Think in Terms of Personal Stories

Yes, you are collecting thousands of pounds of produce with hundreds of volunteer hours in order to benefit countless families in need.  In order to garner real awareness and visibility, you’re going to need to learn how to tell the story of your project and organization in more specific terms as well.  Telling the story of a specific person gives your audience a chance to connect to the human conditions that make your work important.

Start with yourself. Why are you doing this kind of work? Think about your own experiences with hunger or poverty. Did you or someone close to you struggle in these ways? This is a good place for your story to start. People will connect with the source of your motivation in ways that bring out their own. This is a great tactic when dealing with any type of “donor” (volunteer, agricultural, financial).  Here are some useful tips for getting started:

Tell your story first

Whether you are starting a new produce recovery project or strengthening a program already in place you’ll want to tell people why.  The most important question to ask yourself is this: “Why do I do what I do?”  A possible variation on this question is: “Why do I care about this work enough to dedicate so much time to it as opposed to something else?” 

You may be tempted to begin by talking about how important it is for low-income folks to have access to produce for health reasons.  You may want to talk about the cost to society incurred by unhealthy eating habits.  You may want to talk about food desserts or childhood nutrition and these are all important things to talk about.  However, what is really going to get people listening is if you tell a story about your personal connection to the work. 

This process can be hard but the good news is that an effective story can be as short as a few sentences!

Example:  “When I was growing up my family ate lots of fast food and microwaveable meals.  My dad was diagnosed with diabetes and his doctor told him he had to eat more veggies.  Our whole family’s diet changed and his health got better!  Since then I’ve been passionate about ensuring that everyone has the choice to eat better.”

By sharing your motivation for this important work you invite others to find and stay connected to their source of motivation, too!

Listen to the stories of others

As you form and deepen relationships in the community you’ll start to hear the stories of others.  These can be great to remember and use in conversation.  This way you’ll not only be able to tell your story but you can relay the stories of why others are involved. 

“Sarah up in Fall City grows vegetables and said she likes to donate to the food bank because she would go to the food bank with her mom when she was a kid and she wants to give back.”

Using statistics wisley

Statistics can provide great context to a personal story but should never be the only tool used in attracting interest in your project.  A good rule of thumb is to always try and balance personal stories and statistics. 

“At the food bank 30% of those who receive food are children.  That’s why we connected our apple gleans to the local backpack program.  Kids who can eat some fruit over the weekend will come to school on Monday more prepared to learn.”

Materials on storytelling

  • Here's a helpful article about the basics of a good story. View it here.
  • This is a great article to read about how statistics interact with stories. How they can be effective and how they can be counterproductive. View it here.

Digital materials

You can only be in one place at any given time promoting your program and increasing the visibility of your organization. Putting in the time to develop some digital materials to send out via email or written on DVD and distributed can multiply your effectiveness. If you know how to make digital movies or stories or you want to learn you should do so.

You can also broaden your vision of what a donor is by looking to folks in your community who already have this knowledge. For example, marketing teams or ad agencies might do some work pro bono or you could collaborate with a college film class. This year’s VISTA built a relationship with a local aspiring film maker to develop a short promotional video about the cannery project. Check it out.











Images and video

A picture can tell an incredible story.  Consider the above example.  The story may be just as powerful if we say:

“At the food bank 30% of those who receive food are children” and then accompany this statistic with a photo of a child in a food bank line.  The audience is invited to participate by filling in the rest of the story with their imaginations.

Making movie files

Most likely you are only one person or a member of a small team of people developing a produce recovery program.  There’s a limited amount of places you can be so why not create some video files that can help you conduct outreach when you’re busy?

Consider taking some time in the slower months to brush up on some simple movie making software.  A good, affordable option for your PC is “Sony Vegas Movie Studio.”  Also, most Apple computers come with “iMovie.”  With these programs you can combine photos, video, narration and music to put together some great little stories for distribution online throughout your network.  It’s really fun and you’ll make it easier for people to help you spread the word by giving them a link to pass on! 

Press coverage

This year’s VISTA worked with the 11 coalition member food banks as well as partners like United Way of King County, Rotary First Harvest and Northwest Harvest to leverage previously existing press relationships with local and regional news outlets for the benefit of the cannery project. A word to the wise: Sometimes it makes sense to try and get coverage from the big networks, but for community based efforts the most beneficial are often local papers and blogs.  Example press releases: Save the Children's Americans Feeding Americans and Northwest Harvest AmeriCorps week.

Inviting elected officials

Elected officials both attract more press to your cause and have the power to support your organization when the time comes to make budgets. As with news outlets, it’s much harder to schedule your state’s Senator or Governor for an event than it is to get a county councilperson or local city councilperson or mayor. For “AmeriCorps Week” this year, the VISTA invited 60-70 officials of all types and received one state representative and the staff person from a county councilperson’s office.  Cast a wide net and be diligent about follow up. Elected officials are busy and they want to be assured that their support of your project will be seen by local voters on news outlets. It’s a good idea to include their offices on any press release emails so they know who to expect from the press. They will also tend to invite the press to events they attend in order to assure greater visibility.