Marketing your Nonprofit: A Storytelling Guide

December 5, 2016
5 minutes

Stories have captured our imaginations and have left us craving for more. They influence people, their emotions as well as behaviors and actions. Stories will find their way into our hearts and heads that few other communication methods can.

We are hardwired people in that we respond to stories. We will remember stories far longer than any fact or figure. That is simply because facts and figures only light up our language processing part of our brain while listening to stories lights up many other areas of our brain. In effect, we 'feel' what we learn.

For this purpose alone, stories can be an incredible tool used for fundraising, awareness, mobilizing volunteers, overcoming barriers of trust and division, and much more. Nonprofits benefit most from stories as they change the world, one story at a time. They have the raw material for impactful, powerful stories right at their fingertips. These are stories of perseverance, hope, and new beginnings. While these are life-changing stories, nonprofit organizations rarely commit the resources necessary to gather and make use of them.

Context Is Created from Stories

Stories ground your nonprofit's marketing strategy. They will help your donors understand the context by which you operate as they can see the challenges that your beneficiaries (or the organization) are facing. This is an invaluable tool used to give insight into your nonprofit as stories are memorable and help your donors to relate to your mission.

Let's look at food waste as an example. You can choose to promote the latest innovative technology used to show how far recent technological advancements have come and show the results of the most recent case analysis in savings. However, you may be better off choosing the story of how a low-income family can now afford education for their child because they now have food provided for them on the table. Context is what builds great stories.

People Are Moved to Act from Stories

When we make decisions, it is on the emotional level. Yes, logic and data are very important, but it is fundamentally emotion, supported by logic, that makes us move and change. Data alone cannot create emotion unless we connect it to a story.

When done well, storytelling can encourage people to donate, which is one of the core tenets of your organization.

Stories Create Connections

We are instinctively hardwired to listen to stories; we are present and engaged when we hear them. We will always question facts, beliefs, and opinions, but most times, we will always listen intently to stories and not question them, at least not in the moment of listening.

Stories will bridge people, create empathy, and give many, one purpose. Stories will work with commonality, highlighting those things we all can relate to or share. Emotions motivate charitable actions.

How-To Tutorial: Nonprofit Storytelling

Envision your story

it needs to have a beginning, middle, and an end. The protagonist is always found at the beginning, placed in a context that will allow them to explain their desire or goal. During the pursuit of their goal, they will face obstacles and take action with each challenge. At the end, the protagonist's life has changed in some way. Their actions, experiences, and emotions during the story have changed their perspective and their situation.

Character(s) must be compelling enough to invoke empathy

All great stories feature a hero/protagonist type character. Avoid using faceless or nameless groups or people. Your character needs a face, a name, and a voice. People care about people, and people will always donate to people.

Guide your readers along the story arc

You've established your beginning, middle, and end. Now it is time to bring the emotional arc to the story. When introducing your character, clearly establish their goals (e.g., caring for family, needing education).

Now bring forth the conflict where your protagonist faces a challenge. For your nonprofit, this is obviously where you detail the mission you're on or the problem you are trying to solve. The villains here are the obstacles your character is facing; domestic violence, clean water, disease, or famine.

At this time, you show why the problem is a problem. This is an excellent spot to highlight previous failed attempts at resolving the problem.

The climax to the story comes here now where your nonprofit comes in, and you explain how the problem was resolved. What was the single most important action taken that made the biggest difference? Trail off the climax with elaborating further just a bit more on the resolution.

Finally, this is where some nonprofits will choose to showcase the newly improved life of the hero/protagonist. It is here that the nonprofit will urge the audience to donate or support in order to enable similar stories to happen. Some will choose this time for a call to action.

Tips for Nonprofit Storytelling

Be clear in your story

While captivating, stories have a limit to human attention. Make it clear and to the point on why your nonprofit exists, what it wants to accomplish, who you are doing this for, and why the audience needs to care.

Keep away from the facts and figures

This is not to say don't show any facts or figures, but it's important that they do not become the centerpiece of your story. They can help the story; they just can't be the story. A story needs to emotionally engage a call to action for the donor. Support your story with a few key facts; any story without facts at all will come across as fiction.

Don't be afraid to change your story

Many organizations will repeat the same story as it was inherited, and they feel an obligation to keep telling it. Times change, and as long as you change the story in keeping with your mission, it is ok to move forward.

Be authentic and genuine

People are a lot more aware today about personal, professional, and organizational branding and how it affects their social credibility. Share genuine stories using authentic participants. Don't use "salesy" type language as your audience will see right through that.

Include a call to action each time

Place your call to action at the end of every story. This is the best time to have motivated donors engage. Ensure the call to action is relevant to the story you just told. If it's a button to click, ensure the bottom click leads to a follow-up on the story or the individual featured in the story.

Make use of social media and online exposure

Social media gives great value to stories. Make use of many tools out there to get instant feedback and encourage donors to click directly to your donations page. This is the perfect venue for real-time storytelling using photos, video, audio, etc. Websites, text, and video blog posts are all important options to explore and use for nonprofit missions online.

These great places are perfect for sharing your content: 

  • Facebook
  • Instagram
  • Medium
  • Flipboard
  • Pinterest
  • YouTube
  • Google Plus
  • Twitter
  • Reddit
  • LinkedIn
  • Quora
  • Vimeo

Final Thoughts

Donors today expect more from nonprofits. Nowadays, people are exposed to information and fundraising appeals on a daily basis. To say they've seen it all is an accurate account.

This still does not change what you can do best to make a difference in your marketing. Tell your stories, let them connect your target donor audience to your mission. Storytelling is thousands of years old, and for good reason, it is the best way to engage people to help.

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