How do you inspire generosity, demonstrate the difference your donors make, and showcase your nonprofit’s work?
Tell a story.
Storytelling engages the mind and the heart. Research shows that storytelling can impact our brain chemistry, help us learn, and encourage us to care about strangers. Since motivating people to care about strangers is one of the major goals of most nonprofits, learning to tell the stories of your nonprofit effectively is a must.
2 Kinds of Nonprofit Stories
There are two important kinds of stories to tell at your nonprofit. The first one gets practically all the attention, but the second kind has a lot of potential, too. You’ll spend a lot of time talking about nonprofit impact stories, but your personal story about why you’re involved can also help you connect with donors and inspire generosity.
Nonprofit Impact Stories
Nonprofit impact stories are the stories that show donors what their generosity is helping to accomplish. More than a success story about your organization, it’s a story that demonstrates how your nonprofit was able to make a change, with the support of your community.
A good nonprofit impact story will feature these elements.
A Central Character
It’s easier to empathize with one person than a group. When you focus your nonprofit impact story on one central character, the audience can get to know and identify with them.
In this video, Goodwill Industries shows how their programs work by focusing on one person. Goodwill could have given a list of statistics about barriers to employment faced by people ages 16-24, but it’s much more engaging and moving to learn about Nancy — a young mother who had trouble finding work because she’d dropped out of high school when she ran away from home as a teenager. As we see how Goodwill’s programs changed her life, we’re rooting for her.
A Clear Change
“Once upon a time, nothing happened and everything stayed the same,” isn’t really a story. To show your nonprofit’s impact, something has to change. Show your donors what’s different because of your work and their generosity–nonprofit success stories build hope, and inspire generosity.
Consider a story from Kiva, a nonprofit that uses microloans to invest in individuals. It focuses on Lindiwe, a woman who benefited from a loan. It quickly establishes the difference the microloan has made: Lindiwe went from a childhood of poverty to running three successful businesses at age 22. Don’t you want to be part of a change like that?
A Donor Focus
Generosity is what makes the work your nonprofit does possible. Center your donors in the story, and give credit where it’s due. Show how their donations translate into impact, and celebrate their contributions in your stories. This isn’t empty flattery or manipulation, it’s acknowledging your donors as an important part of your community.
As you tell your story, center the donor with phrases like:
- “Thanks to your generosity, we built 12 wells this month.”
- “The women you helped have completed the first part of their career training.”
- “Your generous gift allowed us to provide top-notch afterschool tutoring to 200 kids at four different schools this year.”
- “This month we reached a new record, and we couldn’t have done it without you.”
Your Personal Nonprofit Story
This second kind of story gets skipped over at a lot of nonprofits. Everyone wants to talk about the mission and the organization’s impact, but do you shrink away from talking about yourself? It can be a powerful message to your donors.
Your personal nonprofit story answers the question, “Of all the great nonprofits in the world, why are you involved with this one?” Giving your donors a peek into why the cause matters to you personally can help them form a deeper connection with you. Instead of an anonymous fundraising professional, you’re a person with compelling reasons for working for a cause.
People are often influenced by what others say and do. Sharing your personal nonprofit story allows you to leverage social proof that your cause and organization are worth caring about.
The story you tell about why your nonprofit matters to you doesn’t have to be dramatic or very revealing. It can be as simple as, “I work here because once I met one homeless kid, I couldn’t stop thinking about all the others,” or “I saw how much of a difference visitors made when I was in the hospital for something routine. I can only imagine how much more it would matter when you’re fighting for your life.”
How To Tell Your Nonprofit Stories
What makes the difference between a great story that motivates giving, and another that doesn’t? The way you tell it. The subject of the story has some significance, of course, but your nonprofit storytelling doesn’t have to be Hollywood blockbuster material to be meaningful to your audience. Use these tried-and-true storytelling techniques to tell your story in the most engaging way possible.
Use a Storytelling Structure
Storytelling structures give stories a framework that makes them interesting. Using a structure is what turns a set of events into a story instead of “some things that happened.” It creates drama, and makes the reader anticipate what will happen next.
Does this sound vaguely familiar? You may have encountered storytelling structure in your high school English class when you talked about “plot.” Novels, movies, and other modes of storytelling rely on the same storytelling structures you can use for nonprofit impact storytelling.
Some of the best storytelling structures for nonprofits include:
Fight the Monster
While the movie-version of this storytelling structure might involve Godzilla, for nonprofits the monster is usually more esoteric, like “poverty” or “lack of opportunity.” In this storytelling structure, you show why your monster is bad news, and how someone fought it.
This story is about a change in someone’s material circumstances (think Cinderella). It can be summed up as, “Once things were very bad, now because of an action or series of actions, things are much better.” Nonprofits who provide job training, microloans or other social services use this kind of story a lot.
The Hero’s Journey
Everybody loves a monomyth. The hero’s journey is a classic storytelling structure, one immediately resonates for readers. A simplified version is that the hero leaves on a journey, confronts obstacles, and is forever changed. Once you identify the elements of this storytelling structure, you’ll see it everywhere, from folktales to Star Wars.
Focus on One Thing
Your nonprofit probably has several impact stories, and you may have many personal reasons for being involved with your nonprofit. But when you’re telling a story, it’s best to focus on one thing. It’s easier for your audience to follow and invest in a single story than track and engage with multiples. Getting too complicated dilutes the impact.
Focusing on one thing can be frustrating for nonprofit professionals, who understandably want to make sure their donors know about all the good they do. Focusing doesn’t mean you can’t use all your material, only that you can’t use it all at once. Remember, you’re engaging in a long-term conversation with your donors–you’ll have time to tell them many stories. It’s more important that each one is moving and memorable than it is comprehensive.
The Goodwill story about Nancy is a great example of the effectiveness of focus. Goodwill has many great programs, but that story is only about E2. They talk about their thrift store program and jobs placement program elsewhere, and dig deep into why someone would need the program and how it’s changing lives. We’re much more likely to remember and engage with that than an overview of everything they do.
Use Evocative Language
Language is powerful, and the words you choose make a difference in how your donors will feel. Compare these examples:
- Many children don’t have reliable access to adequate nutrition during breaks from school.
- Every summer, little kids are hungry. When school is out, and the refrigerator is empty, what are they supposed to do?
The only difference in these examples is language. Give your story more power by using language that is:
Use the five senses to show your readers what your character experiences. Describe how things look, sound, taste, smell, and feel. Paint a picture of the scene, to help your donors put themselves into the story.
Activate empathy by describing how confronting a problem makes people feel. Show the situation, and then delve into the emotions it evoked. “Kids are hungry” is more emotional than, “kids don’t have access to adequate food.”
When you’re choosing between words, try to pick the one that is more powerful, especially when it comes to verbs. “Juicy” words make for more interesting writing. Look at these examples:
- Sarah uses her influence to promote other women’s opinions.
- Sarah amplifies other women’s voices.
- Joe learned that the local government was withholding information.
- Joe uncovered a government scandal.
Boost your story’s impact with powerful words.
Where To Tell Nonprofit Stories
Okay, so you’ve developed an emotional, evocative, well-structured nonprofit story. Now what? You tell it. Everywhere.
In Fundraising and Marketing Materials
Fundraising and marketing materials are the most immediate and obvious places to tell nonprofit impact stories. Stories can anchor a fundraising appeal or ad campaign, encourage donors to actually read your annual report, and make your thank you letters more meaningful.
Don’t be afraid to add personal nonprofit stories to your fundraising or marketing materials, too. A note from an executive director about what first drew her to the cause, or a profile of a staff member in your newsletter is also good nonprofit storytelling that donors engage with.
On the Web
Your website and social media allow you to publish as many nonprofit stories as you want. You can create an entire story section on your website, or share storytelling videos on your social platforms. At the very least, re-use the stories from your print materials online to get the most out of them.
Telling a story in person can have a big impact, whether you’re talking to an auditorium of people or one-on-one. Engage your audience by adding a story to every presentation or speech you’re asked to give about your nonprofit. When you’re conversing with donors, share your personal nonprofit story, and ask them to tell you the story of how they found your organization.
Tell Your Stories
Get more information about nonprofit content marketing by downloading our guide. Plot your stories and watch them inspire donors across the country.