A Good Cause Wins with a Good Story

Cara Jones speaking

Cara Jones speaking

How often do you immediately share with a room full of strangers the story of the most wild drag-down fight you ever had with your brother? That is was what happened to me Tuesday night at “Storytelling for Good”—a workshop hosted by RallyPad with Emmy award-winning Cara Jones (founder of Storytellers for Good).

For almost two hours, 25 other non-profit or communications professionals and I practiced storytelling, learned concrete tips for storytelling, and watched examples of mighty fine video storytelling. Here are my notes.

After asking us to tell a personal story in 90 seconds, Cara shared with us her story as a young ABC affiliate broadcaster in southwest Florida. She reported about stranded manatees and other marine wildlife until she moved to New England and covered Boston area crime. And reported about a lot of sad, sad stories. She eventually left. “I wanted to tell stories but I didn’t want to tell stories for the news.” After leaving Boston, Cara traveled for a year to South America, Spain, and India. She eventually moved to San Francisco and founded Storytellers for Good.

The workshop focused on three basic principles for storytelling in video, photo, and writing.

1. Aim for the heart.

Reason, statistics, and infrastructure all have their place. But not when you need to  supercharge your audience to remember your cause. Stories that resonate emotionally are also more likely to be shared. As viral video pundit Dane Greenberg put it, people “are not just sharing your content — they are sharing the feeling your video has created.”

Example shown:  Mama Hope
What moved me: A mother’s love and loss unexpectedly transforms her daughter and a small Kenyan village

Mama Hope


HOW do you interview someone to best capture their story?


  • Make eye contact during your interview.
  • Be aware of “what you want to find vs. what you find.”
  • Ask tough questions. Then ask them again. Sometimes you hear more the second time around. (Sometimes you need to ask them again because the camera wasn’t rolling!)
  • Be comfortable with silence. Wait a beat or two and you might be surprised what people share.

“Exaggerate what’s there so people who are not there feel they are there.”

Aim Tight.

  • Use close ups of people for video and photography
  • Allow natural background sounds to be present in the audio.
  • Show concrete details to evoke the reality of the situation

“We are all looking for ourselves in stories.”


2. Let characters lead.

Focus on 1 or 2 characters. Don’t try to include everyone or everything; otherwise, people will remember nothing.

Example shown: Smile
What moved me: A one-woman intervention to help her neighborhood connect.



Choose a main character who embodies G.O.A.L. :

Genuine. Someone is emotionally in touch with themeselves.
Outgoing. Shy people will not amplify well on video.
Lively. Enthusiasm is infectious.

HOW to help characters shine?

  • Interview them in a comfortable environment (never against a white wall!).
  • Invest in a lavalier mic that is unobtrusive and captures sound well.
  • Interview without referring to notes so the person is more at ease.


3. Remember narrative structure. Build to a surprise.

Don’t get keep telling your beginning over and over. A lot of organization spend so much time talking about their programs or introducing themselves, they forget to move it forward.

Example shown:  The 93 Dollar Club
What moved me: One random act of kindness between strangers at the grocery store grows into a solution to hunger.

The 93 Dollar Club

When crafting a story:

  • Identify a problem. Introduce the hero. (beginning)
  • Send the hero out into the world. (middle)
  • Resolve the tension and draw or suggest a conclusion (end)


Think big picture. Ask yourself or your organization:

  • Who is your audience?
  • What is the message of the story? (This is not your mission statement)
  • What is the best medium to tell this story? A 2 minute video? One large photo? A “longread” in your newsletter or blog?
  • What is your “ask”? What do you want people to feel or do by the end of the story?


In addition to the people you help,  also consider telling the stories of :

  • Founders
  • Volunteers
  • Donors
  • Your surrounding community


Parting thoughts.

Everyone has a story.

Keep it short. For video, 2-3 minutes is a good length without trying to describe everything you do.

A good story helps people remember your cause; it doesn’t attempt to represent everything your organization does.

Build a storytelling culture in your organization. Consider developing a “story bank” so when you need to communicate through story, you have good examples on hand.

And that fight I had with my brother? It ended well. He and I learned we care a lot about toys. I learned not to bite. In some ways, we both won, and my parents learned something in the process too.


“If you want to learn about a culture, listen to stories. If you want to change a culture, change the stories.” — Michael Margolis, Get Storied


And lastly, a parting example of  a story that balances more than one character, showcases fruites and vegetables, and incorporates moving type. There is a whole world of storytelling out there. Find your hook!


Mandela Marketplace from Storytellers For Good



We at Rally hope this article was useful.  If you or your organization are looking for a unique way to combine storytelling and fundraising, check out Rally’s online fundraising tools. Post your videos and photos and raise money for causes you care about. 

If you live in the Bay Area and are interested in attending future workshops and events at RallyPad, our incubator and event space for non-profits and causes, join our email list.

Related Tags: ,

  1. Kaitlyn Trigger March 6, 2012

    Great post, Jesse! Glad you and your brother worked it out. :-)

  2. Sachi Doctor March 30, 2012

    Thanks for highlighting Cara’s talk for those of us who missed out! The videos really drive home key points – many lessons to learn here.

Leave a Reply