telling difficult nonprofit stories

In the nonprofit world, we often walk a delicate tightrope when it comes to the stories we tell. Many nonprofits deal with difficult subjects—illness, hunger, abuse, war, loneliness, addiction—and it’s often detailed accounts of those subjects that inspire people to give. However, raising money isn’t as simple as telling difficult nonprofit stories every single day. In fact, telling too many heavy stories too often has the potential to alienate or fatigue the audience you’re hoping to inspire. 

You also have the people in the stories to consider. How do you honor their stories and ensure you’re not turning them into props for your marketing materials?   

When thinking about telling difficult nonprofit stories, ask yourself these two questions:  

  • How do we tell stories that deal with the hardships we address without disheartening our constituents?
  • How do we tell stories of struggle without exploiting the people who are struggling? 

Here are four practical tips for telling difficult nonprofit stories.

1. Personalize the problem.

Sometimes people don’t want to hear about certain subjects because the subject itself seems too abstract or complex to tackle. However, when you present a difficult subject in the context of a story with an individual at the center, the problem seems more concrete—and therefore more like something they’re able to have a positive impact upon. 

As an example, I work with a nonprofit that provides a hospice home for the homeless, which means they often have to talk about homelessness and death. Those are heavy topics! When they share stories about individuals, they take the time to discuss the person’s hopes, interests, and backstory alongside their hardships. Suddenly, the issues at hand seem easier to stomach! 

Look at the stories you can share. Can you add a transformational element? Telling transformational stories of how an individual was faced with a hard problem and how they overcame it is another way to ease your audience into a heavy subject. The transformation adds hope to the narrative and can help the audience become more open to hearing about the subject.

2. Ease their fear or discomfort with facts.  

Sometimes people are intimidated by certain subjects or causes because they’re unfamiliar with them. The good news is that sharing knowledge can help remove some of the fear and distaste your audience may feel when it comes to certain subjects. The more you can use your messaging and stories to educate the constituents about tough topics, the more they will feel comfortable discussing them. 

Ask yourself: How can we change minds through statistics and storytelling

3. Balance the light with the dark.

As I’ve mentioned above, a key point here is to not just focus on the heavy aspects of your work. It’s important to balance the light with the dark. Messages full of shock and urgency are important for grasping the audience’s attention, but messages of hope are what cause people to take that action. After all, they need to believe that supporting your mission will help alleviate the problem, right? If there’s no hope of that, why would they give?

When telling a story, don’t wait too long to introduce the struggle. You want the audience to quickly grasp what the problem at hand is. However, after the struggle has been communicated, move on to discussing the journey toward the solution. This will help the audience be open to listening to the story you’re presenting. 

4. Tell authentic stories.

Aside from being unethical, overly-dramatizing someone’s painful experience can backfire. The individual in your story and your audience don’t want to feel as though they’re being manipulated or taken advantage of. 

One way to avoid exploiting someone in your story is to not exaggerate or twist their story to make it meet your agenda. Tell the story of the struggle as it was told to you

Remember that the human experience is a messy one. Everyone is familiar with struggle and many of these struggles deserve attention and awareness. It is our job as nonprofit professionals to shed light on real subjects while offering hope on how to tackle them.

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Madison Gonzalez

Madison Gonzalez

Advancement Director at Morning Light, Inc.
Madison Gonzalez is a National Public Speaker, Storyteller of the Year Award-Winner, Best-Selling Author of Dear Mirror, Events Manager, and Published Poet. She is also the Advancement Director at Morning Light, Inc., and Indianapolis-based nonprofit that fosters community programs in Indiana for the terminally ill, seniors, families and the home-bound. As a storytelling coach and consultant, it is her mission to empower others to share their stories for impact and income. Madison can be reached at madison@toldcoaching.com.