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How To Create A Culture of Storytelling in Your Nonprofit

When I served with the United States Peace Corps between 2000 and 2002, I learned the value of storytelling to communicate messages.

I had arrived in Senegal, West Africa with a group of 100 other volunteers, most of us just out of college and inspired to change the world. A group of us were trained as Health Educators, and lived with Senegalese host families in remote rural villages, with no electricity or running water.

The other Peace Corp volunteers and I spent hours preparing comprehensive health trainings. Since we were in rural Africa, many people could not read, so we filled binders with visuals, comics, diagrams, and the like. We thought we had all the bases covered.

However, what we soon realized is that all the carefully-compiled, WHO-approved research in the world does not mean the slightest thing to people in the villages. Statistics and research alone just don’t compel people to take action and to change behaviors that have been going on for years. We needed to collect and share stories in order to really connect with people and educate them on health care and disease prevention.

Storytelling gets at the heart of how humans process information. Jeremy Hsu, senior writer at The Scientific American, found that personal stories and gossip make up 65% of our conversations. Sixty-five percent! (I’m willing to bet that percentage increases when we communicate online).

When we hear stories, we immediately relate them back to an existing experience to determine how we feel about it. Humans are inherently narcissistic in this way—but this characteristic is exactly what makes storytelling so effective for marketing purposes.

There is no doubt that online communication, especially social media, prioritizes stories. This is good news for nonprofits and charities, because organizations across the world are making a significant impact on the lives of others, and they have inspiring stories to tell.

But it can also be overwhelming, as nonprofit marketers, development directors, and communication staff face intense pressure to find and craft fabulous, unique, inspiring, and emotional stories about their work.

All nonprofit professionals and volunteers need to start thinking of themselves as storytellers first, rather than simply Executive Directors, Development Directors, or Board Members. A comprehensive marketing and fundraising plan is of no use without good stories to fuel it.

“All nonprofit professionals and volunteers need to start thinking of themselves as storytellers first…” tweet this

Nonprofits Of All Sizes Can Do Storytelling

While the thought of finding compelling stories, collecting them, and then mastering various digital outlets to showcase them may give you anxiety on top of all your other responsibilities, I assure you that in even the smallest nonprofit organizations, this can be done well.

Great storytelling is the best way to capture the attention, as well as the hearts and minds, of your supporters. A study conducted by Yale University researchers found that providing data on a charity’s impact does not translate into more money and more gifts. In fact, the subjects of the study tended to give more when presented with an emotional story and no data at all! The hard truth about storytelling versus using data to connect with supporters is that people do not remember bullet points; they respond to emotion. And feelings, not analytical thinking, drive action and donations.

Stories will help you express your mission to people who may know nothing about you or your cause initially. Statistics may shock and awe for a moment, but they will rarely get people to take action. And action is the key, because that is what nonprofit communication is all about!

Using modern digital tools like websites, email newsletters, and social networks are vital to get your stories in front of a critical mass of people.

Telling the world great stories will inspire more people to take a desired action (i.e., change a behavior, sign a petition, attend a rally, donate), and make it easy and desirable for your current supporters to share the story with their networks.

“Telling the world great stories will inspire more people to take a desired action…” tweet this

Creating a culture of storytelling at your nonprofit all comes down to education, inspiration, and information. Here are some ways to do it.

1) Get buy In

First things first. Get the influential and powerful people in your organization on board. You may be surprised to find out that not everyone believes in the power of storytelling.

So, how do you convince them? There are a few ways:

  • Talk up the benefits of storytelling for raising more money and increasing donor engagement.
  • Assure them that there will be adequate training and comprehensive policies in place to protect the organization and the clients.
  • Make sure to listen to their concerns carefully and respectfully.
  • Always explain the WHY (not just “because everyone is doing it”).
  • Make sure this reason ties into the overall marketing and fundraising goals of the organization.

2) Know That Donors EXPECT Stories

Your donors and constituents expect the information you share with them to be interesting, unique, and compelling. They expect transparency, authenticity, and a bit of personality. They want to know that their gift made an impact, and they like to know how. This is where heartfelt stories come in.

In today’s attention-starved, content-saturated world, we all must function like media companies—discovering and disseminating timely, relevant, and interesting information to our target audience. In fact, according to Nonprofit Tech for Good, of social media users who support nonprofits online, 56 percent said that compelling storytelling is what motivated them to take action in the first place.

As a nonprofit leader raising money and support for your organization, it is essential to be able to tell a variety of stories about your work and the people that benefit, since this is the kind of information that works best to cut through the online clutter.

Today, charity:water uses Instagram to tell the stories of families who have been given access to clean drinking water. The Denver Rescue Mission shares success stories from its clients on Facebook with accompanying photos. The St. Baldrick’s Foundation uses its blog to showcase real world stories from the children it has helped through funding cancer research. Share Our Strength uses its website to showcase true stories from its No Kid Hungry campaign. The examples (and the potential for storytelling using social media) are never-ending! (And are a good reference when starting your own nonprofit’s storytelling campaign!)

Family is important to Papu. And now that they have clean water, he gets to spend more time with his.

A photo posted by charity: water (@charitywater) on

 

Caption: charity: water does a great job of storytelling in just one or two sentences on their Instagram page. They show the happy faces of the beneficiaries of their work, and use their names to create an instant connection with the reader.

3) Understand That Data Alone Isn’t Enough

A study conducted by Yale University researchers found that providing data on a charity’s impact does not translate into more money and more gifts. In fact, the subjects of the study tended to give more when presented with an emotional story and no data at all!

The hard truth about storytelling versus using data to connect with supporters is that people do not remember bullet points; they respond to emotion. And feelings, not analytical thinking, drive action and donations.

Stories will help you express your mission to people who may know nothing about you or your cause initially. Statistics may shock and awe for a moment, but they will rarely get people to take action. And action is the key, because that is what nonprofit communication is all about!


Caption: UNICEF combines emotional storytelling with powerful statistics about the problems they address in their work, such as these shared in a recent Instagram post.

4) Make Storytellers And Story-Collectors Feel Empowered

At its best, storytelling should be empowering for your organization and the community you serve. It is not exploitative or disingenuous. The process itself should be empowering and strengthening. Not intimidating and scary, but thrilling!

The key to coaching the people around you to be great storytellers is to work with the natural human tendency to relate experiences through stories, and to leverage the pleasure others get when talking about things from their perspective.

Start by finding the right people. Choose the “low-hanging fruit” first—the people connected to your mission that you know can, and will, share their stories, or are comfortable sharing others’ stories (with permission). These storytellers may come from your nonprofit’s staff, volunteers, supporters, or beneficiaries. These people will become your greatest assets, and you can use them to train other potential storytellers at a later date.

Make your storytellers feel comfortable. Meet them in a familiar environment and make them feel safe. Do not criticize, or laugh at, or disregard parts of their story.

Having supporters feel supported and secure enough to share their story is just as important as the medium that they choose to express it. Encourage the use of social media, blogs, email, and video in the storytelling process. Use Causevox’s Storytelling Grid as a place to brainstorm story ideas and channels to tell them.

Speak honestly. Find out why others may be reluctant to come forward or to share publicly. Define the obstacles and then determine a course of action to overcome or address them. Always acknowledge the hard work that goes into storytelling, give accolades, and share rewards generously.

5) Open All Get-Togethers With A Story

Staff meetings, volunteer orientations, community events – make a list of all the times you get together.

To further cultivate a storytelling culture, encourage all organizational meetings that you intend to start or end with stories. Make it a habit.

Ask leading questions to draw ideas out from your employees, staff, volunteers. Remember, not everyone has the sharing and storytelling mindset! Think like a journalist in this way, digging deep for the story “hook” and narrative.

Questions like “What was a recent experience that you had and how did it make you feel?” and “Tell me about a time when you feel like you really accomplished something fantastic” work well when collecting stories, as the phrase “Tell your story!” may seem a bit intimidating.

6) Provide Hands-On Training

Hire a consultant to hold a storytelling workshop staff and Board members. Ask the participants to write down some social change stories that they have heard or witnessed, or stories from other nonprofits that have resonated with them.

The stories shared in this workshop could be memories not only from their work with the organization, but also from their own lives or what they have learned from other nonprofits.

The point is to share the story, discuss it with the group, and ask questions like:

  • What makes this story memorable?
  • Is this something that can be shared?
  • Are there things that we can learn from this story?
  • Why do these stories work?
  • Do they elicit emotions from your target audience?

7) Keep Up The Momentum

In your staff meetings, encourage open discussions about the challenges faced by the group. What is working, what isn’t, and how can we improve on what is being done?

Continually showcase storytelling accomplishments. “This story and photo that Pam provided not only got 147 likes on Facebook, but it also got us an inquiry from a potential corporate partner!”

Provide reports on metrics such as increased website traffic, increased activity and engagement on social networks, and increased online donations that can and have resulted from storytelling efforts.

Demonstrate that sharing stories has increased community and enhanced connections with donors and supporters. It’s not simply about pushing out marketing messages.

Creating a comfortable, accessible culture where stories are shared openly is vital for nonprofit communications and fundraising success. It is a continual process that cannot be the responsibility of one person, or even one department.

Ultimately, it takes a group effort to really change the culture of an organization. You will know you have succeeded when you can see a tangible shift in mind-set within your nonprofit where everyone involved actively identifies and shares stories about the work and the impact.

By getting your team in the storytelling mindset, it’ll be easier for your team to spot good stories to use for your next fundraising campaign.

What ideas do you have about creating a storytelling culture at your nonprofit? Share in the comments below.

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