Effective nonprofit storytelling: five key elements

I’m kicking off a new series today with an overview of what makes for effective nonprofit storytelling.

I’m back from a serious summer step-back, at least as it relates to my own content! This summer has been really packed with client work (stay tuned for a few project features), plus a brief but delightful vacation and a lot of tinkering around the farm.

Before summer hit, I connected with another nonprofit communications consultant who I met on Twitter and coincidentally lives right down the road from me. (Hi, Lisa!) She and I met up IRL for coffee, and when I threw out the word “storytelling” as I listed off some of the work I do, we shared a knowing eye roll.

It’s not that I don’t like storytelling. In fact, I love it. It’s what compelled me to study journalism in school, what kept me up way past my bedtime with a book so many nights throughout my childhood, what made me watch The Little Mermaid approximately 3,000 times before I turned 10.

Good storytelling is at the core of human connection. It’s what gives us meaning, teaches us, entertains us, inspires action.

For better or worse, it’s the nonprofit marketing buzzword of the year. Nonprofit storytelling is the “going viral” of 2019.

Let’s just go viral!

Awhile back, somewhere around the time the ice bucket challenge was flooding social media far and wide and raising tons of money for the ALS Assocation, I was working for a small nonprofit with a niche mission and very limited resources. As the sole communications staffer, I heard a lot of, “That’s what we need to do–let’s go viral!”

So simple! Why hadn’t I thought of it?

via GIPHY

Lately, many nonprofits have adopted the same attitude toward storytelling: It’s the silver bullet that will bring in truckloads of money and solve all our woes.

If anyone else is having flashbacks about the summer of “Let’s just go viral,” forgive me. But my point is this: while our jobs or ultimate goals may seem simple, that doesn’t make them easy.

To achieve the communications objectives that move the needle on broader organizational goals, we need adequate resources and collaborative support.

Unlike the directive to “go viral,” though, at least storytelling is an actionable, concrete strategy. It’s not a cure-all, but it is a valuable approach to add to your toolkit to help you forge stronger connections with the people who matter to your mission.

Photo by Zan Ilic on Unsplash

Five key elements of effective nonprofit storytelling

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A plot

A plot is what differentiates a story from any old message. Your story should have a beginning, middle and end, ideally one that demonstrates some sort of transformation.

Authenticity

Tell true stories. 

The best ones include testimonials or perspective from those who benefit from your mission. 

In some instances, you may need to fictionalize a bit, but you should still source your stories from real experiences as much as possible. (For example, I used to work for an agency that provided health care to people experiencing homelessness. They were reluctant to come through our doors most of the time, let alone to open up about their personal struggles, and we didn’t want to risk scaring them away. But our direct service providers could still share general anecdotes and themes they noticed among clients, which helped us connect our supporters to the mission in authentic ways that still honored privacy.) 

In instances like this where you have to tell archetypal stories, make sure they’re rooted in the truth.

Hope

When you’re fighting poverty or mass incarceration or climate change, your mission can feel insurmountable on some days. But hopelessness does not inspire action. When your stories include challenges, you have to include the successes and the opportunities for your readers to help, too.

A call to action

Speaking of opportunities to help, you should include a call to action in your stories whenever possible, whether it’s inviting readers to make a donation, subscribe, call to learn more or to attend an event. The purpose of your story is to compel readers to connect with you in some way; if you succeed, you want to be sure there is an easy way to direct that energy to an action you want them to take.

Context

Your readers may not be able to draw broader connections from a specific example to the big picture of your mission if you don’t provide context. So in every story you tell, find a way to reinforce your brand’s position.

Creating a storytelling culture in your nonprofit

You know what makes an effective nonprofit story, but how do you structure your work to capture and create them?
That’s the question I’ll be answering over the next several posts in this series. Stay tuned, and be sure to subscribe to Further to get nonprofit storytelling tips (and exclusive unsolicited photos of my chickens and goats) in your inbox every month.

About the Author Reanna

I'm a freelance writer, part-time farmer, full-time mom of two and sometimes blogger. I like craft beer, low-key DIY projects and reading advice columns.

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