'd love to hear them. And if you want to connect with Olga, you can follow her on LinkedIn or learn more about her work at LemonSkies

Mobile phone with donation form and donation charts floating around the phone.Mobile phone with donation form and donation charts floating around the phone.Woman looking at fundraising chart with button to book a call.Yellow shapes in background with donation form in front with stylized text, build an intelligence giving experience.Sparkling star.
Download
Sparkling star.
Start For Free
Sparkling star.Sparkling stars.
Blue shapes.Blue shapes.Blue shapes.