Nonprofit storytelling refers to a specific way of communication that organizations use to personalize their mission. It gives your audience a tangible transformation to observe through the sharing of the written word, photos, testimonials, and videos. And once shared effectively, storytelling will change the game for your organization.
Let’s just be honest right up front: in the case of many nonprofits, the staff is small and the time is limited. We all have certain skills and we all possess special passions. Most nonprofit professionals can relate to the idea of wearing many hats, some of which we don’t always feel super confident with, which is where a quick, no-nonsense guide to nonprofit storytelling can come in handy.
Many times, communication is something people don’t feel is their strong suit. So, what do we do when our time is limited and we need to communicate with the community and our donors? We tell stories. Stories are the most effective form of communication available because they immediately engage the reader on an emotional level and in a way that is interesting to them. But don’t just take it from me – Forbes named storytelling the #1 most important career skill of the future.
How can storytelling improve your nonprofit’s communication strategy?
Nonprofit storytelling helps give a face and a name to the mission your organization carries out. Storytelling makes it personal and transforms the heart and mind of your target audience by showing them why something is important, instead of just telling them.
When a good story is shared, scientific research shows our brains connect to storytelling can have on us:
- Stories are remembered 22x more easily than data, facts, and stats
- Our neural activity increases 5X when listening to a story
- Storytelling engages our sensory cortex in the brain, allowing the listener to feel, hear, taste, and even smell the story
Storytelling can offer many benefits to your organization. It can:
- Make your organization more memorable – stories are proven to be more easily remembered than stats and facts!
- Create stronger relationships, build bonds, and increase loyalty
- Cut through bias by communicating various perspectives and voices
- Prompt action from your audience
6 steps to telling your nonprofit’s stories
Now that we know storytelling is crucial to your next campaign, here is a simple, yet effective step-by-step guide to nonprofit storytelling – broken down for even the busiest of fundraisers like yourself!
Step 1: Understand story structure
Effective stories are told in a three-act structure.
All well-crafted stories fit a three-act story structure. Since childhood, we have been taught to expect a certain structure for stories to follow. Knowing basic story structure will help you start to formulate a story that connects well with your audience.
Act one – Set Up
Act two – Confrontation
Act three – Resolution
Act One – Set Up
Set the scene. This is where the audience learns the who, what, where, and why of the story. Act one is where we learn what normal life looks like before the story is set in motion.
Act one is also where the “hook” or inciting incident happens that sets the story in motion. Think of act one as meeting Harry Potter and learning about his dreary life before he receives that Hogwarts letter informing him he is, in fact, a wizard.
Act Two – Confrontation
This is where the rising action occurs. Act two is the part of the story where we witness the goals and struggles of the character. What various conflicts, obstacles, risks, and dangers arise? What would it mean to the character to overcome them? How does the tension of the story build over time?
Act Three – Resolution
This is the act where the big moment occurs and change is witnessed. Act 3 is where the audience is able to see the transformation of the character’s situation. What lessons were learned or what circumstances were shifted? In essence, you need to tell them “the point.”
Providing the audience with a crystal-clear takeaway or message will help ensure their satisfaction with your story and prompt action. I’ve included a graphic for my visual learners to help demonstrate what this journey looks like.
Step 2: Focus on one character
All good stories focus on one main character. This is called the singularity effect. Pick one main character for each story you tell. The term “character” could imply someone is fictitious, yet it’s a term for the real individual at the heart of the story.
You may include physical photos of the character or describe their appearance. Visual storytelling with photos and videos is extremely valuable when available.
When gathering information on the central character, it is important to get to know their background, likes, and interests. Seemingly small or unrelated elements to their personality, such as where they grew up or what they like to eat, may be the bridge that connects them to the audience of the story. I call these “common denominators.”
In other words, introduce characteristics of the individual which cross between the reader’s world and the subject’s world. The more an audience can relate to the character on some level, the more interested and emotionally engaged they will be. Creating strong bonds between the character and the audience will help increase loyalty and the likelihood of action!
Pro Tip: Use direct quotes and testimonials as much as possible when showcasing the main character, as this will help bridge a gap between them and your audience and showcase their personality. This also helps preserve the integrity of the story and avoid exploitative storytelling.
As storytellers, it is not our job to re-doctor a story to fit our needs. It is important to tell the story as it was told to us. Showcase your character’s story as they see it, not as you see it.
If you need help developing your character, review Bloomerang’s guide to conducting nonprofit interviews!
Step 3: Communicate the conflict, goals, and successes
This is the core of any good story: conflict to be overcome or conflict that was overcome. This is what makes their story significant to your nonprofit. Communicate what challenges your character is facing or has faced that led them to your organization. Giving backstory and context can help your audience see how these conflicts may have come into play.
Beyond just communicating the struggle, be sure to communicate how your character showed courage, insight, and strength in the midst of struggle. This step is important to avoid exploitation or casting the character as a “victim.” This also gives an extremely important value to your audience, hope.
It is also crucial to communicate the goals, hopes, and aspirations of your character and your organization. Be sure to clearly demonstrate how your organization helps provide a solution to the struggle and be clear on how necessary your audience’s support is to make this happen.
Step 4: Highlight the result
Your audience is looking for a clear lesson or takeaway as a result of the story that you shared. A change could be emotional, physical, or circumstantial. Think of how your character felt and what their circumstances were at the beginning of the story and at the end of the story. The audience wants to feel as though there was a point for the story and communicating that is important for your audience to feel satisfied.
Before and after photos are a great testament to this concept. How can you show your audience what you are trying to tell them? Elements that relate to resilience and determination will help the reader feel inspired – remember, the goal of telling the story is to inspire your audience into action.
Step 5: Call readers to action
The call to action leads seamlessly from the emotional engagement that just took place. It’s how the reader can help the character; how they themselves can make things better, do good, and make a positive impact.
In other words, once you’ve told your character’s story and showcased your nonprofit, it is crucial to invite the audience to become the “hero” of their own story. Remember to keep your communications focused on how the audience can help, not just the great work your organization does. Donor-focused storytelling is the difference between:
“Jim now has a roof over his head thanks to our organization’s work.”
“Jim now has a roof over his head thanks to your support!”
See the difference? That subtle change is an invitation to your supporters to take a front-seat role in the work you do and take center stage in the story.
Be sure to keep your call to action clear and limited. Giving too many different links to click or too many different asks in one meeting can confuse your audience. Less is more when it comes to a call to action!
Step 6: Edit
Now it is time to proofread your story. It is important to give your readers or listeners context so they can create a mental picture of what is happening. It is also important to remember not to bog this part of the story down with too many details that distract from the main point. While we want to lend the audience imagery, we don’t want to overcomplicate things too much. Remember the core components of a story are: Character, Conflict, Goals, and Change.
After the story is shared, include the call to action. While descriptions and details can be helpful for interest and engagement, remember to keep the main message of your story central in an easily distracted world. Go through the story you have written and cut out unnecessary fluff. Especially when it comes to social media, keeping a story concise is key. Remember, the main message of your story is always the mission and how it relates to your audience.
BONUS Pro Tip: Allow your audience to remain a part of your character’s journey. Keep sharing updates, photos, quotes, or anything that will help your audience identify with the mission through familiarity. It is okay to share the same story more than once in different contexts, such as through social media, at fundraising events, through direct mailers, and by e-mail. Multi-channel storytelling approaches will help reinforce your message and your brand with your audience through consistency.
Examples of effective nonprofit storytelling in action
As mentioned above, there are many channels in which you can share your stories, including:
- Email campaigns
- Social media posts
- Direct mail
- Over coffee meetings
- At special events
The following examples will cover a few of those ways by showcasing an award-winning e-mail campaign, an example of excellent video storytelling, and a touching example of storytelling at a fundraising event.
To demonstrate how to break your stories up into three acts, I will share an email campaign that the organization I work for, Morning Light, used that won us a Storyteller of the Year Award. Morning Light focuses on hospice care for those who do not have anywhere to go or anyone to care for them at the end of life.
Hospice and homelessness can both be taboo subjects that can make people uncomfortable. By sharing a story, we are able to break through some of those barriers in our audience by sharing a real human story to potentially create a real human connection.
The campaign structure we used is a three-part series structured after the three acts of a story. This campaign is so successful because it plays on a common marketing truth – an audience needs to see something 3-5 times before making an action. By structuring this storytelling campaign into three acts, it keeps the audience engaged because they want to know the ending of the story, while providing several opportunities for multiple “touches” of the audience.
Here’s what we did:
Our campaign was a year-end campaign that took place in December. Each day, we sent one email containing one “act” of the story. For example, day one was the introduction, day two was the rising action, and day three was the resolution. We also posted the stories to our social media and sent out a direct mailer component with the story to reach our audience multiple times and in multiple ways.
See below for an example of the campaign. Please note that each email used the singularity effect, by focusing on just one person, and had a call to action at the end. The call to action invited the audience to take the next step to learn more or make a donation/contribution.
Meet Dewey: Part 1
As with the end of the year, the end of life is often a time for reflection. At Morning Light, we are honored to carry on the legacy for our hospice residents at the award-winning Abbie Hunt Bryce Home.
The stories we are about to share with you over the next few days are filled with trials, regrets, triumphs, optimism and wisdom.
Meet Dewey, fondly known as Mr. Dewey. You may have seen his face before – but do you know his incredible story?
As a man in his ninth decade of life who’s body was failing him, Mr. Dewey was hard of hearing and confined to a wheelchair. “Parkinson’s got the best of me,” he says. While he may not have had his health, he still had his memories – memories he held as closely as the photograph above. He was full of stories of his past as a farm boy, veteran, and father.
Dewey served in the U.S. Air Force.
Dewey trained and showed horses professionally for 50 years.
And, Dewey danced.
“I can’t walk. But I can dance,” said Dewey. He especially loved to dance with his daughter.
But, like many of us, Dewey had heartache and struggle. More on that tomorrow.
Continue to check your daily emails from us this week to learn more about our inspiring Abbie Hunt Bryce Home resident, Mr. Dewey.
In the meantime, please visit our website www.morninglightinc.org to learn more about our mission and what you can do to be a part of it!
Morning Light & The Abbie Hunt Bryce Home Staff
Act 2: Rising Action
Meet Dewey: Part 2
Yesterday, we introduced you to one of the residents that made the Abbie Hunt Bryce Home extra bright, Mr. Dewey.
Like any other life – Dewey experience joy and also pain.
Dewey’s wife and the mother of his two children was killed in a car accident when the kids were just 11 and 12. Dewey raised them the best he knew how and hoped he did a good job – as most parents do. His children visited as they could while Dewey lived at the Abbie Hunt Bryce Home.
Dewey also lost his brother to Parkinson’s, the same disease that slowly stole his own independence.
During the reflection of his life, Dewey wished he had “done more good.” Though, he wasn’t one to dwell on regrets. At the Home, he vowed to do whatever he could to “do good” in his final chapter. While he was not as physically able-bodied as he used to be, he certainly knew how to brighten the days of everyone who had the pleasure of meeting him at the Abbie Hunt Bryce Home.
Dewey made the most of the life he lived at the Home. He enjoyed bird-watching, television, snacking, and holidays. (Shown above – photo courtesy of the Indy Star.)
As you’ll soon see, Dewey even developed a very unlikely friendship that is guaranteed to warm your heart. But – that’s a story for tomorrow.
Until then, please “LIKE” us on Facebook below to stay connected and show your support of free residential care for the terminally-ill.
Morning Light & The Abbie Hunt Bryce Home Staff
Act 3: Resolution
Meet Dewey: Part 3
In yesterday’s e-mail, we promised you an extra special story of friendship.
So today, in addition to introducing you to Mr. Dewey, we would also like you to meet Julia.
Julia is the daughter of Madison Gonzalez, the Community Involvement and Events Manager at Morning Light. Julia shared the same love of horses as Dewey and when Dewey learned this, he began sending Madison home with his special collection of horse magazines for Julia to read. Julia began sending him cards and art in return. The two formed a special bond.
Three year old Julia even made a special visit to the Home to see her pal Mr. Dewey and brought chocolates, flowers, and a horse balloon (shown above.) Together, the two of them proved it is never too late (or too early) to make a new friend.
If you would like to see more on this touching story –
CLICK HERE to watch a special video!
As Dewey himself states in the video,
“This place is like home. They treat you like whole people.
More than a number.”
These special bonds and memories could not be made possible without your support.
If you would like to support free hospice care for patients like Dewey, shop our Morning Light Catalog: Warm Their Winter Edition! The catalog is full of tangible ways that you can give back this Holiday Season. To make a financial contribution or enroll in our monthly donation program, click HERE!
Thank you, as always, for your generosity!
The Team at Morning Light and The Abbie Hunt Bryce Home
Charity Water does an excellent job with storytelling. In the following video, we are able to see that we don’t always have the share the story of a beneficiary for impact. As long as there are people in a non-profit, there are stories!
This video focuses on the founder’s story, and thus, the origin story of Charity Water. We get to know the founder of the organization and discover the “why” behind his mission. Knowing why something is important to someone else helps us see it should be important to us, the audience, as well.
In this example, we get to see bits of the founder’s life and back story and get to know him as a character so we can trust him and his vision. The video shows us the conflicts that he faced in his life but then introduces the even greater conflict at hand – the lack of accessible water in other countries. That conflict is then explored and a resolution is offered through the work of the organization. Watch below.
Storytelling at an event
PUNT Pediatric Cancer Society in New York shines as an example of storytelling at an event. In 2019, their showcasing of a family member of a child they served made such a touching impact. PUNT shared a story of one of the children they supported thanks to their donor’s support. The sister of that child then took the stage to play a piece on the piano in honor of her sister. The story was not only shared at the event, but also via Facebook.
“A promise kept. A gift shared. A sister’s dying wish.”
“She grabbed my hand shortly before she passed and she made me promise her something, that no matter how long it takes, I would overcome my fear of singing in front of people.” Victoria Mordaunt shared that story two years ago at our bereavement weekend. And Friday night, she honored that promise again she as shared her gift before 300+ guests at our Wine Pairing in loving memory of her sister and cancer fighter Kali.
We thank Victoria with our whole heart for giving our guests this unforgettable and soul-stirring moment…”
As you can see, storytelling can take on many forms, but the core is the structure, the key components, and the mission. If you can take your audience on a journey from beginning to end highlighting how your organization helped someone overcome a challenge, and how the audience can help too, you are sure to make an impact!