Have you ever stayed sitting in your driveway because you needed to hear the rest of a story on This American Life? Do you get a little misty when you hear the story of an Olympic athlete’s journey to success? When something remarkable happens during the day, do you want to tell someone right away?
Stories are a big part of our daily lives. They’re how we connect with each other, understand complex issues, and increase our empathy for other people. Stories help nonprofits showcase their impact in a way that can make the distance feel close and equip supporters to easily and persuasively share with friends, family, and their community.
Stories engage your supporters and make them care about your cause, so put storytelling at the heart of your annual report.
Annual Reports Are A Collection Of Stories
When you think of your annual report, are you thinking about data and stats?
That makes sense since that’s concrete, trackable information. You keep records of how many dollars were contributed and how many meals you served or kids you tutored. These facts are part of demonstrating what you do, but they don’t have the emotional pull of a good story.
You can think of your report in two ways. The first way is to consider it like a sales report. Chock-filled with data, just-the-facts-ma’am, numbers, numbers, numbers. The other way is to think about it like you’re a journalist. A reporter, even, who writes human-interest stories.
Enabling your donors to “identify readily with the people, problems, and situations described,” is what nonprofit storytelling is all about. Your annual report is a fantastic opportunity to share human-interest stories with your donors— stories that show what you do and why it matters.
Character-driven stories engage people better than plain stats for a couple of interesting reasons, most of which have to do with the brain. Here’s the short version:
- Stories engage more parts of the brain
- Engaging with stories chemically activates empathy
- Emotional content is more memorable than numbers
Empathy is that “identifying readily with the people, problems, etc…” part. This emotional response is why people care about anything, especially nonprofits. Emotional engagement leads to action, like donating or volunteering for a cause.
These human-interest stories are not the “fluff” that surrounds your hard data. Your hard data supports your all-important storytelling.
Stories To Tell
If your organization has a mission (check!) that you’re trying to fulfill (double-check!), you’ve got stories. Once you start looking, they’re all around you and, ready to go in your annual report. Keep your eyes peeled for these four high-impact stories.
1. A Story About A Person
Character-driven stories are the kind our brains like best. They put the “human” in human-interest. For a great example, take a look at this story from World Bicycle Relief’s “2017 in Review,” in which they introduce us to Stella.
- Stella is a nineteen-year-old single mother, who rides her bicycle 12 kilometers each way to and from school in Western Kenya.
Seriously. Go read this story. It details how a bicycle has changed Stella’s life, enabling her to get to school faster and more safely, and begin to plan for a positive future. Wouldn’t you love to have helped make that happen?
World Bicycle Relief could have told their donors, “This year, you helped provide bicycles to XX girls in Western Kenya, including some teenage mothers.” Their donors probably would have thought that was cool. But that simple fact wouldn’t be as memorable as the story of a determined young woman, and how a bicycle changed her life.
2. A Story About A Problem
If you think back to your high school English class (perilous, I know), you may recall learning that most stories have a conflict. If you’ve looked into the Hero’s Journey monomyth, you’ll remember that every hero faces trials. Heroic organizations also face trials.
It’s not the cheeriest perspective, but you could say that many nonprofits exist because things in the world go wrong. We fight for causes because we face problems, and we think those problems ought to be solved. We could more optimistically say that nonprofits exist because humans won’t let bad things win. I like that better.
If dealing with bad things is a significant part of what you did this year, it should be part of your annual report. Your particular “bad” may be dire and big, like “Our facility burned down,” or “The opioid crisis is worsening.” It might be relatively small, like, “The food pantry van broke down seven times in 2017, setting a new world record for unreliable food pantry vans.”
Big or small, if it was important, let your donors in on it. They need to know what you’re up against, and what you’re doing to tackle the problems you face. Most of all, you need to show the impact solving these problems will have.
For a simple presentation of a problem that really interfered with people’s day-to-day lives, check out this video from Nicholas House. Nicholas House is a homeless shelter in Atlanta that keeps families together. Once upon a time, their oven broke.
Nicholas House tells us the problem: the oven is broken. From there, they quickly connect to the real impact of this problem: no hot dinner for the residents. By listening to the residents, we understand emotionally why a broken oven is a problem. If dinner means, “We’re going to make it,” or “My mom doesn’t have to worry,” or “We’re not alone,” then not having a working oven is a big deal. We want to help.
Do you feel nervous about telling your donors about real problems? Do you think they’ll revoke your status as a Shiny Perfect Organization With All The Answers? Take another look at Nicholas House’s video. Did you feel anything other than emotionally invested and ready to help? Did you judge them for having a broken oven? I’m guessing no.
Sharing stories of tackling problems works when:
- You’re honest and authentic
- You show why the problem matters
- You show how you solved the problem, or how you’re trying to do so
3. A Story About A Donor or Volunteer
When you’re telling organizational stories, there are some very important people who might get left out: Your donors and volunteers.
Donor and volunteer stories are inspiring. Why do people contribute their money and/or time to your organization? Is it a personal connection? A sense of justice? Did they used to be a client, and now are in a position to pay it forward? These stories can bring another perspective on your organization and cause.
Becca is a volunteer for The Motherhood Collective. During their Maternal Health Matters campaign on CauseVox, she raised more than twice her fundraising goal. Her story makes her fundraising appeal authentic and convincing, and shows us the impact The Motherhood Collective had on her life.
- Becca’s first weeks of motherhood were lonely. None of her friends had children, yet, and after the initial flurry of visits, she was on her own a lot of the time.
- Becca tells the story of how The Motherhood Collective made a difference in her life, and how she now helps other mothers.
The testimony of a donor or volunteer can help a reader see their own potential. We look for ourselves in stories. Take a look at National Public Radio’s “Why I Give” collection of videos. Stories like these are powerful because we are social creatures who can be influenced by other people’s behavior.
4. A Story About The Future
Your annual report is mostly about where you’ve been, but don’t forget to leave a little space for where you’re going. Share your priorities for the coming year, what you’re thinking about, and highlights from your strategic plan. Build the case for participating. Invite your donors along for the years to come.
Your future story doesn’t need to be long. Look at this little snippet from World Bicycle Relief, at the very end of their 2017: The Power Of You report:
- This little story is, “You empower others and make a world of difference.”
What Stories Will You Tell?
These four kinds of human-interest stories will get you started, but once you start seeing stories, it’s hard to stop. The stories you tell your donors have the power to deepen their connection to your organization, amp up their empathy, and motivate their participation in your mission. Your stories are worth telling in your annual report, and year-round.
To Learn More About Nonprofit Storytelling, Check Out: