7 Kinds of Stories Your Nonprofit Should Tell
The narrative of your nonprofit.
Storytelling, like we emphasized in our article on improving storytelling for your nonprofit, is one of the things that make up the core of the engagement others can have with your nonprofit. With its proven ability to cultivate relationships, build community, boost involvement, and bare your nonprofit’s soul, stories are an indispensable piece of your nonprofit. Realizing storytelling’s importance and gathering stories is one thing, but what kinds of stories can you craft? What types of stories should your nonprofit share? We answer those questions for you below, drawing on our own reading of various articles written by knowledgeable professionals on the subject.
Your origin story.
Every nonprofit has its own origin story, also commonly known as its founding and creation story. This spotlights your nonprofit’s history, showing the entire process of how your nonprofit was established, from its initial conception to its existence now.
The story of the founding of your organization operates externally in that it gives your audience a peak into the people and the work that went behind it at its beginnings. By illustrating how you got your start you can also show its evolution, from the values that were your nonprofit’s building blocks to the beliefs behind the way your nonprofit operates today.
Although your founding story is principally used externally in order to help others learn more about your nonprofit in a personal way as an organization, it is also useful internally as well, says Andy Goodman. In his Q&A session with the Bridgespan Group, Goodman emphasizes the usefulness of your founding story within your nonprofit itself. A common question asked of the CEO, board, staff, and volunteers is how the nonprofit got its start. If they cannot answer that question, then it is difficult for an outsider to expect that they could answer any other questions about the organization. These groups mentioned are those who are the most intimately engaged with your nonprofit and therefore should know the story of its creation. In its basic sense, if your own people don’t know your origins, how can expect them to be deeply connected to your nonprofit?
Crafting an origin story that balances itself between being self-serving and self-deprecating or giving the existing origin story a fresher look can be a bit of a challenge. Nancy Schwartz of the Getting Attention blog offers four steps to help do just that:
- First, keep focus on the founders of the organization. Find out “the why” behind their passion to bring this nonprofit to life. If a founder is no longer living, ask around, do some investigative work and interview long-time donors, board members, employees, and even relatives.
- Second, show the founder’s motivation behind the nonprofit and make it relatable. (i.e. Perhaps a founder had a loved one who was homeless, that’s why they created a nonprofit to help the homeless get back on its feet.)
- Third, illustrate how the founder used good old fashioned problem solving to create this nonprofit by figuring out the problem and making the nonprofit the solution to that problem.
- Lastly, highlight the work the founder and others who were there at the beginning of the nonprofit did in order to form this nonprofit and open its doors.
This kind of story is about your mission, the values behind that mission, and how that mission approached in a way that is singular to your nonprofit its strengths.
Values, like we mentioned in the origin story, are the building blocks of your organization. It is your values and beliefs that really drive the action you take as a nonprofit. The kinds of the stories that demonstrate this are stories of real-life people, of how those within your nonprofit have expressed and carried out the values and beliefs that are at the center of your organization. So instead of listing off values and beliefs, Goodman says, show how your nonprofit lives up to them and how they communicate them through words (stories) and action (the work that you do).
In order to tell a story about your nonprofit’s focus and strengths, Schwartz offers a few tips:
- Show a clear line between the work your nonprofit does and the results of it, such as the recipients, those who benefit from your work.
- These stories are meant to differentiate you from other and similar nonprofits, to “showcase how your organization’s particular focus or approach adds value to the community you serve and/or moves your issue or cause forward in a way that is unmatched by other organizations.” They make your nonprofit stand out in order to percent it getting list in the shuffle of the many nonprofits out there.
- Accentuate the uniqueness and strengths of your nonprofit. If one of your nonprofit’s values is cooperation, show how your nonprofit has made partnerships with other nonprofits who share a similar or related mission.
- Keep the personal touch and tell a detailed story as if to someone who is not familiar with the issues at hand and your nonprofit.
- Engage the eye with visuals.
After crafting or revamping your focus story, look back at your Mission Statement to make sure that they are still aligned with each other and communicate the same things, something that our article on how to write a mission statement for your nonprofit can help with in the event you need to make some adjustments.
While your nonprofit can certainly weave its focus story in with this one, the challenge story can also stand on its own as it can highlight a very specific problem or force that is standing in the way of your nonprofit’s mission. In this story, your nonprofit is meant to illustrate the problem you are trying to solve, not through numbers, but through people. Through the telling of this story, you nonprofit can show how your organization is making an impact through its work to solve a particular problem, fulfilling its mission.
Vanessa Chase of CauseVox also calls this type of narrative the “Overcoming adversity” story. In it, your protagonist (hero or main character, whichever your nonprofit chooses to call it) faces struggle, strife, and then triumph with the help of your nonprofit. Let’s break down this kind of story by working with a fabricated example.
- Protagonist: A young mother living in a village in an impoverished country.
- Struggle: Getting access to clean water for her family.
- Strife/Conflict: Making a journey miles on foot everyday to the nearest and cleanest well in the area.
- Triumph: Through the help of a nonprofit whose mission is access to clean water, wells are built in this young mother’s village in order to bring the water to her and the rest of her fellow villagers.
This is a very simple example but it employs all of the elements outlined above and even goes the extra mile to focus on one person, the young mother, rather than a group of mothers as a whole, further giving the story a relatable touch.
Although related to the “Overcoming adversity” story, this type of story focuses primarily on the end result of your nonprofit’s involvement, its impact. This story is meant to show progress, the before and after, how your nonprofit solves the problem, and how your nonprofit and its supporters make an impact in your own unique way.
Telling this story comes with its own steps, again outlined for us by Schwartz:
- Show how your nonprofit effects the lives of those at its center, focusing on one person, group, or family. The more specific you can be, the better the engagement of your audience to the story.
- Again, show the before and after.
- Make an effort to thoroughly explore the process of your nonprofit’s work, from beginning to end.
- Include testimonials from those at ground level, from volunteers to those who were helped.
- Then wrap things up nicely with a call to action.
Revisiting Vanessa Chase once more from CauseVox, this particular story style seeks to reach out to a different and specific demographic that is still related to your nonprofit and its mission; to hear the voices of those who do not always appear on nonprofit testimonial campaigns. The best way to explain this kind of story is, again, by example.
Say your nonprofit’s mission is to collect donations to help cover hospital expenses for terminally ill children and their families. Your nonprofit wants to run a specific storytelling campaign; however, you want to approach things at a different angle. Through connection-building storytelling, instead of interviewing the children, their families, or their doctors for testimonials, try to have conversations with the people behind the scenes. These are the people who are there every day at ground zero:
- The nurses, who check on them, keep them comfortable; even hold their hand when they’re afraid during check ups.
- Hospital volunteers who keep them company whether through playing games or watching movies with them.
- Physical therapist who help the children with mobility as needed.
- Social workers who help the family gain access to the appropriate resources.
- Psychologists who help the children work through their feelings throughout the entire process and provide mental support.
Reaching out and collecting testimonials from these other, sometimes forgotten, groups of people will help your storytelling campaign resonate with those people, maybe even inspiring them to give to your nonprofit, volunteer with them, or even join your board.
Portrait of your nonprofit.
Paint a picture of your nonprofit by creating stories through profiles of your staff, volunteers, board members, donors, individuals from a group in need, etc. This puts a face to the people in your organization, emphasizing that you are an organization of human beings working for a mission, not a cold and calculating money collecting machine.
Schwartz helps us create these profiles through the following steps:
- Pick individuals to be stand-ins as representatives for the types of people you want to capture (i.e. volunteers, prospective and established donors, staff, board members, etc.) so that they can have someone to relate to.
- Flesh out the profiles of these stand-ins to illustrate in a very person way why each person would want to contribute. (i.e. knew someone in a similar situation)
- Keep an everyday life aspect to your stories, don’t reach for uncommon stories as they may alienate your audience or may not communicate the message of your story as well.
- Again, it’s all in the details. Those are the elements that will serve to build up the story in the audience’s imagination.
- Gather testimonials.
- Of course, finish with your call to action.
On the other side of the coin, taken along with portrait of your nonprofit and profiles of the people who work within it, there is also what Goodman cites at the “striving to improve” story. This story shows that your nonprofit is made up of human components and that as humans, we make mistakes. However, that is not the sole focus on the story; the narrative shows that your nonprofit and its people learn from its mistakes and move on, all the better for it afterwards. This demonstrates growth, something that is so integral to a nonprofit and its success.
Goodman steps in again here, underlining that this story is meant for internal use in order to combat what he calls the “profane bundle.” These stories are important to your organization because they foster positivity as opposed to the negative stories that can arise internally; he puts it as the old “Let me tell you how things really work around here.” This maintains transparency, something that is extremely important to your nonprofit’s external reputation, but is equally important within it.
The road ahead - your Future story.
The story of your nonprofit’s future is both the most straightforward and complex story to write. Defined by Schwartz as “the change you want to make in the world or what your world will lead to,” it can also be classified as your nonprofit’s vision statement, the story that will show what things will look like if your nonprofit is able to completely fulfill its mission. This story is especially powerful because even though your nonprofit may not have a vision statement, the idea of running a nonprofit is to address the needs present and then on into the future until there is no longer a need. However, Goodman says that where nonprofits falter in the telling of this story is that they focus too much again on the numbers. Numbers are great for filing away in reports but not for drawing people in. Put into words what it is that you see as the future of those you serve, not your organization. Take them to the future you envision, show them that future.
So long as your nonprofit doors remain open and has the intention to continue its service, its future story can be told.