Your Nonprofit Story: Blockbuster or Dud?

It’s no secret that effective organizations today are using skillful storytelling as a dynamic tool for communication. From filmmakers to plumbers, businesses everywhere are telling their story in some form or another. Robust nonprofits have been doing it successfully for decades.

Why is it then that all too often, the nonprofit story is relegated to the bottom of strategies used by charities to engage their audience? It’s so easy to forget the magic held within a story. While proving our non-profits’ effectiveness or projected reach or countless other facts and figures, stories often get lost in the jumble of pie charts and graphs.


story telling - open book


Open hearts, open purses

It’s a pity because storytelling is a powerful and proven way to reach out and engage the emotions. Humans connect with stories and have since time began. Stories have been used down the ages to inspire, encourage, motivate and lead. Your charity is lost without a story.

This is no less true in the digital age because the beauty of storytelling is how it can be shaped to fit the medium. So in today’s world of the internet and social media, start your nonprofit story with a personal story; a protagonist facing abysmal challenges. What does he need for transformation, how can the change come about, and where does hope lie for the future?

It’s especially true today that people want to believe in something bigger than themselves; the fundamental yearning to be part of a worthy cause. By tapping into the elemental power of the story, the hero myth comes alive.

The child growing up in abject poverty, the homeless puppy struggling to survive, the research scientist fighting a monumental foe (cancer or MS or…), the critically endangered animal; all these are potential heroes holding power in their stories and can impact the audience on a deep, emotional level.

Nonprofit stories are an unrecognized resource; they can be spread, they are haunting. The great ones are told over and over again. Dry facts and figures can never have the same appeal; neither will talking heads, plain anecdotes or bare statistics.

Storytelling fits any media

In the nonprofit sector, we have the ability to use stories in countless ways. The noble nature of nonprofit work and its closeness to life’s tragedies and triumphs make a fertile breeding ground for great stories. The only question should be, with so many available assets, what mediums and channels would tell those nonprofit stories best?

The best stories are those remembered long after the tale is told. Good stories will create a memorable flow of feelings and emotions that your audience will never forget. The impact, the emotional connection should motivate them to take action or share again with their network.

The classic story, the one recognizable from traditional print medium, can be used for mail appeals, newsletters, and websites. This kind of story can be successfully adapted to video, podcasts and You Tube, as well as Facebook and Twitter for example.

Twitter, with its short 140 character format may not seem so useful. But the telling of the short, short story is a challenge authors have been taking on for decades. Take for example, this six word offering, famously attributed to Ernest Hemingway “For sale, baby shoes, never worn.”

While your story should be about your cause and the clients it serves, the stories can come from everyone working within the organization. The volunteers, the employees, supporters and even the clients themselves can contribute to a culture of storytelling.

To inspire generosity, first touch the emotions; give donors, volunteers and would-be supporters the opportunity to make a difference. Let your authenticity shine through. Infect your audience with true passion and connect donors with the effects of their generosity.

Guidelines for a nonprofit Story

Stories should be about real people whose lives have been improved by your organization. The best stories are told by the clients themselves and can be the most moving way to share the change your charity has made in their lives.

If possible, there should be a brief window where people can identify themselves or someone in their own lives in your story.

Attention spans are shockingly short. You only have about five to ten seconds to grab your reader/listener/viewer. Don’t bother with an introduction, jump right in with the hero and a few evocative words. And again, because people are easily distracted, keep your story short; make every word work.

We give because we’re touched, a connection has been made and we recognize that we are able to do something to relieve the situation.

There’s tremendous emotional appeal in a nonprofit story where a person is helped to succeed or defy the odds. Focus on the emotion you are trying to convey to your audience and the larger purpose or message behind it.

To connect with others when telling a person’s story, show their soul, their personality. We want to feel like we know the person when reading their story.

Use poignant images, photographs or videos to show the urgency of the need. Create empathy in your audience by showing gripping scenarios allowing people to imagine themselves in that situation or state. Each story should have at least one unforgettable image, and use the visual to add emotional impact to your words.

And don’t forget that powerful images can have gripping impact when shared on Pinterest or Instagram.

A great story versus a good story can tip the balance, connecting your community; employees, clients, donors, volunteers and supporters. By putting the human face on your nonprofit story every day, you’re continually uniting your supporters with your cause.


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  1. Posted by 8 Essentials for Your Organization's Case Statement 24th February, 2015 at 10:03 am

    […] always begin with a story. Make the reader feel emotionally invested in your nonprofit by using storytelling to establish a personal […]

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    […] you support her, and in an emotional context that connects to your family and peers. The article Your Nonprofit Story: Blockbuster or Dud? gives the best advice – “people want to believe in something bigger than themselves”; they […]



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