Let me tell you Rita’s story. I met Rita in January of 2013. She was a bit shy, uncertain of the small video camera I had placed in front of her, and not entirely sure she was ready to share her story. I was sitting in a small classroom at Concordia College in Selma, Alabama. I felt a bit out of place myself, blonde hair and blue-eyed coming from Nebraska farm country, and a bit naive when it came to the culture of the Deep South. I wanted to be respectful, ask the right questions, but mostly I just wanted to listen and hear about Rita’s journey.
A woman of bravery and great courage, she poured out her story during her 45-minute pre-interview with me:
- Poverty: I couldn’t even comprehend growing up in a home in America without running water.
- Repression: Have you ever been told by your high school guidance counselor that you should just take a job at a sewing factory?
- Overcoming: Years after high school, Concordia College found her, trained her as a teacher and inspired her to love what education is really all about.
Watch Rita's Story
Authentic (and Bold) Story Finding
Concordia is full of stories like Rita’s — seriously, one after another — but how do we find them? For us it came down to just one Concordia staff member. One woman who was passionately dedicated to sharing student stories with donors and potential donors, so that they could truly understand the impact of their support. We all know this is important, right? It is the latest buzz: Tell your stories = get people on board with your cause.
But this woman was different. She didn’t depend on hearsay or story recommendations from staff members when she wrote up stories for the school’s newsletter. Her stories were unusual; not what you would expect; personal. How did she do it? She got in the trenches herself. She would eat lunch with students in the cafeteria, pursue them in-between classes. She got to know them.
Taking it a step further, she taught them about how their stories could make a difference for those coming after them. By the time we got to the school to listen to and select stories for our video, she had student after student lined up to sit down in that classroom with me. And almost every story would have been excellent for the actual video.
If your job is to find stories, you have to search them out. Don’t rely on others to do that work for you. As a nonprofit fundraiser or development executive, a church media team or a higher education communications department, you have to get to the frontlines yourself. Become a journalist. Remember why you do what you do and actually get out there and connect with the people that you serve.
Fighting for your Storytellers
OK, so that’s all well and good, right? But let’s take it a step further. How about when you have a camera crew all set up for an interview with the student you selected and they don’t show up? What do you do? Give up? Find someone else? Not this woman at Concordia. She was on the phone with Rita, understanding her fears and hesitations, reminding her of how brave she was, and rescheduling the crew for a few days later.
When we showed up the next time, she drove to Rita’s house and brought her to the interview herself. And Rita is my favorite person I have ever interviewed (can I say that?!). At the end of our hour-and-a-half interview of talking through her past, present and future, her gratitude for Concordia and her fierce passion for her own students, she got up and embraced me. She asked if I was a counselor, because she felt like she'd just gone through a therapy session! She was so relieved to share her heart; I’m glad we were there to capture it on camera.
Sharing your story and your message — and knowing it'll be helpful for generations to come — is deeply therapeutic for the storyteller. It’s not about creating a killer donor video, it’s about connecting to why you do what you do.
How far are you willing to go to encourage your “Ritas” to share their stories with the world? Because if you can get to know them, if you can encourage them to be vulnerable for the sake of others and you can walk through that process with them, that is when lives will change. That’s when donors will become passionate advocates for your cause and when others will line up to be a part of your mission.
So the moral of this story? Go the distance. Because your “cinematic gold” might be closer than you think — it just might require you to dig a little deeper.