Stories help to shape who we are, how we think, and how we interact with the world. Nonprofits use storytelling to share stories about the impact they’re making on their community, region, and world.
In fact, storytelling can actually tug at the heartstrings of someone, making them either want to give a donation or volunteer with your organization. Sharing a personal story is a great way to connect with your audience, as it creates an emotional connection.
Whether you’re trying to raise money, boost attendance at community events, or increase the volunteers in your organization, nonprofit storytelling can help to create a memorable experience for the people that you work with regularly.
In this article, we will discuss:
Why is storytelling important?
Storytelling is one of the oldest and most fundamental professions that human beings have taken part in. Compelling stories help to shape who we are and help us address why we do what we do. But telling stories is important in your business or nonprofit because clients and donors who buy into your story will be more engaged and connected with your organization.
One great story can help change the trajectory of your company. Did you know that at one point Lego almost went out of business? At the beginning of the early 2000s, Lego was in dire straits–almost at the point of bankruptcy–but one important product helped to save the company.
If you’ve ever heard of the Bionicle Lego toys, they are not just a typical Lego set you would buy, but in fact these little plastic toys were imbued with a unique storytelling strategy and grand world-building techniques.
The word Bionicle is a combination of the words ‘biological’ and ‘chronicle’, and they took the chronicle part seriously. There was this entire story behind these characters, and Lego even created comic books and feature-length films for these characters.
The marketing genius behind Bionicle, Christian Faber, shared what made these toys so unique:
The stories we hear and the stories we tell shape who we are and what we do.Christian Faber
Faber went on to say, “Through almost 30 years, no story has proved this stronger than Bionicle.” Ultimately, he got people to invest in the story first, and then people got interested in buying the product. This ultimately led to Lego rising from the ashes.
I want to echo that point that Christian Faber made because great stories shape who we are and what we do. No matter what business you’re in, storytelling can help elevate your brand, making you more memorable. This is especially true with nonprofits who are actively seeking ways to better their community or the world.
You have an amazing story to tell. You just need to figure out what makes your organization unique and lean into that.
Know Your Audience
The first step about figuring out what your story is to identify who your audience is. This might involve learning demographics of the people that you’re trying to reach, narrowing down your focus to get the right audience.
Remember, not everyone will resonate with your story, so your goal is to go after those who would be interested in it.
Identify who you are trying to reach
In my career, I spent time with a nonprofit that taught trade skills (construction, automotive, electrical, etc.) to young people. Most of the kids who are attending the program were coming from rough backgrounds.
One of the major parts of our story at the organization was that we were giving these kids a leg up in life, that the skills that they learned from highly skilled tradespeople could help them succeed on a job site and help them earn a decent wage.
A lot of different people resonate with that story. You’ve got tradespeople themselves who love that youth are learning how to put in an honest day’s work.
But you also have people from the community who are captivated by the organization’s mission. The town itself was rebuilding, trying to pull itself out of the struggles they went through in the middle to the end of the 20th century, and any organization helping to get young people into meaningful work was seen as a good thing.
Last, we were also a Christian organization and we help the students by mentoring them, building into them so that they could succeed later on in life. So another aspect of our audience was Christian business people and church attenders who were interested in our role of building trust and relationships with youth.
Questions: Who are the people that would be passionate about your organization?
Find out where your audience spends their time
Another key thing you can do is go to places where your audience hangs out. Be there in person or attend videoconferences where you can learn a bit more about the major talking points that are being discussed, the issues that many of the people are going through.
Next, try to find ways that your organization helps to solve those problems. Your organization can play a major role by affecting change, but you need to narrow down how you’re going to do it.
Maybe even consider networking with other organizations that are doing similar work to yours, so that you can learn a little more about their stories. Think of it as an informal focus group, where you can pick the brains of people to discover how they feel about different topics.
Tailor your message to your audience
As mentioned above, not everybody is going to resonate with your story. That’s why you should tailor your message to a specific audience.
Just to clarify, I’m not saying that you should water down your message or take away from any of the things that your organization is doing, but instead, you should shape your message to fit the needs of your audience.
The way you present your story might also change depending on your audience. Imagine you’re trying to reach out to a Gen Z crowd. You may not want to use print marketing or even older social media platforms like Facebook. Try spreading your message through TicTok or Instagram.
Nonprofit storytelling isn’t always black and white, and you may have a lot of crossovers with other companies. But instead of going after everyone, focus on one or two distinct groups or demographics to go after.
You can do this by creating an interesting story that captures the attention of your audience.
Create a Compelling Story
By creating an interesting story, you engage people with your brand by creating an interesting story. You engage people, create a connection with them, and move them to act. Significant stories make people want to stand up and do something. Let’s look at some ways to develop a compelling story for your organization:
Develop a coherent message
You want to make sure that your message is clear and easy for people to understand. How you do this is by first finding the pain point that your organization addresses. A nonprofit that builds wells in arid desert regions is seeking to address the pain point that not everyone has access to clean water.
Your message should be geared around the major contribution that your organization makes. Once you find that one thing, you can build up a list of impact stories which can help you increase your nonprofit storytelling ability and tell your organization’s overall story better.
Use emotion to connect with your audience
One of the best things that you can do is to use personal stories from your own work to connect with your audience. Personal stories help to connect your audience to your nonprofit organization because they can experience the direct impact on your organization makes.
Whenever you are involved in a fundraising appeals campaign, be sure to include a success story on how your organization affected a person’s life. If possible, interview that person on video so that those who watch the video can see that the testimony is coming from a living, breathing person.
There is no better way to connect someone with another person than by seeing their face as they tell a story and feeling the emotion that they feel when they tell it.
One word of warning, though. Try to temper emotion with facts and figures. People are only going to listen to testimonials so much before they want to see the information that they’re being told backed up.
Use statistics and facts to back up your story
In the nonprofit storytelling game, testimonials and facts are like a one-two punch. You lead with a quick personal story that leaves your audience saying, “She’s passionate!” But then you quickly throw in the right hook of how you could grow your organization.
Use quantifiable data to back up any of the claims that you’ve made. For example, if your organization digs wells, share how many wells you dug last year and for what cost.
The interesting thing about this is that you will have people wanting to support you more. You can share how much you accomplished the previous year, and follow that with, “But this is how much more money we need to accomplish our goals for this year.”
If your donors see that your organization is growing, they will catch the vision that you have to continue to grow. People want to be a part of organizations that are making a difference, and you can easily show that by the growth you’re producing and the lives you’ve changed as a result.
Use nonprofit storytelling techniques to make your story memorable
Are you tired of using the same story over and over and over again? Well, first find some more stories, and then present them using unique storytelling techniques.
Imagine what would’ve happened to Lego if they stuck with the old way of doing things. “Here’s your box of Lego. Go build something.” They would’ve been sunk!
But they pivoted to tell more powerful stories. Maybe there’s an aspect of your story that you’ve missed. Maybe it’s your social media storytelling that’s lacking. Find someone to help you capture that nonprofit storytelling technique.
Think about it like this: you will not use the same storytelling style at all the events. For example, if you’re hosting a conference, use a mixture of visual storytelling and traditional public speaking.
If you’re new to public speaking, you might be a little shaky about standing up in front of people. Here are a couple of tips for you:
If you’re new, don’t be afraid to use notes
Don’t worry if you’re too dependent on the notes. As you grow in your public speaking abilities, you’ll feel more comfortable and able to improv. If possible, try to get down pat at least one of your recent stories without using notes.
Create a clear framework for your story
There should be a beginning, middle, and end of each of your stories. Your story should also address what it was like before your organization entered the picture, how you sought to help them, and what it looks like now because of what you’ve done. This beginning, middle, and end framework is a very helpful way to structure stories.
Use a social media post to reach real people
I like to think of social media as an accelerant to your story’s ‘fire’. Remember the time you added gasoline to a bonfire and almost scorched off your eyebrows? No, just me?
Ok, well follow me here: Using social media and other products can be a great way to grow your audience and light a fire under the people who regularly engage with your content.
Use Different Platforms to Tell Your Story
Sending marketing material in the mail can actually help you reach a certain demographic. If you’re targeting baby boomers, sending personalized hand written letters can actually be a great way to build and establish rapport with donors.
But it also works for the younger crowd too. It is a unique personal touch which can single you out from other nonprofits.
Use stories at your Annual General Meeting
You can expect many people who are actively engaging with your story at your annual general meeting. Using an engaging story in your annual report can allow partners and donors to see more of the big picture behind what’s going on with your organization.
In the past, I’ve even created narrative budgets, budgets that have nonprofit storytelling as an essential element. The cool thing about narrative budgets is that you can weave an interesting story through what could be considered a pretty boring document. Instead of just using facts and figures in your budget, share your nonprofit story.
Weave Stories into Your Case for Support
Whenever you’re asking somebody for support, either through donations or asking them to be a volunteer, be sure to include stories of success. There is no better way to get more people inspired by your mission and vision than to tell an impact story.
Use Visual Storytelling in your Social Media
In this digital age, good stories are being told through visual mediums, including social media. As important as well written annual reports are, a picture or a video can say a lot more. You can’t capture the gratitude people feel in a report, but you can show that through a hug that a community member gives to one of your volunteers.
Use your website for nonprofit storytelling
Did you know you can use your website for sharing stories? The great thing about your website is that you can instantly update fresh stories, cross promote blog posts you’ve created on your social media account, and link videos from your Facebook page to your website.
Here are some ways that you can promote your stories on your website:
- Create a “Stories” Page on Your Website
- Use your donation page to share a story
- Write compelling stories in your Email Marketing
Add a Story to Your Donor Thank-You Letter
If you’re not doing this already, send out donor thank-you letters. The worst thing you can do is make your donors feel unappreciated. Take the time to reach out to your supporters. Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer sending handwritten notes.
Events are great ways to build support for your organization, while also reaching out to new supporters and potential donors. The best part about hosting an event is that you can wine and dine your supporters, and talk directly to them. It allows them to see that you are a real person and gives you the ability to see that your donors are real people, too.
At any event, make sure that you have enough support to help you out. Hire or ask friends or family to help with organizing the food, greeting those attending the event, and helping to make sure the venue is ready to go. This allows you to rub shoulders with every single person at the event.
Engage with Your Audience
Respond to comments and messages
Do your best to respond to any comments on social media and direct message anyone who’s asking questions. You honestly never know what kind of queries might come up on social media, so be sure to handle each one with tact and graciousness. Remember, if somebody feels that your organization has done something wrong, do not respond out of anger or frustration and show empathy.
Use social media to start a conversation
Social media is a great place to start a conversation with your audience. You can do that through polling them or asking pointed questions to them. Your donor or supporter base may have great ideas that you may have never heard of, so it’s always a good idea to reach out to a wide audience to get a more complete view of how your organization can better meet its goals.
Create a community around your nonprofit
One of the primary goals that I had while working at my previous nonprofit experience was to create and maintain a great community among the volunteers. We got together occasionally and got to talk and chat, and what I enjoyed about that was that the volunteers got to know one another and enjoyed hanging out with one another.
When you create a community culture around your organization, people take ownership of your nonprofit. These people are engaged, and they want to help wherever they can.
Measure Your Success
Track engagement metrics
If you have a goal, then you need to track your success in reaching that goal. For example, if you are growing your newsletter list, be sure to track how many people open your email and click through the links. If you host events regularly, check to see many people show up at the event. Always track your goals.
Use feedback to improve your message
Don’t be afraid to ask for help, and you’ll be surprised by the answers you get. Ask your donors and supporters what they think your organization needs. Sometimes we let our pride get in the way and we don’t ask for help from anybody.
Your story is important because it helps you to engage with your audience and shows practical ways that you’re making a difference. People connect more with stories than they do with facts and figures, and this is especially true about stories that elicit an emotional response.
Take an active step in telling your story better. Get other people to help you as well, as more voices and new stories can actually help to grow your audience. Ask for help from donors and supporters to give you feedback to improve what you’re doing at your organization. Don’t be afraid to solicit testimonials from donors, volunteers, and people who are affected by the work of your nonprofit.
If you were looking at some of the stuff above and were wondering, “How the heck am I going to fit all of this stuff into my busy schedule?”, then you’re not alone.
Most people are having a hard enough time just nailing down their own specific tasks to run their organization, and can’t be bothered with creating tailored emails, writing unique content for their social media accounts, crafting the perfect blog post, and creating scripts for events which tug on the hearts of donors and supporters.
Here’s where I can help. I’m skilled at creating content for social media accounts and your organization’s blog, writing top-quality press releases and scripts, and building large email newsletter lists. On top of that, I create content which ranks high on search engine results pages. If you’re interested, check out the services that I offer on my Services page.
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