Nonprofit Content Marketing Tightrope: Data or Story?

nonprofit content marketing

Content comes in many forms. 

Some are more digestible… interesting… inspiring… persuasive than others. Others are a bit hard to take. 

When you serve up content to your constituents, you want it to go down easily. You want folks to enjoy what’s on your menu. Yummy, not yucky.

Here’s what’s yummy:

  • Stories
  • Close-up photos that express a story
  • Videos that deliver a story

Here’s what’s yucky

  • Numbers
  • Procedures
  • Explanations

Your job as a nonprofit communicator.

Your job is to walk a tightrope between informing (unexciting facts, figures and dry explanatory prose) and persuading (emotion-packed, memorable stories and visuals).

You know stories win hearts and give folks an avenue to find meaning in life, right?

But… first you have to place folks’ feet squarely on that avenue. Help them find their footing. Give them a little running start, because it can be scary to get up on that ‘avenue’ when it’s a tightrope.

It requires a bit of push plus a bit of pull. From you.

You can’t always convey everything you need to convey with stories alone.

Learn to thread the needle.

If you’ll forgive another metaphor, facts are your thread.

Think of them as a tool, or a string, that ties everything you’re trying to accomplish together.

Facts plant folks’ feet where they need to be, squarely within your particular vision, mission and values.

The eye of the needle is the entryway into your story.

Take the thread (facts) and use it to help folks enter the story through the eye of the needle. 

Once they’ve entered, they’ll see the pathway that lies ahead. Your job now is to entice them to walk forward.

With your thread, begin to weave a compelling tale. 

The stuff you weave can come in all shapes, sizes, weights and fabrics. 

The better you know your target market, the better you’ll be able to meet their needs.

You can sew up something pretty basic, or you can get super creative. It’s up to you, your audience, and whatever suits your nonprofit brand and purpose of the moment.

Make sense?

Let’s take a close look at the nonprofit content marketing tightrope.

Think of your nonprofit content marketing as existing between extremes of reporting and inspiring.

The former is dull. Folks will listen or read for a while, but then they’ll tire and stop paying attention.

Keeping folks’ attention means shifting to telling a story

It’s fine to use your otherwise unexciting numbers and figures, but you’ve got to weave them into a narrative tale that has the power to draw people in and keep them on the edge of their seats.

  • People tend not to keep numbers in their heads.
  • Stories tend to be memorable.

Walking the nonprofit content marketing tightrope means treading carefully between facts that provide a snapshot of current reality and stories that paint a picture of trial, tribulation and, ultimately, hope (aka future reality). 

Convey hope for a future your audience (donor) can help create.

Shift between facts and stories to create tension between what is, and what could be.

In a sense, you’re taking your audience on a journey from here to there.

Here is yucky (problems, pain, suffering, sadness, injustice, inequity, violence, ugliness); there is yummy (solutions, healing, salvation, happiness, fairness, equity, peace, beauty).

It’s difficult to take folks on this journey unless you know where your audience is at. It’s equally difficult to build an inspiring journey unless you know where you want to take folks.

Before you begin creating content, ask: Where’s ‘here?’ Where’s ‘there?’

Every piece of content can’t do everything for everyone.

To create useful content, for either your readers’ purposes or yours, you need a goal. And I don’t mean your monetary goal. I mean the why of your vision, mission and values.

There are two primary ways to identify what goals might inspire your audience:

1. Create audience personas based on what you already know about them

  • Begin with demographic and psychographic information, such as age, gender, race, income level, interests, values and personality traits.
  • What problems might you be able to help them with? 
  • What information are they looking for from you?
  • What are they likely to do with that information?
  • How do they prefer to receive information?
  • How much do they know about the subject in general? 
  • How much do they know about what you do?

2. Survey your audience to learn what you don’t know about them.

  • Ask about their areas of greatest interest
  • Ask about communication preferences
  • Ask what other causes they support

Now all you need to do is align your goals with your audiences’ goals.

Move from situation… to opportunity… to resolution.

You’re still on a tightrope, but at least you know you’re on the right one!

Time to take your data and move folks on an exhilarating, ultimately rewarding, journey.

SITUATION

Take those facts (dry and dull as they may be) to set the stage. This is your thread.

One in four children in our community are food insecure.”

Dress your facts up a bit so they’re something a human being can understand. Avoid internal jargon. Choose a thread with a bit of color in it.

One in four children in our community go to school hungry.

Pick a protagonist to demonstrate what those facts mean in human terms. This is the eye of your needle; you’re looking through the eye to envision something better.

6-year-old Jenny comes to school every morning on an empty stomach. She can’t focus or learn. She often nods off in class. We’ve got a situation here. ”

OPPORTUNITY

Highlight an opportunity to ameliorate the situation. This is you showing the wonderful creation that can come about once the thread is inserted carefully through the needle.

“But… there’s a way to help Jenny through the new food pantry we set up at her school. She gets morning snacks, and her mom can shop there for groceries for the family’s dinner.”

RESOLUTION

Showcase ways to bring this positive resolution to fruition – with the donor being the hero. This is a snapshot of the final, beautiful creation. It gives the would-be donor a payoff for having paid attention to your story. Or for walking with you across your tightrope.

“Your gift of $100 provides a morning snack for kids like Jenny every day for a month.”

“Would you consider a gift of $25,000 to create a new food pantry at the ABC School in the inner city?

SUMMARY: 4 Keys to Walking the Data/Story Tightrope with Aplomb

1. Thread the needle: 

Data puts your vision and mission within a values-based context. 

Remember, philanthropy is all about values. There are many different values floating around; not everyone shares the same ones. You need to find the folks who share your values, and facts can help you do this by clarifying the area within which you conduct your mission work.

  • 2,654 immigrant children were separated from their parents. Social justice.
  • 1.5 million shelter animals are euthanized each year. Animal rights.
  • 8 million metric tons of plastics entered our ocean last year. Environment.
  • 3.3 million children are exposed to violence against their mother. Human services.

Facts alone won’t suffice. Peoples’ eyes tend to glaze over, and they simply don’t remember facts. Plus facts often paint the problem at a scope so large as to make solving it seem near impossible.

2. Weave the fabric: 

Stories that demonstrate your data in real life terms compel people to pay attention.

When you put a face to a number it’s simply more compelling. People can relate. This is essential to trigger empathy. And empathy is what triggers philanthropy.

  • Franklin, an 11-year-old Honduran boy, and his 7-year-old brother Byron slept very little and were constantly cold as they huddled under foil-sheet blankets.
  • Jimmy was brought into the pound in a trap.
  • When albatross ingest plastic it causes an obstruction in the digestive tract and can puncture internal organs.

3. Illustrate artfully: 

Photos or videos that illustrate your stories help folks with limited attention spans (everyone). Plus, it’s true, a picture is worth 1,000 words! Don’t overlook this important strategy to boost the success of your nonprofit content marketing strategy – be it an appeal, website story, blog post, newsletter article, annual report, or whatever.

These photos barely need explanation, though a brief caption telling what you’re showing always helps.

nonprofit content marketing

nonprofit content marketing

4. Create tension between what is and what can be: 

The way you walk the data/story tightrope – the push and pull — determines whether would-be donors will walk with you to cross over to the finish line.

Don’t expect people to walk along with you unless you hold their hand. Every step of the way.

  • Describe the situation in a manner your would-be donor can relate to. Tap into feelings of empathy.
  • Show them a clear-cut opportunity to resolve the problem. Make your ask.

Let them be the resolution; the hero giving the story its happy ending.

Are you ready to give your donors the content they deserve? Here’s a Donor-Centered Content Marketing worksheet you can use as a template to enhance your donor communication efforts.

Claire Axelrad

Claire Axelrad

Fundraising Coach at Bloomerang
Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE is a fundraising visionary with 30+ years frontline development work helping organizations raise millions in support. Her award-winning blog showcases her practical approach, which earned her the AFP “Outstanding Fundraising Professional of the Year” award. Claire runs “Clairification School” online, teaches the CFRE course that certifies professional fundraisers, and is a regular contributor to Guidestar, NonProfit PRO and Maximize Social Business.
Claire Axelrad
By |2019-09-12T14:37:05-04:00September 16th, 2019|Donor Communications, Nonprofit Marketing|

One Comment

  1. Jason September 17, 2019 at 7:35 pm - Reply

    This is a great article that really breaks down storymaking in a way that makes it easy to digest and seem doable! thank you!

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