Storytelling Is the Pathway to Nonprofit Funding Success with Storytelling Coach Melissa Reaves

Melissa Reaves

Melissa Reaves

Nonprofit storytelling is imperative. No graph or pie chart can resonate emotionally as deeply as a story. What happened this year with one of the constituents your organziation served that is storyworthy for your annual fundraising drive? HOW do you tell the story that the audience is mesmerized and emotionally hooked to help you with you cause? Learn these skill across your organization to create a storytelling culture and watch your business expand.

Melissa Reaves is an award-winning storyteller and Executive Storytelling Mentor. She guides C-Suite Exectuives, Rising Stars and Founders seeking to raise capital–to infuse the power of storytelling into all of their presentations. Her book, The Storyteller’s Mind Movie, (due out in fall 2022) will show you how to do it effectively using the elements that professioal storytelling artist use–so that your business audiences lean in as you mesmerize and captivate their attention.


For more about Melissa Reaves, go to


Read the Interview Transcript

Hugh Ballou: Greetings, it’s Hugh Ballou, the founder and president of SynerVision Leadership Foundation. It’s the contraction of “synergy” and “vision.” We create synergy from the common vision that we create. It’s like ensemble in music, where skilled people work together at a higher level. Skilled people raise the bar when they work together.

My guest today is a new, special, very gifted friend. She helps people craft their stories. We are going to go into some more detail. I’m going to ask Melissa Reaves to introduce herself. Tell people a little bit about your background and why you are choosing to do this work.

Melissa Reaves: Thank you for having me as our guest. I absolutely love your background. The fact that you are an orchestra maestro is just brilliant. You’re the first I’ve ever met. It’s a joy.

I’m Melissa Reaves. I am the CEO and founder of a company called Story Fruition. I’m based here in Seattle, but I work with people all over the globe. I get up every morning with a spring in my step, knowing that I can help people with their story. Why is that important? Because that’s what we are. We are human beings, and we are story machines.

Many people, especially in business, and when I say business, that means nonprofits, colleges, everyone is in business at some point. The question comes up of how did you get into this? Some people are deer in headlights answering that. Or they answer it in linear fashion, rattling off their LinkedIn profile. I have done that myself in the past. Really, we have incredible moments in our lives that showed us to our path.

What I do is help people find those moments and craft them into a beautiful story that they can tell that has the audiences leaning in and listening to them because it’s so compelling.  I often say, “I don’t want you just to be a great storyteller. I want you to be a mind movie maker.” That’s what’s happening. The audience is listening, and you are putting pictures, sounds, and smells in our heads. You don’t even realize what you’re doing until you start working with someone like me. Then you know what you’re doing, and it becomes deliberate. When you become deliberate, you become entertaining, educational, and effective.

Hugh: Whoa. I’m so excited by that definition. You have this mind movie in your background. That is just such a descriptive term. Talk about that a little bit.

Melissa: Sure. My background has been in sales and marketing and advertising technology. I have done the corporate thing for a long time. But I have also been an actor since the time I was nine years old. I always got the leads, and I loved it. I knew I wanted to be an actor since I was six. But the actor’s life scared my father to death. “She is going to eat potatoes. It’s awful!” He’s like, “Missy, you have to go into sales.” “Why?” “Because you never hear no.” This is what he said when I was six.

When I was 13 years old, we were doing one of those magazine drives, where you get people to buy subscriptions. This gentleman opens the door, and he is super tired. He is exhausted. He just wants to sit down with a drink and watch TV. I’m the last person he wants to talk to. He politely shoves me off, “Bye bye, thank you.”

As I’m walking down the driveway, I thought, “That wasn’t very good. I don’t think I presented my magazines very well to him.” I knock on the door again. He does not expect to see me. I said, “Sir, I’m so sorry to bother you. I can tell you’ve had a long day.” “Yeah, I have.” “You probably just want to sit down and have a drink and watch TV.” “Yep, that’s exactly what I want to do.” “Then you need TV Guide.” I opened up my book and showed him. “It gives a little synopsis. You will know exactly what to watch.” He is looking at me, and of course he buys. How can you say no to that? That’s how I knew my father was right. I should go into sales. So I did.

Hugh: That’s a really important point. Whether we’re leading a religious institution, a college, a local charity, we’re in the sales business.

Melissa: You are.

Hugh: Selling the concept for people to support. We’re not asking for money; we’re presenting a position for people to say, “I want to participate.” A lot of it depends on this story thing. In this episode, I want to hear some of your tips about how to create effective stories. We want to get results. The biggest barrier is us. We haven’t honed in on the skill of convincing people.

It starts with the word “nonprofit.” We have all these myths about what we do. You’re going to give us a refreshing view of “Oh, this is what it could be.” We’re marketing. We’re selling. We’re closing a sale. Actually, it’s for mutual benefit. People want to do good. We’re opening the door for them to be able to do that.

We’re going to talk about storytelling in general, but I want to ask you specifically about when we’re presenting our organization’s value proposition for people to write a check to a grant maker, a corporate sponsor, a private individual, how do we craft a story that will say, like that TV Guide thing, you need this? This will make a difference.

Melissa: I was going to improve his life. You’re right. Nonprofits, you’re selling. You’re selling compassion. You’re selling hope. You’re selling recovery. You’re selling human kindness, in most cases. All of those stories are laced with oxytocin, which is important to know because that is a neurotransmitter. When we present the story, and we are showing human beings having the problem that your organization is there to solve- When we hear that story, you are literally infusing oxytocin emotionally. Oxytocin also is known for giving. When we have that, your heart opens, and so can the checkbook.

What we need to do is we need to see and hear and feel the characters, the humans that you are serving. I have been surprised at how many times I will see executive directors simply go right to a pie chart and talk about the constituents and percentages and graphs and numbers. That’s important. If you open with that, it’s a missed opportunity because my heart isn’t open. As soon as I see a graph, my analytical mind starts to move, and maybe 5% of my brain might be working on that. I’m taking in the numbers, looking at the logic, seeing if I can understand the graph. I’m not emotionally connected.

But if you start with a story of a human being that was struggling on the streets, and we can hear them and see them and touch them and feel them because you are so vivid with the way you describe it, now, my heart is open. Then you show me a chart that shows me how many people are that person on our streets. Now, that chart has heart. I just started that, “Chart has heart.” I’m going to use that. That is why it’s important for nonprofits and any business quite honestly, colleges recruiting people, to open with a well-crafted story that will hook us.

Hugh: Undoing some of the myths, many people in this sector, education, community charities, religion-

Melissa: Government.

Hugh: Think sales is an unfair advantage, it’s a trick, when really, sales is connecting a need with a resource to fill that need. It’s a win-win situation, or no deal. We think of certain types of salespeople which discredit that profession. Really, it’s an honorable process. People need things, and we connect with them.

I want to hear some stories about your work. Before we do that, I want to show people your book. Tell us about your book.

Melissa: I’m a storytelling coach, so I work with a lot of clients from nonprofits to corporate levels, CFOs, CEOS, founders, investor pitches. I do a lot of that work. Over the course of the years, I have found beautiful stories. Everyone says, “Tell your story.” No one tells you how to do it. We are not taught storytelling in school. I wasn’t. I don’t know if you had a storytelling class in elementary school or high school. That would be great. I always say to give yourself grace. It’s not your fault. If you are telling a story, and you meander around here, or you are not introducing characters the way I would want you to do it, it’s okay.

This book, The Storyteller’s Mind Movie, will be coming out this fall. It really is a hands-on guide of how to do it. If you never take one of my workshops, or never bring me in, you can get my workshop with this book. If you have hired me for a workshop, you get this book to remember the workshop.

It’s packed with story prompts that will help find those aha moments that are influential in your life. It shows you how to introduce a character. Show us the relationship between you and that character. What are the stakes? Why do they matter? Where are you in life when this story begins? How old were you? Where were you mentally, physically, spiritually? Were you down and out? Were you in a great place, and then something knocked you to your knees? We need to know those sorts of things because your mind movie is filled with tension and varieties of joy and varieties of shock. All sorts of things are happening.

This book shows you those core elements so that you can start to craft your stories, so they are more vivid and compelling. You are the orchestrator. You conduct music into our heads, and we get to joyfully listen to that music. I look at a story like that. A story has beats, pauses, fast paces, slowdowns, softness. When I get into the performance part of my work, I do feel like a maestro a little bit.

Hugh: Well, you are. You’re composing the story. You’re conducting a transformation because it’s a transformation. I used to be in sales. I owned a retail camera store and sold a lot of stuff. When people objected, we could reframe the objection as a request for information. It meant they didn’t really understand what we were presenting. Too often, we give up.

Let’s unpack what makes up a good story. Are there components of a good story? Talk about a good format for creating a story.

Melissa: I started that when I was talking about that every story has characters that have relationships. There are stakes and being. Think of my mind before you start a story as a blank slate. I want to set the scene. Starting your story is my favorite part, but sometimes it’s the hardest part because you don’t know what door I should go in to start this story. You want to start it in the most compelling place, so we know who you are, where you are in life. When the first character comes in, we know who they are quickly. We can tell your relationship by the way you inflect your voice to show the character and your relationship.

Then you are also painting the scene. Are you in a room that is hot and muggy? Are you in a room that is the most glorious, luxurious room you have ever been in? You start to describe the ceilings and the windows, things like that. Most people don’t do that. They say, “I walked into my client’s office.” That’s it. I can’t see the client or the office. I can make it up an office in my head. Why don’t you help me see that office? It’s easy to do.

Hugh: It’s authentic. It’s heartfelt. It’s genuine to who you are. It would seem to me that I know this is true. The context of the story, is it the first time we’re meeting a person? Is it a follow-up session? Do we have a relationship with the person? What do we know about the person? What do they know about us? Where do we put the story in terms of a process?

Melissa: That’s where story mining happens. When I’m working with a client, and we are trying to formulate what I call their story fruition, they’re like how they got into this business, why do they do this business every day. There was a series of events that led them to be that executive director. It’s not like they woke up, someone handed them a crown, and said, “You’re ED.” They may have experienced homelessness.

I work with a nonprofit that helps underserved kids learn STEM so that they can have careers in aviation and aeronautics. The executive director could fly an airplane at 16 before she could drive a car. She also became an adopted parent of three Vietnamese foster children at the age of 25. She learned what it was like to have a BIPOC family and how the education system wasn’t balanced for them. They were learning a second language. She became compassionate in her journey of life of what it’s like to be an immigrant family in this country, going to schools that are underserved financially. She realized, “I can teach them STEM through aviation. We can trick them. We can teach them rate x time = distance by saying you have an airplane taking off in Boston, and it needs to go to San Francisco.” The kids ate it up. Now it makes a lot of sense as to why she sits at the top of this organization, helping these children.

Hugh: There is a set of myths we tell ourselves when we hear the word “nonprofit.” We can’t spend money on marketing. We can’t spend money on consultants. We can’t, we can’t, we can’t. It would seem to me that you liberate people from those misconceptions. You actually do work with nonprofits. Let me clarify here. Your book says it’s for business leaders. We are, as you said before, business leaders. It’s the business of the nonprofit.

Melissa: Absolutely. In fact, you have to work a little bit harder. When someone is feeling philanthropic, could they give to animals, cancer, homelessness, drug rehab? There is a lot of heartstrings being pulled. Who is going to win? The people who are going to win those donations are going to be the ones that touch the heart. It’s the story that you craft. When I say “craft,” I don’t mean to be crafty. I mean to compose, to create.

Think of it like being an artist. Every core story that your organization needs to tell, and that could be the founder’s story, how the organization came to its own fruition, as well as you’re sitting in the hotel ballroom, and everyone is buzzed and has their paddles ready to bid on that home in Hawaii because it will be the fundraiser. The executive director can warm that up by telling the story of this past year’s significant events serving the community that they are all here for today. Bringing forward a story about a human being that was down and out. Because of the generosity of the organization and the people and the talent they could attract, the donations from the constituents’ hearts, they can now open the hearts and set the tone so that our fundraising can be increased. People will be like, “Oh my god. I have to be a part of that.” That’s what we want to have happen.

Hugh: It would occur to me as you’re talking that there are front-end stories, where you raise the donation money, but there are back-end stories, where you affirm the donation. You create a story around what actually happened, which encourages that person to continue, and more people. Talk about the context of the front-end story and the back-end story, for lack of a better term.

Melissa: The front-end story, there are many. When I am working with clients, we create a story library. We start mining for different stories. Each person on the team might say, “I’m going to contribute the stories about how we educate people.” “I’m going to tell stories about how we counsel people.” “I’m going to tell stories about how we send people out to handle a big crisis situation.” There are all different sorts of stories.

Maybe I’m the business development/partnership head at the nonprofit. I might want to pull a crisis story that we overcame from the library. In that library, we have a storyboard that shows me the scenes, so I know how to memorize it, and a video that shows me how to tell it. Those all can be at times front-end stories, and sometimes they can be the “This what happened” story.  How your organization came into its being, who the founders are, that’s for sure a front story. The most interesting stories are the ones that are reporting what’s going on, here and now, today, because of the efforts.

Hugh: My brain is exploding with possibilities here. There are some common themes I hear. In 33 years, people don’t understand what we do, “My board is not engaged.” What you just described is a way for every board member to have a story in their pocket so they can tell the story. That is a way to get them engaged. They are not out asking for money, making pitches, making corporate presentations. They are telling a story. This is employable in many ways: a fundraising presentation, a board empowerment piece. Everyone feels like they are part of presenting. But it’s also a creative tool for people in the organization to say, “I have a story based on what I experienced.” You just talked about having that library for everybody to draw from. That is a powerful concept. Wow.

Melissa: It deepens your dedication. You start to learn, “We did this, and then we did this. Did you hear this story? Did you hear that story? That was unbelievable.” You get this energy that starts to get momentum across your organization because your stories are being told and being learned.

Another thing is it’s not just your story that you’re telling. Most of the time in business, from nonprofits, education, and even corporate level, they are telling other people’s stories. They are talking about a success story—folks call them case studies, but I call them case stories—and they weren’t there. They still have to represent as they were because they are representing the company.

That’s the other thing. Infusing storytelling into your organization. Your salespeople, business development, executive director, financial people. All of them use storytelling to move the needle.

Hugh: What if you had someone who could tell a story at every board meeting or staff meeting? People get to rehearse this. What we don’t do in non-musical situations is rehearse. Every musical ensemble in the world rehearses for every performance. But we think we have it, so we don’t rehearse it, and we continue to do things in a mediocre fashion.

Let’s talk about the different forms that stories take. As we are making presentations, we are either presenting for a donor, or we’re presenting for a volunteer. We want people to volunteer for our advisory council or board of directors or committees. That’s another story. We don’t think about that. We do it very poorly and complain that nobody steps up. Look in the mirror. We didn’t do a good job of convincing them that it was worthy work.

There is the verbal story, which needs to be not too long, but long enough.

There is the written story, which is you’re talking to somebody by email. Here is a story.

There is the video or slide deck, where we are presenting to a group, and have a story in there.

Talk about the different setting for a story. Why is it important to have it in multiple formats?

Melissa: Awesome question. It is interesting. Most of us think, “I have a story. Let me write it down.” That is something you can control a little bit. You can watch the English. You have to describe it. You have to say, “And he felt hopeless. When he said sadly, ‘I don’t feel like my life is going to continue,’” you can write that. When you’re telling the story, now, you have lost something.

Have you ever read a book, and you’re reading it, and your mind goes somewhere? That reminds me of when I was a kid, and your eyes are still going across the page. All of a sudden, you realize you spaced out. You can go back to the book and reread the paragraphs to get back on track. I always say the train is on the track.

In storytelling, if you say something, like you use an acronym really freely at the beginning, and I am in the audience and don’t know what this acronym means. Let’s say you use the word “SHRAM.” “We have performed it using the SHRAM Method.” I don’t know what that means. SHRAM, sugar, ham- I might start trying to figure it out. I might look around the room in confusion. “Oh my gosh, you’re still talking.” Train is derailed. I am running after the train. I can’t catch up. You as the storyteller weren’t sensitive enough to define a term. All you would have had to do is say, “SHRAM is our method of,” and you define it. Then you can say it as much as you want because you have helped everyone in the room, including your grandmother, understand what you do. Storytelling has more emphasis.

Now, moving into a deck. This is where a lot of my work happens. This is where I think most people are derailing the train. Everyone thinks that every slide needs to have every piece of information you have ever learned about your organization throughout your entire 30-year journey.

Hugh: Preach it.

Melissa: There are charts, sentences. It’s written in reverse. It’s dark. What happens? You took me out. I either wondered what you were talking about, or I just wandered away because you overwhelmed me. Your presentation decks are telling your story. Your slides should be supporting you, not usurping you.

If you look at my background, there is not very much going on here, but what is it doing? “Create a storyteller’s mind movie.” I have an image of these kids in a box with little red balloons, and they are flying high. That is the emotion I want when someone is actually hearing me tell a story. I’m taking them on a journey, and they feel like they’re flying with me.

Now, I could have taken this, and I could have said, “57% of all children like to have their imagination,” and have all these sentences saying, “Now they’re on a journey with me.” You’re reading it and absorbing it. What happens? You stop listening. You have put something in front of me. You’re asking me to read it. Some people read faster than others. I’m always the one reading too slow. I’m not that bright. They move onto the next slide, and I’m out. I don’t even know where they are anymore.

Your presentation decks need to tell the whole story. The very first slide in my work is always a story. It could be a constituent success story: you helped that homeless guy. Then the next slide might be, “Here is what that person represents in the community.” Now you can do a graph. “This is who we are,” and have pictures of your people helping that homeless man. Then maybe it could be, “Here’s why we need your help,” because the funding will do this and that and this. “We will be able to expand. You would be a part of it.” Your entire deck is a story. Don’t derail the train. Keep the train on the tracks.

Hugh: Help people focus. I see in my service club in the mornings that we have a lot of presenters, and they put everything they are going to say on the slide. Why are you here? We could just read the slides. It’s a deterrent for people paying attention to what you’re saying.

Melissa: They can’t remember it all either.

Hugh: Anchor text and a catchy image. Then they will listen to you. You have focused in on the essence of what you’re talking about, so they want to listen. We do a lot of things to defeat what we’re doing.

Rehearsal. You have the story crafted, and you will go tell it. Wait a minute. Did you rehearse it? Have you tried it out and gotten some feedback from people? Talk about rehearsal.

Melissa: It is so key. People just think they’re going to wing it. When they wing it, they are not giving honor to their audience. They are going to meander. They are going to be all over the place. They are going to frustrate their audience. I just saw it the other day. One guy was telling a story, and he told a side story, and he came back to the story, and he side storied over here. I was like, “Get to the point.” You don’t want to do that to your audience.

When you rehearse, you start to know each scene and where it’s going. All of that meandering gets cut. It goes away. You become extremely interesting. And it’s way more fun. You know where you’re going with the story. You know how it starts, where the middle is, where the tensions are, when they are going to gasp. Every time you tell the story, you need to tell it as if it’s the first time you tell it. Every time you tell it, it will be told differently, which is fun.

I don’t script any stories with my clients. I only storyboard because I want them to relax. I want them to have fun with it. I want them to be not succinct because that is contradictory to what I said, but I want that story to unfold beautifully. They might stop and park a little bit in one scene because who they’re talking to might enjoy this one particular scene more. You have to know your audience. You might want to hit some scenes harder depending on who you’re talking to. Or edit scenes out because of who you’re talking to.

Hugh: Your point of respecting the person in front of you. I’ve heard people think, “Why didn’t you spend just a couple of minutes and rehearse this?” We’re in the way. We create a barrier. Getting it right, you might not get a second chance, especially if you are raising money.

Your website is Melissa, what will they find when they go to that website?

Melissa: They will find a lot. They are going to learn from other clients how effective it can be. I have a lot of case stories on the site. They can learn about my private coaching. They can learn about group sessions.

Also, if they want to see me in action as a storyteller, under More, you can see Melissa’s Storytelling. I do walk my talk. There are not a lot of us who say we are storytelling coaches. I say, “Where have you performed?” They’re like, “What?” “Where have you stepped on a stage and been vulnerable and told a story? I have. I am on The Moth. I do podcasts.

There are lots of different types of stories. There is business storytelling. There is nonprofit storytelling. There is mental health storytelling. Social justice advocacy storytelling is another. Those are just of the few areas where I have expanded my own storytelling.

Mental health, which would be very nonprofit-friendly. I know a lot about from my own experiences with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). It has run through my family. I have told through NAMI a 10-minute story. It starts off with me being a small child and going through an undiagnosed existence with OCD and what that was like for me going through my life. Then having it happen to my kid was really hard. But what did we learn? We learned resilience, the power of the mind, the power of human support. My daughter got into a program that they knew exactly what they were doing to help her.

I’m talking about this because my mission when I tell that story is people can understand and respect OCD. So many people make jokes about it. “Oh my gosh, I’m so organized today. That’s just my OCD flaring.” No. OCD is a mind prison. The reason why someone is tapping isn’t because it’s fun. They are tapping because they believe if they don’t tap, something bad could happen. Can you imagine? Walking around the planet, thinking you made an airplane crash because you didn’t tap 17 times before you got out of bed? That’s what goes on in an OCD mind.

One thing that’s really important in storytelling is don’t tell me. Show me. Show, don’t tell. That’s the #1 rule in a lot of books. Mental health stories absolutely should be a show. When I finished the talk, I had two women walk up to me. One said, “Thank you for showing me my sister. I now understand why she was like that.” “How did you feel about her before that?” “I wanted to choke her. I thought she was overdramatic, stupid, always upstaging. But now I know from your story that she can’t help it. Now we can get her help.”

Another woman came up and said, “I’m in HR for a really big software company. I will never crack an OCD joke again. Ever. Now I know.”

You can change lives with good storytelling.

Hugh: That’s the impact. The vulnerability piece. It wasn’t about you; it was about the object of that story. You talked about the reason for that story. They proved it. They didn’t say, “Poor you.” They said, “You helped me understand.” That’s a profound difference. We tend to get in the weeds. Sticking to the point and crafting the story. We want to do this head story with charts and graphs and facts and numbers. In fact, we have to connect with the heart. Then they will be interested in those numbers.

Melissa, I’m so excited. I want to go write my story now.

Melissa: How old were you? Where were you? What was your state of mind? That’s what I’d start doing with you. I always joke when someone tells a story, “Just relax. If I was an interior designer, I might walk into your house and fluff a pillow. Sorry, can’t help it.” Writing the book did that even more.

If you walk away with anything today, when you start a story, start with your age. Here’s why. It places you in my head. If you said, “When I was a kid, I used to love to sell lemonade.” Stop. Were you six? Were you 12? Were you 16? Were you 19? I need to know that because at six, I’m going to place you at six, see you at six, and know your mental capabilities probably at six versus 12. When you say, “I’m 12 years old, and I have a lemonade stand. I’m going to market it,” I’m already seeing they have cognitive thinking, analytical thinking. It’s really important to start with your age on all stories.

Hugh: That is a key point. There are lots of key points. It reminds me of the quote from the painter Vincent Van Gogh, “I dream my painting, and then I paint my dream.”

Melissa: Ooh.

Hugh: You have to create the whole idea, and then you do the process going forward.

Melissa, you can find her at There is a Contact button. You can contact her and get your energy fix here. Get your story up to par.

Melissa, I’m very inspired. I learn from every presenter every Tuesday, but I have learned another set of things today that are so important to the work that we do. What’s a final thought or challenge you’d like to leave people with today?

Melissa: Value your stories. You have been walking the planet for decades, and you have wisdom to share. You can do it. I always say tell your stories, and tell them well. You will change the world when you do it. You will.

Hugh: So worthy. Melissa Reaves, thank you for being our guest today on The Nonprofit Exchange.

Melissa: Thank you for having me. I mean it, tell your stories.

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