Jon Ponder and his organization Hope for Prisoners know that the best way to change hearts and minds is through captivating storytelling. Hope for Prisoners has helped over 4,700 formerly incarcerated individuals reenter their communities with a recidivism rate over 11 times lower than the national average.
Jon shared why it’s important to tell these stories and how to use them to fundraise for a cause.
Stories change narratives
Jon Ponder has several reasons why Hope for Prisoners dedicates so much time to share the testimonies of their clients, but the foundation of his storytelling strategy is biblical. testimonies of their clients, but the foundation of his storytelling strategy is biblical.
He recalled Revelations 12:1 – “They triumphed over him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony.”
“I think that it is important for you to not only share your testimony but share the testimony of others who have overcome those obstacles.”
Jon has seen firsthand how success stories from formerly incarcerated persons can breathe life into those who are still serving time. “And the more and more those testimonies are heard, particularly to those who are in prison, then they can see. They can understand that their stories [those who succeeded] are their stories [those still incarcerated], right? That there’s nothing on the inside of them [those who succeeded] that’s not on the inside of them [those still incarcerated].”
Jon also uses these stories to change the negative perceptions that some have about those fighting for their second chances.
“The more that we can lift up the success stories on the national platform, the more we begin to change the minds and hearts of people to help them better understand that there are a massive amount of people who have made mistakes who have paid that debt to society. And now have given back to the community. So it’s important that those stories be told.”
Storytelling for fundraising
Jon and his team create a special way for potential donors and the community to interact with these stories, by meeting the people whose lives have been changed.
“One of the things that we do every year, during the month of Second Chances in April, is put on our annual fundraiser. And invite formerly incarcerated people who have been out for maybe 15 or 20 years. And not only have they never gone back, but they’re in the community living in levels of life that most people only dream of, and we want to put their stories on display,” Jon said.
Meeting these members of society who have found success can encourage donors to invest in programs working to give the formerly incarcerated a second chance.
“We have a guy who did 31 years in prison. We sent him to CDL school, and now he’s driving a tractor-trailer, earning a sustainable wage, and is back on his feet,” Jon said.
About 74% of Hope for Prisoners clients obtain a job after graduation compared to the national average of 40%. Their partnership with business leaders and entrepreneurs as mentors helps develop strong bonds so employers can feel confident, not just in Hope for Prisoners clients, but also in the community supporting them. Other benefits to this model are financial.
Hope for Prisoners’ programming costs about $5,500 per client versus the $20,656 per year that the state of Nevada spends to incarcerate each and every prisoner. And given their recidivism rate that’s 8 times less than the average, they’re saving taxpayers a whole lot of money that they’d otherwise have to spend.
Finally, Jon values honesty and transparency as keys to successful fundraising. It’s important to articulate the challenges but remain focused on solutions to make a compelling case.
“I think that we’re successful when we are able to articulate the challenges that we face and the benefits of when we address them. We also find success when we share with the funders things that haven’t been so successful in the past, but the work that we’re doing right now. And tell those stories.”
Storytelling is a powerful tool for inspiring others with similar backgrounds, changing the public narrative, and fundraising for nonprofits. Telling captivating stories is a necessary skill for any organization looking to level up their impact.