Q: The nonprofit organization I work for does lots of good stuff and we’ve been experimenting with different ways of telling our success stories in our newsletters and grant reports.  The thing is, even though we’re really proud of the work we do, whenever we write down our success stories, they don’t seem quite as impressive on paper. Do you have any advice about how to frame our work in a way that’s compelling to people?

A: That’s a great question! It’s funny: nonprofits often wonder why they can’t get their really worthy and wonderful message across to potential donors or even the general public while big corporations have no trouble selling the same people air freshener or a specific brand of trash bags.  But here’s the secret that nobody ever tells you when you go into nonprofit work: it’s all about storytelling.

So, think about the last commercial you saw—say it was trying to sell you laundry detergent.  It might have gone something like this:

1.       A kid is playing in the yard.

2.       The kid falls in a mud puddle.

3.       The kid shame-facedly confronts his mom with his muddy clothes.

4.       Mom looks at the kid sternly.

5.       Mom is in the laundry room, trying a new detergent.

6.       The stain comes out of the kid’s clothes—thank Heavens!

7.       Mom and kid are both happy. They hug.

So this commercial tells a really simple story, but it’s a story, nonetheless.  And most importantly, it has the basic structure of a well-told story. Because what we have with this laundry detergent commercial is a small drama: the kid (the protagonist) is going about his business, he’s confronted with an obstacle (his mother’s wrath), the obstacle is overcome with the help some laundry detergent, everything goes back to normal—maybe even a little better than it was before! For some reason, the human brain loves this structure and we’ve been using it for thousands of years: The Iliad has this same underlying structure and so does whatever movie you saw last weekend.  We use it because it works and because peoples’ brains crave it!

So, here’s the thing: when nonprofits tell stories about their work, much of the time they don’t pay any attention to story structure.  This, of course, isn’t the case when you and I are telling a story to a friend—we feel an obligation to tell an interesting story when our own personal reputation is on the line, right?   And what the laundry detergent company knows that a lot of nonprofits don’t is that stories sell.  They sell products, they sell memberships, they sell grants and major donor contributions and general public attention and support.

So how do you tell a story about the work you do?  Well, start with a case study: one person—the protagonist.  This can be a supporter of your work, someone your organization helped, anybody who’s made a difference to your organization or who you’ve helped in some way.  Tell what their life was like before you helped them, the obstacle(s) that came along and how your organization provided help for them.  Then tell how their life is better now than it was before.

Sound difficult? It is.  That’s why more nonprofits don’t do it!

But the first thing to do is to pick a story and try it out.  HERE are some questions you can use to outline your story. If you can’t answer all the questions, then pick another story!

Thanks to The Goodman Center for providing these questions.  For more information about good storytelling for nonprofits, visit their website at www.agoodmanonline.com.

Good luck and Happy Storytelling!

Weekend for Rivers Liability Waivers

A signed waiver for the day American Canoe Association Waiver and Release of Liability is required for your Weekend for Rivers registration to be complete.  This is required in order to participate in the Chattahoochee river paddle on Sunday, April 1st.

  • The adult waiver can be found HERE.

  • The waiver for minors  is necessary for any participant under the age of 18 at the time of registration. The waiver for minors can be downloaded HERE.

A separate waiver must be completed for each registrant. All waivers must have original signatures. No faxes or emailed pdfs.

Weekend for Rivers

Save the Date!

Join Georgia River Network on March 31-April 1, 2012 at the Chattahoochee Nature Center in Roswell, Georgia for Weekend for Rivers, GRN’s Annual Conference and River Celebration event that gives us all a chance to celebrate Georgia’s unique, beautiful rivers through storytelling, partying and paddling!

Join us March 31st for a day of inspiration, education and connections with folks who are as passionate about Georgia’s rivers as you are! The day will include river-lovers of all kinds expressing their passion for rivers with short, inspiring presentations and interactive forums that will paint a broad picture of the state of Georgia’s rivers and the people who protect, enjoy,  and honor them. We not only want you to attend – we want you to participate! Look for a call for proposals later this month – this is your opportunity to share how you protect, enjoy or honor our waterways – and express it the way you want – with a speech, photography, poetry, music, art, however you want – the only rule: no boring Power Points!

In the evening, we’ll have a ton of fun at our annual River Celebration Party and then we’ll camp at the Chattahoochee Nature Center, Paddle Georgia-style, wake up the next morning and paddle a 9-mile stretch of the beautiful Chattahoochee River!  The perfect way to experience what people love about the popular, annual week-long Paddle Georgia event .  The experience will be as close to the real thing as possible (right down to the bus shuttles, the gym camping and the Satterfield’s catering) for the uninitiated as well as for all you Paddle Georgia fanatics who regularly plead with us to plan more than one event each year. Thanks go to Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, who lead popular trips and events on the ‘Hooch all the time, in supporting us on the paddle.

So put Weekend for Rivers on your calendar and look for registration to open mid-January, 2012!

Also, if you'd like to participate in Weekend for Rivers as a presenter, we're currently accepting proposals! Click here for more information.

Annual Planning

Q: Our nonprofit board has been collecting ideas about what we want to accomplish next year, but it’s not in a very organized form at the moment.  Someone suggested to us that we create an annual plan of work.  That sounds good, but what is an annual plan and what goes into creating one?

A: An annual plan is basically just a document that your board comes up with that keeps you reminded throughout the year about what your organization wants to get done that year, and how you plan to do it.  It usually includes:

1.       What actions  will be taken towards realizing you goals in the coming year,

2.       Who is going to be responsible for the completion of that work, and

3.       A timeline that tells you when everything should be completed

Easy, right? Well, yeah—the idea is pretty simple, and it’s made even easier when your organization has a strategic plan to establish your priorities for you.  You can read more about strategic planning in THIS FAQ

Usually what it takes to come up with an annual plan of work is to sit down with your organization’s staff and/or board and talk over what your priorities are and brainstorm how to get them done.  Consider this an organizational “retreat”--you could get all fancy and rent a beach condo or you could just do it in your office or a board member’s house —just make sure everyone can get comfy because it might take between 4 hours and a whole day.  The important thing is that everyone has the space and time to come up with ideas, get excited, talk through the issues that need discussion and move on to the next thing. By the end of the day, you’ll be amazed at how many concrete action items you’ll have on the docket for the coming year!

Of course, this can’t happen without a little pre-planning.  Whether you’re an all-volunteer or a staffed organization, it’s important that the group of people doing the planning has a chance to put their two cents into what should be talked over during the retreat.  And of course one person (or a couple of them) needs to be in charge of the guiding the whole process: gathering ideas and information from the planning group beforehand, setting the agenda, and, during the retreat, keeping track of time time to make sure there’s everything gets talked about.

The final step is just writing everything down in whatever format you want. Some group’s annual plan is just a shared calendar that reflects due dates of each action item.  Some groups like to create a timeline spreadsheet or a word document that organizes the priority items by program.  Whatever makes sense to you!

So good luck, and I hope next year  is productive and fun!

Weekend for Rivers

Call for Proposals

At Weekend for Rivers, we want to know what inspires you about your river.

In 2012, we’re trying something new at Georgia River Network’s annual river celebration event.  Not only do we want you to attend – we want you to participate! This is your opportunity to share how you protect, enjoy or honor the rivers and streams closest to your heart.  And we want you to express it in any way you like, with a speech, photography, poetry, music, art…the possibilities are endless!  The only rule: no boring Power Points!

We welcome everybody to submit a proposal to put your ideas, stories and talents on display! Whether you’re interested in the natural or cultural history of our rivers, current political issues, water monitoring, paddling, or if a river or stream has just inspired or shaped you in a significant way, Weekend for Rivers is a positive, exciting, accepting atmosphere to let people know about your experiences. 

Weekend for Rivers will take place on March 31-April 1, 2012 at the Chattahoochee Nature Center in Roswell, Georgia.  Presentations will take place on March 31st. Your talk or performance should be between 6-18 minutes in length and the material you’re presenting should be accessible to a general audience—if you’re not sure if you’re getting too technical, imagine trying to explain your topic to the person sitting next to you on an airplane.  We’re modeling this portion of Weekend for Rivers after the popular TED Conferences, so take a look at some of those presentations for an idea of what we’re looking for: www.ted.com.

So, what are you waiting for? Let us know about those stories, songs, ideas and artwork!  To submit a proposal to present at Weekend for Rivers, please send a brief personal biography and no more than 500 word description of the presentation you plan to give.  Let us know how long you expect your presentation to take.  In addition, if there are visual images or music that goes along with your presentation, please feel free to send along images, video, music files—whatever is going to give us a better idea of the substance of your presentation.   And again, be creative! The sky’s the limit!

Registration costs will be discounted to $25 for the whole weekend for presenters.  The weekend includes Saturday presentations, a great party and a day-long on the Chattahoochee on Sunday> For more information on Weekend for Rivers, see the Save the Date below.

Deadline for proposals: Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Proposals will be reviewed by a committee and those selected to present will be notified by January 15.

Submit all proposals to Jesslyn Shields at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..  

So put Weekend for Rivers on your calendar and look for registration to open mid-January, 2012!