12/17/2012 06:09 pm ET Updated Feb 16, 2013

Fibers of Storytelling (and Not Sucking)

"This pattern sucks" -- something my wife said the other day as she was knitting a pair of socks before she unravelled what she had done, stitch by stitch, and started over. It was a throwaway statement, but it struck me as a good analogy for where many charities are at with their storytelling. The pattern of stories they are telling -- where charities are the heroes of their own stories as opposed to their supporters -- suck. So we need to unravel and start over.

Maybe you already know this and have access to story experts, resources and books (bottom of post) to help you figure out how to tell better stories that inspire action. What we need to discuss here is something even more integral to great marketing, fundraising and storytelling: We need to talk about the very fibers of your organization.

In the knitting analogy, the fibers make up the quality of the socks. Sure, you might buy them for the pattern, but if they are scratchy, itchy and shrink after one wash then the socks still suck. The fibers are responsible for the actual quality of the socks and it most directly affects our experience of the socks. Great socks have great fibers. In the marketing world (which is the fundraising world), Jonah Sachs uses John Powers' language to describe this as living the truth. Mitch Joel calls this doing justice to your brand narrativeScott Stratten says this is being awesome, not unawesome. Other people have different ways of stating it, but the principle is this: No matter how great a story you tell, it is ultimately people's' experience of your story that matters.

My work revolves around digital, tech and web for charities and the charitable sector, but the vast majority of the problems I end up trying to solve involve human issues, offline issues and foundational issues. No matter how knowledgeable you are with digital, if you're not great in the "real world" then you're not going to be great on the web. And that's the beauty of the web and social media. It's the great equalizer and revealer. There is less and less room for organizations to hide and skirt around the question of impact, care of donors and overall quality. Another great quote from Scott Stratten (who is essentially a human tweet), "If you suck, social media makes you suck harder." The best way to not suck online is to not suck offline.

There are many things that make up great organizations and awesome nonprofit brands but here are four core fibers they possess that I've seen, especially as they relate to marketing, fundraising and building a movement with digital.

Four Core Fibers of Great Organizations

1. Do Great Work, and Prove It.

Sounds simple, and while the vast majority of charities do honest to goodness "good work," few can prove it. Fewer do great work. Even fewer prove their great work. State your impact goals (how you are changing people's lives) before you set your fundraising goals. Then prove it.

2. Love of Donors/Supporters.

Do your donors and supporters help you achieve your goals or do you, in some way, help them achieve theirs? Do they enable you to do your work or are they part of your work? Do you feel compelled to report back because that's what's expected of you or because they deserve it? Make your donors the heroes of your story -- and treat them like heroes.

3. Laser Focus.

Helping kids with nutrition, education, infrastructure, mentorship, access to clean water, life skills training and community development is a great holistic vision. It's also extremely hard to do all those things well. It's even harder to track, prove and report back how you are doing all those things well. Do one thing so well that you are asked to tackle other problems.

4. Transparent and Accountable.

I don't mean sharing your financial details in your annual report. I mean sharing about what you tried, how it went and what you learned. I mean sharing about how you messed up, where things went wrong and why the results aren't what you expected. Share openly about your successes and your failures.

Do you have some of these core organizational fibers? If not I have some good news and some bad news. And then some more good news.

The good news... is that you are the only one responsible for changing your fibers, the composition of your organization and the impact you have.

The bad news... is that changing the fibers of your organization is the hardest thing you can possibly do. It takes time, dedication and unwavering commitment.

The good news... is that if you can do it, you, your donors and the world at large will be better because of it.

So before you spend too much time learning the patterns of great stories and telling them to inspire action (at some point you should, and you must) make sure you have the fibers that can deliver a great experience of the stories you are telling. And don't suck.