Nonprofit storytelling can help you stand out from the pack. Here’s the cold hard truth — donors do not want to hear about your organization and the programs you provide.
They want to hear about the social impact that is made possible through their donations.
Here’s the thing. Knowing and understanding impact is what makes donors feel like they are making a tangible difference in the world and are part of something much bigger than themselves.
So how can your nonprofit convey your impact in a way that engages and inspires donors? By telling stories, of course!
Nonprofit storytelling gets more donations
In the last few years it seems like everyone is talking about the importance of nonprofit storytelling. The amount of material available on nonprofit storytelling is extensive, and with good reason.
Much of the work that nonprofits are doing is not necessarily relatable to the average supporter. To counteract this, we share the stories of the people we serve, the people who support us and the people who help us in the hopes that others will identify with some piece of that story and feel a connection to the organization.
Think about this.
Not using storytelling means that you are likely telling people a laundry list of programs your nonprofit provides. Some of which they may or may not understand, and they definitely won’t be able to feel the impact of those services.
But by telling a story, you can communicate the services you provide, and you can articulate its impact. That is how someone truly understands what your nonprofit is all about.
Stories are what give context and meaning to data and facts. They allow a donor to intimately and emotionally connect to your organization’s impact.
Beyond building this important connection, stories gets donations. Each story that is posted on a CauseVox fundraising site yields $109 in donations.
But as Ira Glass, host of This American Life, once said, “Great stories happen to those who can tell them.”
Elements of impactful nonprofit storytelling
There are many reasons why we find stories compelling and once you know what those are, crafting stories becomes as much of a science as it is an art.
Have a purpose
When embarking on a nonprofit storytelling project, it is crucial that you know what the purpose of that story is. What do you want to achieve with it? What do you want readers to feel? How do you want readers to act as a result of that feeling? If you don’t have a clear sense of what’s happening you are only going to leave the reader feeling confused.
Stories can easily fall flat if there are not rich details that paint a full and beautiful picture in the reader’s mind.
Putting emotions on full display is part of what makes stories such an effective tool for nonprofits.
Keep these elements in mind as we move into the next section on the mechanics of crafting a story.
5 steps in crafting an impactful story
Once you have made the decision to tell stories, it is natural to feel uncertain as to what to do next.
Couple your enthusiasm with these five steps to be on your way to telling great stories.
1. Define your message
In order to tell an impactful story, it is important to know what overarching message you are trying to communicate. After all, you are not simply telling stories for the sake of telling stories.
You likely have a fundraising or awareness goal. Take time at the beginning to define the purpose and the message you want to communicate. Having this clarity will make it far easier to craft a story.
2. Define your audience
Much like defining your message, it is important to define who your audience is. Ask yourself – who do I want this story to speak to? Just like your cause might not be for everyone, every story might not appeal to everyone in your audience.
Think about who you want to reach and what kind of story will appeal to them. Jot down some characteristics of this audience.
3. Determine what kind of story you need
Think about what story you need. Will it come from a client, a donor, a staff member or someone else? There are a variety of viewpoints you can showcase in a story, so think about your audience and what they are most likely to respond to.
In addition to deciding whose story you will use, you will also need to think about the nature of the story. Is it about overcoming adversity or achieving a transformation? Will it be a story about your founding or your impact? Or will it be a story about the future of your organization?
Determining the nature of the story will help point you easily decide who you should feature in the story.
4. Find story leads and conduct interviews
There are a couple of ways that you can go about finding story leads. You can simply let other staff members know about the project you are working on and ask if they know of anyone who might fit the bill.
If you have potential interviewees in mind, you can also contact them directly, explain the project and ask if they would be willing to volunteer some time. Spread the collection net far and wide!
Once you’ve identified a story lead (or two), arrange an interview. Think of this as a casual conversation to get to know the person a bit better so that you can share their story. Do your homework ahead of time and come prepared with potential questions to keep the conversation going.
5. Tie it all together
Pulling a story together is kind of like tying a bow on a present. You have probably collected a lot of information in the interview and have other pieces of information that you want to integrate into the story, such as information about a particular program or service.
Your job now is to package it all together. Begin the process with a “hook” – a particularly captivating part of your story. Imagine that you are writing this out in a letter or an email to a friend; use a similar tone and style. Then, gently weave in the other pieces of information to make it cohesive and give it additional structure.
A good way to think about packaging your story is to think about the types of stories you could tell.
These stories tap right into the hardships faced by someone and tell a story of triumph in an uplifting way. In the process of telling that story, they also communicate the importance and the impact of the nonprofit involved.
A good example of this is from Community Living British Columbia, who recently launched a video campaign called Start With Hi (above). This video not only educates the viewer about the issue (developmental disabilities), it makes it relatable.
Solving a problem
Every non-profit is centered around a mission and often times working towards that mission requires solving problems along the way. Showcasing a story about how your organization is solving one such problem is a great way to highlight your impact.
Global Women’s Water Initiative produced a video that does just that – it shows the impact of their programs on the women their serve.
Creating a connection
In this type of story, you will weave together seemingly unrelated subjects or people to illustrate their impact together. This can be especially impactful if you are looking to reach a different demographic of people.
Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation has done this in a series of promotional videos for their upcoming Run for the Cure. They tell the stories of people who are impacted by breast cancer such as husbands, parents and grandparents while providing a compelling call to action to participate.
A story can also be told to bring to life the history or focus of your organization to ignite viewers’ attention and interest in the work you are doing. F*ck Cancer - a non-profit dedication to early detection and education about cancer - produced a great video to explain why the do what they do which tells their story.
Union Gospel Mission created a video called Why UGM Matters to explain their work in a way that tells the stories of their employees and humanizes the organization online.
Interested in how to create impact videos? Download our free ebook on nonprofit video storytelling.
Creating a Culture of Nonprofit Storytelling
One of the big impediments to nonprofit storytelling can be collecting stories. If you do not have the opportunity to regularly participate in your organization’s service delivery, you can feel once removed from where the stories are.
If this is the case for you, there are still many ways that you can collect stories and the best by far is to create a culture of nonprofit storytelling within your organization.
This might sound like a big task, but there are little things you can do to shape organizational culture and make storytelling an integral part of it.
Know your funding priorities
To start, decide at an organizational level what your priorities are for program development and fundraising and then create some strategic messaging around those priorities. Once those have been set, you can clearly communicate to all staff members what kind of stories you are looking for. This clarity is absolutely necessary when you are trying to achieve organizational buy-in. Everyone needs to understand where the train is heading.
Educate everyone on the value of stories
Consider holding a staff meeting to openly discuss what nonprofit storytelling is, why it matters and why all staff members play a vital role in it. This kind of forum and education can help break down any hesitations people might have about telling stories.
Tell each other stories
Taking this a step further, if you want to tell your community stories start by telling each other stories. Schedule the first 15 minutes of staff meetings to exchange stories. Allow yourselves to be inspired by the amazing work your organization is doing! The more you can internally practice this, the more it becomes an inherent part of your organization’s culture and therefore easier to exercise externally.
Nonprofit storytelling can truly transform an organization’s efforts by allowing others to emotionally understand what your work is all about it. It is a tool that can be learned and refined over time. Simply begin where you are and see where storytelling takes you.