Suzanne with Garima

Editor’s Note (Zeenat):

Know how much the Ice Bucket Challenge raised for ALS in a month? $94.3 million (based on this recent report).

Why did so many people suddenly give so much? I can tell you why I did.

18 members of my family did the challenge. I won’t forget how sporting my mom was to accept the challenge & drench herself! Or how my 1-year old nephew stood above a bucketful of ice, pointing at in wonder (poor kid wasn’t allowed to do it.) Or how my best friend in New York had to do it twice (the fiancé tricked her, it’s a great story).

Did I make a donation to ALS? Absolutely. But that’s not what’s important. What’s important is this: It made me care. I now know what the Lou Gehrig’s disease is. It gave my family in the US, UAE, India & Malaysia a chance to connect, shout and wait in anticipation – together. It gave us some cool stories & 30-second clips to laugh over.

So… how do you make people CARE about your mission?

Suzanne Skees does just this. She works with nonprofits to tell stories that make people care about their mission. Her stories are focused on real people. Not just an organization’s cause and work, but its people.

How a teen-aged daughter in a village in India, doesn’t want to be anything like her mother (Story 1). How two young boys atop a hill in Tanzania, bonded over $150 (Story 2). And how Suzanne nearly scared to death a 4-year old boy in Uganda (Listen to the audio or read #6 below!)

Suzanne is the founder of the Skees Family Foundation, an author and a regular contributor to the Huffington Post. Her blog Seeds of Hope has hundreds of stories about people whose lives have changed with the help of nonprofit work. Mostly though, they’re just stories about people.

And there’s a “secret sauce” to all of her stories. We’re going to find out what that is!

If you’re doing any kind of work that impacts people, check out Suzanne’s 7 steps on how to tell effective stories about REAL people & how to make people “get” what it is you do. 

Over to Suzanne!


First, an example: The Ihangane Project

An organization that was doing great work but wasn’t telling a compelling story, and how a SINGLE story changed that.

I visited a program in Rwanda called the Ihangane Project. The program is a healthcare program to support HIV-impacted children. But there were so many different layers to their work that they had no idea how to explain what they do. I spent a day in the village talking to a lot of their clients, and even I couldn’t figure out how to tell their story!

Until I focused in on one client – Julienne.

Julienne was a young mother and herself a toddler during the 1994 Rwanda genocide. Julienne was HIV positive. She had gone through the Ihangane project, had supported her own nutrition, stayed on medication, and had NOT transmitted her virus to her daughter.

As soon I told the story through the lens of this one client, people got it.

It went up on the Huffington Post. The next morning, the founder of the project received emails from people in Africa who had already read the article, while we Californians were still asleep. People reached out to her saying – now I understand what it is you do! Would you like to partner with us?

 7 Steps to Tell Effective Stories about Real People

#1 Set a goal & create a list of stories

Before I travel with a non-profit, whether it’s in Chicago or Cambodia, I sit down with them and say “What are your goals?” Invariably, I’ll get the answer – “Fundraising for our programs.” That’s too broad and too general.

We try and break it down. Is your goal to publish a story around the time of the holidays? Maybe you’re running a grant challenge online. Or you want to go into schools & get students to support your cause?

Figure out what the goals are and create a list of possible stories. Sometimes, it’s 3 stories, more often it’s closer to 20-30. We have a list of resources on our About page.

#2 Tell the WHOLE story – the good, the bad & the ugly 

We strategize with the nonprofit to figure out – how to tell the story of what you do. YOU specifically. How you compare with other organizations in the field? What are your successes? What are your struggles? You have to tell the whole story – the good, the bad and the ugly. Otherwise you’ll lose readers at the first sentence! Sweet little stories put people to sleep.

#3 If you’re visiting a place, study where you’re going

What’s the socio-economic situation of the place? What’s the culture? What are the religions and the languages?  Read books and read online. Start with Wikipedia, the State Department website & the CIA World Factbook. These are good sites to get an overview of the country.

#4 There’s no such thing as a general audience

Let’s take our partner V-Day that’s headquartered in New York. They’re an organization that works around the world to end violence against women and children. Their audience might be young women in college. If so, what are the outlets we are going to pitch to? What is the voice we want? It’s not my voice. We’d rather have a young woman telling her story in her own voice. So I would interview a young woman and let her speak for herself.

There’s no such thing as a general audience. You always have to think about who is your ideal reader? With many of my stories, I think about my mother, sitting in her apartment in Dayton, Ohio. She doesn’t have the chance to travel like I do at this point in her life, but she loves to go with me vicariously.

#5 Bring ’em along, without them having to buy a plane ticket

Share Sensory Details.
I bring my audience along by trying to share sensory details of where we are. One of my friends from our long-term partner, Freedom from Hunger, used to say to me, “Suzanne, your story passed my tear test!” She felt she was right there. She could smell what it was like to be in the village – she could smell, for example, the cow manure, she could feel the breeze, her eyes were stinging by the smoke of the wood-fire in the middle of the circle around which the women in a savings group met, she could envision the chicken walking through the middle of the circle. She could hear the sound of quiet voices at the side of the circle, of the men who were eavesdropping on the credit meeting. She could get to know the characters who were real people. These details are what bring a person with you.

Give context to where you are.
What’s the population of the village? Is there an elder or an eldress? Is this a democratic or autocratic nation? Do you feel safe? Is it day or night?

Suzanne with students Tanzania copy

#6 Establish Rapport (and a funny story!)

I try to establish rapport with the people I’m interviewing. In too many cases, I don’t know the language of the country, so I rely on a translator. They’re often translating culturally and helping me establish rapport. There are two techniques I’ve learned:

Go to Humor. I learnt this from a really smart photographer I’ve traveled with. He would jump around, climb up on things and clown around in all kinds of ways! I learned from him that I have no dignity when I’m interviewing.  I’ll do anything to make people feel comfortable or get them to laugh.

Go to Family. I’m a mother. And about half the people I interview in the world are female & many are either daughters or mothers! If we can get to the point where we’ say, “How many children do you have? I have 3 sons.” Suddenly we have something in common.

A Funny Story!
One thing I love to do is play with the kids. I was in a mountain-town in Uganda, called Sipi, collecting stories on the work of Grameen Foundation to end poverty via technology. We had done a great interview with a mother, a farmer Esther and her four children. Lots of kids had gathered and were kicking around a make-shift soccer ball, made out of rags and rubber bands.

I asked them with my hand-signals to pass the ball to me. I’m a terrible soccer player but it didn’t matter! They were delighted that I would be human with them.

There was a little boy, about 4, watching from the sidelines. He looked at me, grinned and started to dart towards me. And I thought, oh good, he wants to play! So I started to run towards him with my hands out. It backfired. I scared him within an inch of his life! This little boy shrieked, ran behind a fence and sobbed his little heart out.

Esther told me he’d never seen a white person before.  And I’m a really pale white person. He thought some ghost was running after him!

#7 The Secret Sauce

The phrase “connective tissue”, is the secret sauce to all of our stories. In each story, we try to find the human element & what’s unique to this person’s circumstance.

I’ll give you an example. I was in the North of India, in a small village outside of Lucknow. I was working with our partner, Upaya Social Ventures, an organization that provides jobs for the ultra poor. We were interviewing a woman named Saraswati.

Saraswati was lovely. She adored her cow, she was happy with her job, she was starting to make enough income to feed her family. And she had kept her son in school.

But I noticed a 15-year old girl in a salwar kameez – the only girl in pants in the village – leaning against Saraswati’s hut, her arms crossed, almost rolling her eyes. She was Saraswati’s daughter, Shobha. I saw her just around the time that Saraswati ducked into the hut to make tea for us. I said to my interpreter – let’s see if she’ll talk to us.

When mama wasn’t hovering, Shobha said to us “I don’t want to be anything like her.  I want to go back to school.  I love school. My favorite subject is Hindi.”

Like teenagers back in the US, Shobha felt repressed by her controlling mother. “All I really want to do is hang out with my friends at night. But my mother won’t let me because she says people will talk. I want to stay in school but my mother won’t support me. All she wants is to marry me off! I don’t want to get married, ever. I want to go to college & I want to work in a big city & an office. ”

I had my story. I wrote this story called Not Like Mother, Like Daughter and it got so much positive feedback from our readers in the US. They said, I can relate to that! I have a teenager like that!”

Iquitos, Peru Suzanne & kids

There we have it, Suzanne’s 7 steps to tell effective stories. Try one of these techniques and drop us a comment on how it went!

If you’re  interested in knowing more about Suzanne’s work, read along…

I asked Suzanne to tell us about My Job, a (super cool!) book project she’s working on. Here’s more about it, in her words:

Suzanne’s next project, My Job

This will be a collection of first person narratives by people in their jobs around the world. It’s a global, updated version of Studs Trekel’s best-selling book from the 1970s called “Working”.

Each chapter will look at a different job, and contrast someone in the US with someone elsewhere in the world.

As an example, one chapter is on rickshaw-pullers, what we might call a pedicab driver here in the US.

I interviewed a man named Muhammad in Dhaka, Bangladesh which is the rickshaw-capital of the world. Muhammad is 57 years old, a devout Muslim, a wife from an arranged marriage who he’s still married to 30 years later. He’s got 7 children. Muhammad has been starving since he was a child. He’s been the man of the house since age 10 and has been providing for the family. Smart guy, but unschooled and unskilled. He drives his bicycle cart 10-12 hours a day, living in one room in a slum. He’s hoping only to earn a couple of dollars to pay the dollar-a-day rent for the cart and to buy dinner for his family.

You contrast Muhammad in Dhaka, with Nikki a pedicab driver in Denver, Colorado.

Nikki is 27 years old. She’s one of the most gregarious, bubbly girls I’ve ever met! She has a Bachelor’s degree in Business. She’d worked for a tech company for a while and did not like being in a cubicle. She wanted to be outdoors and wanted to be her own boss! So she decided to rent a pedicab. Her pedicab is a sparkly, red cart which she calls Dorothy after the shoes in the Wizard of Oz. Nikki has never been hungry a day in her life. Her parents live down the street & when times are hard, she goes to their house and raids their fridge! Nikki drives a pedicab by choice &  plans on using the pedicab business to fund her way through graduate school to become a therapist.

The most Nikki’s made in a day is $600. Muhammad is lucky if he makes $2 in a day.

Our job has everything do with our self-identity. Not only is it the most sustainable path out of poverty, but even for people like you & I who get to choose our jobs, our job equals ourselves! It’s how we see our purpose in the world. Whether it’s a job we don’t enjoy or it’s a way to pay the bills, it is who we are. We do it with skill, we bring our talent to it & it’s our place in society.

To connect with Suzanne and the Skees Foundation, go to:

Photo Credits: Suzanne Skees

Comments are closed.