This blog recently appeared on the NAYDO (North American YMCA Development Organization) website. We thought you’d enjoy it too, if you’re a Y or any other nonprofit, school or church.

Think about great storytellers… from comedians like Will Rogers or Robin Williams, to politicians like Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan.* They just seem born to tell great stories. But here’s a little secret: They were not born that way. They worked at it. Ronald Reagan began his career as a radio announcer for baseball games. And any baseball fan will tell you there’s a lot of time to kill during a baseball game so you’d better be a good storyteller!

If you are going to raise funds, you’d best work at storytelling too. So how do you get better at what seems like a natural gift? There are five simple steps:

  • Step 1: Uncover the story.
    Every good story has three things: A character, a conflict and a resolution. So if you work at a YMCA, think – a person, a problem, and a YMCA solution.
  • Step 2: Write the story out.
    It doesn’t need to be “War and Peace.” In fact, sometimes less is more. Less than one page, or even shorter, focus your story on what is most impactful.
  • Step 3: Practice and edit.
    Read it out loud – that’s right – out loud to yourself or others. Cut out meaningless details, add visual details and add passion. Feelings. Life changes. Paint a picture in the donor’s mind. Share results. And by results, I don’t mean the numbers but how lives were changed.
  • Step 4: Repeat and repeat.
    Now tell that story OVER AND OVER AND OVER again. Once you are about sick of a story – well, that’s when others are hearing it.
  • Step 5: Go back to Step 3 and keep practicing and editing.

Need a simple example? See Curtis’ story below – written and re-written perhaps 30 plus times now. I still tell it.

*That was after Reagan’s youthful career as a YMCA-trained lifeguard on Illinois’ Rock River.



Curtis was a small boy in a very poor Detroit neighborhood. He rode up on his bike one day in June for the “design day” of the playground to be built at our new YMCA school.

When you meet Curtis, you are instantly captured by his spirit and leadership qualities. Although just a 3rd grader, we began to joke with one another that Curtis was really the “mayor” of the Castle Rouge neighborhood. Kids twice his size followed him and hung on his every word. Although we never met his parents, we really knew we needed to recruit Curtis to the YMCA Detroit Leadership Academy. He lived nearby so our school principal visited with his parents and convinced them to move Curtis to our school.

Curtis would circle the school every day during summer, always curious, always willing to lend a hand.

August 6th came and it was a great day at the school. More than 260 volunteers descended to help build our KaBoom! playground – and of course, the first volunteer to arrive was Curtis. It was a long day of great fun and hard work and at the end of the day, only Curtis and I were left at the site waiting for the rental company to arrive and pick up their tent.

Well, I decided to make Curtis the “superintendent “ of the playground. And to make the appointment official, Curtis could carve his name into the fresh cement at the outdoor classroom. I gave Curtis a screwdriver to etch his name and he began with a “k” and then looked at Dan and said “what comes next?”

This brilliant young boy in the 3rd grade – with such enormous leadership skills and spirit, could not spell his first name.

His new teachers evaluated Curtis and found learning disabilities – never before diagnosed. Curtis was moved to second grade. When Curtis completed his second spelling quiz for the year – 100% – for the first time in his life, he took it home for his mom to hang on the refrigerator.

Twelve months later, Curtis lost his mother to cancer. Six months after, his dad died from a stroke. Out of so much sadness, his teachers and that school became Curtis’ family.

Today, Curtis is an honor role student and a regular at summer YMCA resident camp. But without so many adopting Curtis – this support would be a “luxury” for Curtis. It is the contributions from others that are providing Curtis with tutoring after school. Gifts are providing Curtis with weekend basketball and summer camp.

And I have to ask – what would be Curtis’ future without the generosity of others? And yet, how many more young people like Curtis are out there? With your gift, how many more can succeed like Curtis?

Posted by Danny Maier
Danny Maier

Written by Danny Maier

Dan Maier offers fundraising counsel and strategic management for local and national nonprofits, YMCAs, camps, medical and social service organizations. He offers invaluable support to clients and their volunteer leadership as they look to enhance their development campaigns, prepare for crisis communications, strengthen their boards and more.

Our Latest Posts