Using Your Storytelling Skills to Make an Impact

February 4, 2019 § 11 Comments


raecoffeeBy Rae Pagliarulo

In my job as a Nonprofit Development Director (a professional fundraiser, for those not intimate with the lingo), I write all the time. Grant proposals, grant reports, direct mail appeals, email appeals, newsletters — the list goes on. (And on.)

I have done this work for years, but it was never as interesting as while I was making my way through my 3-year MFA program. In class, whether poetry or nonfiction, I heard the same thing over and over: “Show, don’t tell.” Don’t summarize the fight you had with your friend – put your reader in the room, let them feel your heart pounding in your chest, let them sit uncomfortably in the silence that stretches on after a cutting insult. It’s something writing students learn and relearn, find loopholes around, get schooled on.

What I didn’t realize, as I shuttled back and forth from campus to my office, was that this advice would prove useful to me whether I was sitting in workshop or sitting at my desk, eating stale bagels leftover from the morning staff meeting.

When I tell the story of my nonprofit’s impact, I have to do it in a small amount of space. Some grant making organizations (whom I affectionately call “the funders”) only give me 500 characters (INCLUDING spaces, which is just cruel) to explain something complicated and nuanced like, oh, I don’t know – the impact that our organization’s work has on our students’ lives.

As anyone who’s ever published in Brevity or River Teeth‘s Beautiful Things, or who’s had a particularly passionate point to make on Twitter can tell you — 500 characters, including spaces, goes by in a flash. (Literally.)

I find myself pressured to squeeze as much relevant info into an unfairly short container — We did this program and made this change and initiated this partnership, and oh, wait wait! We also did surveys and a demographic analysis and finished next year’s budg–

What I realize, time and again, as I write these reports and requests, is that sometimes a single story — a moment of showing — can do a better job at communicating impact than all the telling I can muster.

Take the one document anyone can recognize — the end-of-year fundraising appeal. If you’ve ever given a cent to a nonprofit, chances are you receive dozens of post-Thanksgiving letters imploring you to give NOW, to give TODAY, to give IMMEDIATELY, before the year is over. Every nonprofit is jockeying for your attention (and your dollars), so each one has to try and stand out from the crowd.

Often, in documents like these, I’m forced to make difficult cuts. The limited space makes me re-prioritize over and over again. When I’m telling this story, what is really important?

Could I write a letter detailing the numerous successful programs we implemented this year? The establishment of our core values? The fundraising totals from our spring gala? The high-level partnerships we initiated with other organizations? Sure. That’s all true. And it’s all important — to someone.

But I could also tell you the story of one third grade student who started the year off as a shy, reserved student, someone who wouldn’t dream of raising their hand — and ended the year as a group leader who couldn’t wait to share their opinions with the class.

When that document is out of my hands, and it’s just about my reader’s perception of it, that one person who’s deciding which organization to mail their $50 check to this Christmas, what is really important? To them?

A lot of it (okay, all of it) has to do with audience, of course. Some funders just want their heartstrings tugged, while others want hard data and little else. Some individual donors, like that person deciding where to send their check, fall along similar lines.

But here again — I remember those late nights spent in workshop, talking about our invisible audiences, the hordes of people who would someday read our novels and essays. Who were they? What was important to them? What was absolutely essential for them to know about us, and our lives, and our impact? How could we get everything across to them that we wanted to? How could we be sure that what’s important to us is also important to them?

In the professional world, I have the advantage of knowing exactly what my audience wants from me. In fact, my success as a Development Director hinges on my ability to read guidelines and questions so carefully and closely that I end up understanding the funder’s priorities better than they themselves do.

But this practice — the truffle-hunt of essential information — will help me no matter what I’m writing. Personally, I can’t wait to use my research skills to summarize comps for my literary agent, once we’re ready to shop my collection of essays around. (Seriously — cannot WAIT.)

The point is this — it’s easy to dismiss an MFA as a degree that’s only tactically useful if you’re teaching comp or creative writing, or if you’ve somehow finagled yourself a career as a working writer. Some days, I feel conflicted about the fact that I have to qualify my three-part answer to the question, “What do you do?” Because my business card doesn’t say “Writer.” Even though it’s part of my job, it’s far from the only one.

What I can rest easy with is the knowledge that every day, I use my degree and my creative writing skills in ways I couldn’t have imagined. And for my money, I couldn’t ask for a better story of impact.
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Rae Pagliarulo holds her MFA in Creative Writing from Rosemont College. Her work has been featured in Full Grown People, Ghost Town, bedfellows, New South, Hippocampus, The Manifest-Station, Quail Bell, and r.kv.r.y. quarterly, and is anthologized in The Best of Philadelphia Stories: 10th Anniversary Edition. She is the 2014 recipient of the Sandy Crimmins National Poetry Prize and a 2015 Pushcart Prize Nominee. Rae works as the Writing Life column editor for Hippocampus Magazine, and as Development Director for a Philadelphia arts nonprofit.

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