guide to nonprofit storytelling

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. 

While someone may have extensive knowledge and passion for the concrete mission and operations, they may lack event planning skills. Or while someone may be a wiz with the finances, year-end campaign drives are a struggle. Simply because a person runs their nonprofit with a heartfelt passion, there is no guarantee they enjoy the fundraising side with equal energy. A lot of people naturally want to be at the business end, delivering the service and answering the essential need. Therefore, reaching out for funds to fuel the whole thing becomes a distraction and even a drain of energies they feel is best used elsewhere.

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. 

A clear understanding around the basics of core storytelling components will save a lot of energy in the long run when bringing the best out of each donor drive. You can rely on these four elements to keep your story tight and hard hitting.

Here is a simple, yet effective guide to nonprofit storytelling in four elements – just for you who are time limited!

1. Set the scene

Where and when is the story taking place? 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. 

2. Introduce the Character

Character could imply someone 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. 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. The more an audience can relate to the character on some level, the more interested and emotionally engaged they will be.

If you need help developing your character, click here for more info on how to conduct interviews

3. Communicate the Conflict

This is the core of any good story: conflict to be overcome or conflict that was overcame. This is what makes their story significant to your nonprofit. Communicate what challenges your character is facing or faced that led them to your organization. Be sure to communicate how your organization helps provide a solution to the struggle. Consider adding in elements which relate to resilience and determination to help the reader feel inspired – remember, the goal of telling the story is to inspire your audience into action.

4. The Call to Action

The call to action leads seamlessly from the emotional conflict. It’s how the reader can help the character; how they themselves can make the 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 the 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 of the story. Enjoy employing this guide to nonprofit storytelling! 

Madison Gonzalez

Madison Gonzalez

Community Involvement and Events Manager 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.
Madison Gonzalez