If you’ve been paying attention to the marketing space in recent years, you’ve almost certainly heard the buzzword storytelling. “Nonprofit storytelling” has practically become a substitute for “nonprofit marketing”—one that sounds better (less corporate, perhaps?) but can be a little difficult to pin down.
What is storytelling? And how does it relate to your nonprofit?
I like to think of nonprofit storytelling this way: there’s the macro-story and the micro-stories. Both are extremely important to expressing who you are as an organization, why you exist, and why people should care about what you do.
Get your nonprofit’s story right, and other elements fall into place.
Why Is Nonprofit Storytelling Important?
Storytelling is critical to any organization because it’s what transforms you in the mind of your target audience. With a well-developed story, you’re no longer just a faceless organization but rather a team of real people helping real people—and making a real impact.
The right nonprofit storytelling for your organization will:
- Make your brand more memorable by humanizing your org
- Better connect you with your ideal audience (and exclude people you aren’t looking to connect with)
- Add an emotional appeal to your work to balance out hard numbers and statistics
- Build loyalty over time, as people begin to see themselves as part of a greater narrative
- Reinforce your brand through repetition of core values, purpose, and mission
- Help remove the use of jargon and confusing terms in favor of straightforward, easy-to-understand language
- Give you an easy way to come up with new content for your blog, website, social media, direct mail campaigns, and more
There’s also emerging science about why stories are so effective from a neurological point of view. Researchers have found that different areas of the brain are activated when listening to a narrative—especially regions responsible for complex information processing.
In other words, people pay more attention to storytelling! As NPR explains:
Solid information in any form is good, Green says. “But that’s not necessarily enough.” A vivid, emotional story “can give that extra push to make it feel more real or more important.” If you look at the times somebody’s beliefs have been changed, she says, it’s often because of a story that “hits them in the heart.”
The Macro-Story: Your Nonprofit’s Overarching Narrative
The macro-story is the bigger picture of your nonprofit. It answers the questions:
- Why do we exist?
- What do we stand for?
- What transformation do we create?
- Why should you join us?
Sure, you could answer these questions in just a few straightforward sentences. “We exist because [blah blah blah]…” and “We stand for [blah blah blah]…”
There are hundreds of organizations that exist for the same reason and stand for the same thing. Objective answers to these questions won’t make your organization stand out and won’t motivate donors, volunteers, or skilled professionals to join your team.
Answering these questions at all is an important first step to expressing your mission—and one that many nonprofits don’t do enough of. But to level-up your organization and truly motivate people to join you?
That’s where storytelling comes in.
By organizing your answers to the questions above into a cohesive, compelling, narrative-driven story, you make it much more likely that someone actually remembers you. You take advantage of humans’ natural love for stories and use it to amplify your organization’s impact.
What Goes Into Your Nonprofit's Big Story?
Think back to your high school English classes—do words like hook, background, setting, character, conflict, climax, and resolution come to mind? These are the core elements of any good story, and they’re exactly what you need to build your nonprofit story.
Tension is the ultimate key to any great story. And to build tension in our readers (or in this case, our nonprofit audience), we need to use those storytelling elements effectively! We need to make sure that our readers or website visitors:
- Understand the character’s situation [setting]
- Feel invested in the character [character]
- Know exactly what the character is striving toward [character goals]
- Recognize the real threats and challenges facing the character [villain, conflict]
- Wonder whether or not the character will be able to achieve their goals
This last point is where the tension is at. It’s what will most effectively motivate people to join your mission.
Your audience wants the character to succeed but aren’t sure if they will… They’re so invested in this character… If only there were something the audience could do to help…
And of course, there is!
At this point, you can present your call-to-action and give the audience a way to impact how the story ends, to play a concrete role in the final storytelling element: resolution. You make it clear that their input is what writes the end to the story.
In this way, you’re making the donor/volunteer the hero of the story—the one who steps in to help the character. Your nonprofit is there and it’s important, but in the end, it’s simply facilitating the reader’s role in the bigger picture.
Tips for Nonprofit Storytelling: The Macro-Story
Based on our experience evaluating and crafting nonprofit stories, here a few tips to keep in mind:
- Write it down. Everyone in your organization needs to be clear on what the overarching story is. (And if you’re an org of one, you probably need a written reminder since you’ve surely got way too much on your plate!) Write out your story elements in paragraphs, as a simple list, on a spreadsheet—whatever works for you.
- Make sure it’s clear what’s at stake. Don’t assume that the website visitor understands the problem your nonprofit is trying to address. Especially on key pages like your nonprofit homepage, it’s better to clearly set the stage and explain the conflict.
- Name the villain. Oftentimes organizations seem hesitant to name the villain, perhaps because it seems too aggressive to call someone out, or the villain is large and faceless. But if you don’t name the villain, you aren’t giving people something to rally around, so name it! It could be institutional racism, industry inertia, lack of information, poor leadership, etc.
- Commit to ethical storytelling. Be responsible in how you tell people’s stories. Always ask for permission, provide the opportunity for anyone mentioned in your story to review it before publication, and be willing to remove a story if the featured person ever requests it. Commit to getting first-hand input from the populations and people you’re writing about, and make conscious efforts to let them be the author of the story.
- Be flexible in your nonprofit’s storytelling. Crafting a cohesive narrative for your nonprofit is important, but you don’t have to write out a full plot every time you want to “story tell.” You can pull from individual elements—like setting, conflict, villain—as needed.
- Take advantage of images. The old adage of “a picture’s worth a thousand words” is very true! Try to choose images that tell a story in and of themselves. Rather than picking something decorative or tangentially related, find a photo that shows emotion, raises tension, or introduces a question.
- Use your macro-story to inform micro-stories. More on this next!
Micro-Stories: Captivating Your Audience Over and Over
Once your greater nonprofit story is in place, you’re in an excellent spot. Why? Because you can draw from these storytelling elements to easily create micro-stories to share on a regular basis.
For instance, if you’ve identified the villain as systemic racism, then you can take that concept and use it to create all kinds of nonprofit website content and marketing collateral:
- Compelling headlines for your website, both when explaining the problem and creating calls-to-action
- A quick social media post with a compelling statistic or inspirational quote about the problem
- A script for an explainer video about what your nonprofit is fighting against
- An educational flyer or brochure with a deep dive into the “villain,” what you’re doing to combat this villain, and how people can join you
- A case study about a specific person or situation in which you effectively beat this villain
- A short testimonial about the impact of the villain or someone’s experience working with you to beat it
- A paid ad campaign that highlights the villain and links to a long-form landing page calling readers to action against it
- A feature in your nonprofit annual report
And these are just a handful of ideas for one of the storytelling elements above! You can take any of the elements, from setting to character, and focus in on it to create a compelling micro-story that still fits into your overarching message.
Ideas for Nonprofit Storytelling: Micro-Stories
Here are some ideas for micro-story topics and formats:
- Impact reports: Balance out your data and numbers with featured stories about volunteers, beneficiaries, or board members. You could also present a particular challenge of the year in a story format, building tension until resolution.
- Long-form blog posts: Whether on your blog or a platform like Medium, blog posts are an amazing way to tell a story about something you’ve recently done.
- Donor/volunteer/staff board member spotlights: Have stakeholders tell their own stories to make them feel more human and relatable. Use these stories as bios on your website.
- End-of-year staff stories: Inject some personality, humor, or gratitude into your end-of-year appeals by focusing on individual staff members. For example, “What are we most proud of from this year’s work?” This can take a faceless effort and make it more concrete.
- Donation appeals: Make your donation page more compelling by including a short story about a person the donor will help. This could be a specific real person or a composite based on the type of people you serve.
- Case studies: Case studies are awesome tools to showcase how your nonprofit solved a specific problem—reinforcing your credibility, expertise, approach, and brand. Create a case study (either as a PDF or a website element) focused on one of the storytelling elements above.
- “About Us” narratives: Work in elements of your macro-story to create a compelling narrative that introduces tension and inspires people to action.
- “Our Story” narratives: This is an obvious one. Tell your story as a story with the elements outlined above!
- “Our Team” narratives: Add humanizing, character-building elements to make your staff feel real. This could be a favorite joke, a fun fact, or something more serious like why they’re so passionate about your cause.
- “Our Values” narratives: Most nonprofit organizations simply list out their values as a series of sentences, like “We believe in integrity.” Does this sound memorable to you? Instead, show examples of your nonprofit’s core values being lived out by telling a story about it. Show, don’t tell!
- Testimonials from beneficiaries: Testimonials are the perfect spot for a nonprofit microstory. Prompt people to answer questions related to conflict, transformation, or resolution to get a compelling snippet for your nonprofit website or print marketing materials.
- Social media posts: You can tell a quick story on social media in any number of ways: a compelling picture, a short video, an inspirational quote, or a testimonial from a volunteer, donor, or beneficiary.
- Paid ads: If you’re investing in paid ads (or have a Google ad grant), it’s important to send people who click the ad to a dedicated landing page—not just your homepage. This landing page is the ideal spot to focus on a micro-story of someone you serve, a problem you’ve solved, or a systemic change you’ve affected.
- Email newsletters: Because they come out in regular intervals, email newsletters work very well for serial storytelling. Consider creating a dedicated newsletter that releases a series of “episodes” or “chapters” over time, all leading up to a dedicated call-to-action (like donating now or becoming a member).
Tips for Nonprofit Storytelling: Micro-Stories
Craft compelling stories that people can experience over and over again throughout your nonprofit website, social media platforms, and other touchpoints.
- Focus on people. The best stories are character-driven. Especially when you’re telling a very short story (like a paragraph on your website), it’s easier to connect when you highlight people.
- Understand your goals. Each nonprofit story will have a different strategic purpose. Are you looking to get donations now? Are you looking to reinforce your brand? Knowing the goal for the story will help you craft it more effectively.
- Repurpose your content. Don’t be afraid to repeat yourself! Take the same story and put a little twist on it to publish it on multiple platforms: your blog, your website, a newsletter, Facebook, etc.
- Remove any jargon. Keep your nonprofit stories understandable to a wide audience by leaving off the jargon and board room speak.
- Be intentional in the copy. The best nonprofit storytelling will activate an emotional response without sounding desperate, sappy, or falsely emotional. Try to use sensory words and emotional vocabulary—but in moderation.
- Pick great images. Just like longer-form stories, micro-stories can always benefit from a high-impact photo or illustration. Infographics are an especially eye-catching way to explain a problem or map out a character’s journey with your organization.
- Create a content calendar. It can be overwhelming to figure out which micro-stories to tell, so mapping out a simple calendar can be extremely helpful in terms of balancing the types of stories you’re telling and the format in which you’re telling them.
- Empower people to tell their own stories. We already mentioned ethical storytelling above, and here’s another way to make sure that happens! Instead of telling a story on someone’s behalf, have them tell in it their own words.
How Do We Develop Our Nonprofit’s Stories?
Getting your nonprofit storytelling right—both at the micro and macro level—really depends on two key factors:
- Getting clear on your purpose and mission
- Understanding your audience and what resonates with them
Without knowing these two things, you can’t possibly craft a story that touches their hearts or inspires them to action.
If you’re looking to create a more engaging macro-story for your nonprofit, we recommend starting there. Sit down with your team to map out your nonprofit’s purpose and create a story structure that reinforces the importance of the work you do—and the people who join you.