Helping Clients Tell Stories that Stick

In nearly 25 years of helping clients spread their messages, I’ve heard a lot of incredible successes and passionate pleas for support and empathy. Sometimes, it can be impossible to resist getting swept away in the energy and excitement of the client’s mission – but no matter how enthusiastic you may become about your client’s story, it’s always important to remember that it’s truly his or hers to tell.

This slightly thorny truth is even sharper today, since the internet has extended the longevity of a piece by making it easy to find even years from publication. One of the first Google results for my name is usually a profile of my architectural drawings in the New York Times… from February 1990!

When it comes to clients, this new permanence – making ancient news immediately available – can cause extra stickiness when dealing with bad press, an ill-advised quote or a lackluster interview. Accordingly, in helping clients tell their stories, it becomes paramount to make sure that they project their personal identity, in addition to their organization’s brand and mission – so that in 25 years, when someone asks their robot assistant to Google the organization, what comes up is a document of passion and personality, not simply a rote list of talking points.Remember to keep a little personality in your nonprofit's storytelling!

One client of ours, many years back, inadvertently underscored the importance of injecting a little personality into a presentation. This nonprofit leader worked primarily with elders. She was passionate and dedicated 100% of her talents to her work, which was clear to everyone who met her. When it came to public speaking, though, she spoke stiffly and kept to her notecards, effectively stifling all the passion and fire she projected in person-to-person interactions.

With an organization like hers, filled with wonderfully touching moments, all funders, donors, families and elected officials would need in order to instantly align to her cause was a well-told, publicly shared story. Instead, each speaking engagement was a lost opportunity, a vacuum of boredom and polite applause where there should have been rapt attention and standing ovations. Something had to change.

We needed to find the key to opening up her usual boundless enthusiasm instead of having it clamped down when she donned her business hat.

We discovered that each evening over dinner, she would share the highs and the lows of her day with her children. Her motivation was to inspire them to do good in the world, and she readily shared her stories with energy and zest. Having heard this, we suggested that she paper-clip reminder photos of her children to the top of her next speech. From then on, she was a firebrand at the podium.

That was a crucial lesson for us to learn as a young firm. Most PR professionals will tell you their job is to tell clients’ stories. To be sure, it is – but when a client can be his or her own best advocate, it’s also our job to step out of the way and facilitate the client’s own storytelling. By helping our client project her innate passion and personality while speaking publicly, her advocacy was twice as convincing. And, unlike another dry press release, her testimony will remain vital as long as it’s search-indexed.

Nonprofit Management is Archival: Telling Your Organization’s Story

Earlier this fall, my family undertook a move from an Upper East Side apartment to one in East Harlem. On top of our busy life at Winkleman Company, nonprofit board activities and my teaching at Columbia University, we’re still throwing our spare time at unpacking. Taking care to assess every piece of furniture, every knickknack and every memento that made the first cut of moving (but may not fit into our life’s new schema) has brought into focus for me the relationship of memory and possessions.

Philosophers and thinkers from the Greeks to the Renaissance often used the position of rooms and objects in the construction of “memory houses,” mental structures intended to organize their ideas — the ars memoriae, or “art of memory,” as the Romans called it. Perhaps the idea first came to its inventor during a home move.

Each object in each room signified a portion of the total concept to be remembered, and their placements relative to each other represented the relationship between them. While I took stock of our possessions, I recollected the story of each. I came to realize that our lovingly organized photo albums, bookshelves, artwork and furniture told the story of our lives together and

A 1912 Corgi Classic Rolls Royce Silver Ghost. When I bought mine it was the first time I saved towards a goal.

A 1912 Corgi Classic Rolls Royce Silver Ghost. When I bought mine it was the first time I saved towards a goal.

individually. The wall of family photographs catalogs the people whose stories intersect ours, from my grandfather in his pharmacy in the 1920s and my wife’s rocket-pioneering grandparents to my son graduating from high school. The vintage toy cars, like my prized 1912 Corgi Classic Rolls Royce Silver Ghost, and political memorabilia harken back to past times and youthful enthusiasms.

The same principle would apply to an organization’s story. Some of this arrangement is literal — the way you style your office, which achievements you display to your visitors and in what order — but also the way that you manage and track your operations. In the short term, it enables learning and saves time. How did we run this event last year? What worked and didn’t work? In the long term, though, inventory and reflection define your values and build your traditions. Archives and stories, whether legitimate files required by law or scrapbooks of letters from clients and students, digital or paper, all contribute to a picture of not only who you are, but where you’ve been and the lives you’ve touched along the way.

During my days at Clark University, for example, we were tasked with a logo redesign. Other members of the committee suggested hiring an ad agency, focus groups and designers, but we couldn’t quite agree on what the logo should convey. To find our identity, we went to the archives and looked at our school’s history. We saw what we’d achieved in the past, and we were proud of that tradition. Accordingly, we found an elegant logo from the 1920s that not only fit our current concepts, but nodded to our institution’s humble regard for the past successes that enabled us to seek excellence in the current moment.

As an organization, you must sometimes confront the question of modifying your presentation. Whether it’s a logo redesign or a total brand overhaul in preparation for a capital campaign, the next chapter of the story is impossible to write without reading the ones that have come before. Commitment to an archival perspective enables you, as a leader, to help your organization find its way forward.

For your sanity, it is important to remember that becoming a good archivist doesn’t necessarily mean keeping everything. Any compelling story requires development, and whether by loss or by the introduction of a better idea, sometimes this development requires us to let go of possessions, practices and people. While packing to move, I left some things behind, things that weren’t crucial to my life now because they didn’t contribute to the story of who I am. In doing so, I freed up a little space — blank pages, if you will — on which to continue the next chapter of my story.

Keeping Perspective in Nonprofit Management

Why did you get into nonprofit management? Was it to become a bold-faced name in the society pages? For a summer home in the Hamptons, perhaps? Or was it for a different reason — were you motivated, as so many are, by the desire to make a positive impact and to help people?

I’ve been involved in nonprofits for my entire career, and in all of those years, nearly every client, coworker and student has been there for a bigger reason than just a paycheck. Recently, however, I’ve noticed a return to a disturbing and saddening trend – nonprofit CEOs and executive directors caught with their hands in the till. Although I’ll decline to name examples, I’m sure you can think of a few.

Why do so many heads of nonprofits get into trouble?


Don’t be distracted by the trappings of wealth

I think it has to do with perspective. When you work as hard as many nonprofit leaders do, you may become disenchanted with the discrepancy between your lifestyle and many of your biggest donors. Seeing the chairman of your board drive up to the board meeting every week in his $90,000 car may be a distraction. Although you entered the business of nonprofits to help people, the allure of a brass chandelier in your office can become blinding, and the money to pay for it seems readily available, although earmarked for a program for children.

To counteract this siren’s call, it’s important to maintain your perspective. Rather than meet at a pricey restaurant or club for lunch, for example, one client of mine had VIPs eat the same food the nonprofit serves its consumers, right in the same cafeteria. The lunch effectively reminded the donors who their efforts and support were helping and their reasons for involvement – all the while keeping the heads of the organization humble. Doing so allowed everyone involved to be inspired and motivated by the organization’s real purpose.

While I can’t say for sure what motivates the reprehensible behavior of nonprofit heads who skim or cheat, I know that these episodes offer an important lesson. A career of nonprofit management can be very high stress and often underpaid, relative to your major donors. Rather than succumb to the pressure and temptations, the best thing for a nonprofit lead to do is to remain true to the goal of his/her organization and to remember why he/she chose that path. Suddenly, a brass chandelier seems less attractive.

Summer Nonprofit Management: Creativity for Year-Round Sunshine

While in the offices of a client this past winter, I came across a cluster of laughing staff members; lemonade and saltwater taffy were on the table. They were chuckling at an album of themselves bedecked in summer fashion – Nantucket reds and Hawaiian shirts – at a barbecue the previous July. Our client had decided to wait until the dark days of February to share the photos, hoping that they might rekindle the happy memories of summer silliness. In the brainstorming session that followed, I noticed a certain sunniness to the team members’ enthusiasm, and wondered if the photos had perhaps brightened the midwinter mood.

Summer’s trappings of relaxation and fresh starts can create new energy. Leveraging summer’s predisposition for sunny events and team outings to set an energetic tone for the coming year can be a boon to nonprofits. To some, that means volunteer appreciation and team activities, and to others it means taking a chance on something unusual.

A student I advised last year implemented a zero-based programming approach to better regulate her communications with stakeholders and to reassess what research she truly needed. She scrapped her existing strategy and started from scratch—building her programs item by item and quantifying and qualifying each element. She found that with a different perspective and creativity, she was able to produce more zing for less money.


To encourage her team to buy into the new programming approach, she built a six-month reviewinto the restructure – immediately after a lighthearted summer/winter pie-baking contest in both cases – promising to go back to the old way if the zero-base approach couldn’t be reenergized in January. The memories and creativity of the good-natured baking competition reminded her team of the generative and inventive atmosphere they established when they first worked through zero-based building that previous summer.

Like the client who waited until February to bring back the memories of his team at the agency’s summer cookout, this student saw remarkable dividends from her new approach – despite the initial reluctance by her team to change the status quo. Making the process fun with a mixture of brainstorming, sweet treats and pie-in-the-sky ideas that inspired much laughter encouraged the team to generate a comprehensive program that they believed in and totally owned. And it worked – the staff is now gung-ho and even more energized than before.

Nonprofits are always charging ahead. The reason nonprofit-oriented folks can take on such daunting challenges with success is that they neither take no for an answer nor think to rest until they have reached the top of the mountain. Both my student and that client are cut from this cloth. They also figured out something important: changing your approach and saving some summer for the winter can pay off in a big way without slowing you down. In those winter months, routine and darkness might press in, so bringing back the creativity of summer can totally invigorate a team. Frankly, I’ve never encountered a person or nonprofit to be averse to warmth and change.