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Jastine Lumbres
by Jastine Lumbres

How To Improve Storytelling For Your Nonprofit

Your nonprofit as a storyteller.

“Storytelling is integral to a nonprofit’s ability to advance its mission. Stories can shape people; they can inspire them to think and act differently. Stories are what can connect your nonprofit’s community, funders, beneficiaries, and employees with your cause and vision.” These are the wise words that came out of a Q&A session between The Bridgespan Group and Andy Goodman, recognized author, speaker, and expert in the field of public interest communications. His words are agreeable food for thought. The nonprofit sector is in the very specific business of making a difference, of protecting the needy in all forms, shapes, and sizes. A large part of that is storytelling, an act that has been passed down through generations and has had the singular power to move across cultures. In this article, we help your nonprofit tap into some of that power in order to craft stories that are personally and distinctly you and your cause.

How To Improve Storytelling For Your Nonprofit

Why storytelling is important - the role it plays in nonprofits.

According a survey conducted of nonprofits in Washington D.C., 96% of nonprofits said that storytelling was an integral part of their communications and messaging strategies. This is not uncommon among nonprofits in general, but according to Julie Dixon of the Stanford Social Innovation Review, “Far fewer conversations are dedicated to the ‘how’- specifically, how nonprofits (especially smaller ones) can develop a sustainable system for collecting and sharing stories.” Dixon’s article, “Building a Storytelling Culture,” seeks to mend this divide by listing a couple of questions your nonprofit should ask itself in order to determine what kind of “storytelling culture” you have, with a few additional questions of our own:

  • Is storytelling important at all levels of your nonprofit, from the CEO and your board, to your staff, down to your volunteers?
  • Is there a viable environment in your nonprofit that fosters the sharing of stories from volunteers, staff members, board members, donors, etc.?
  • Is storytelling (sharing, discussing, composing stories) a part of your staff meetings? Your volunteer meetings? Your board meetings?
  • Does storytelling have a say in your nonprofit’s budget?
  • Does your nonprofit have a team (maybe in your communications, public relations, messaging departments) that is solely dedicated to crafting and telling stories?

Dixon believes that one of the reasons why creating a storytelling culture isn’t emphasized more by nonprofits is because there is a need to improve “Mindset and Appreciation.” An attitude towards storytelling doesn’t just lie with one person or a group of people and team assigned to be storytellers. Storytelling has to permeate from the highest levels of your nonprofit and below, from the CEO, board, and sponsors, to your staff and volunteers. Storytelling, according to Joan Garry in her article, “The Most Important Lesson I Can Teach You This Year,” is a specific skill that needs to be honed, nurtured, and practiced in nonprofits, especially among its leaders. If you do not make those connections within your own organization, you cannot expect to make those kinds of connections with your audience and donor base.

Storytelling also has the capacity to build community, something Vanessa Chase Lockshin explores. She says, “Building community is different than building a one-off relationship with someone. Building community is some that holds much more power because there a group of people behind something that holds much more power because there are a group of people behind something, that support something, that believe in something.” The relationship between your nonprofit and its donors is one thing, a subject that we have discussed at length in our article on how to retain your donors, but building community will bring those donors together to create a force for your mission with your nonprofit as its leader. Stories turn a nonprofit organization from a “nameless, faceless entity,” into a living breathing thing made up of people, human beings. When your donors feel like they are in good company, they are more likely to contribute more to your nonprofit and will seek out additional opportunities to participate. Storytelling can have that effect for your nonprofit. But what makes a good story? 

Elements for crafting your nonprofit story.

Your stories aren't limited to your mission statement, though it has been discussed before in more articles including ours on why your nonprofit mission statement is important. That being said, making an impact through storytelling by other means comes from having the right parts in place, parts that are discussed across the many articles that pepper the internet on the subject. As per usual, we have done the reading for you and compiled all of what we believe to be the most important parts here for your reference, beginning with Vanessa Chase from CauseVox, who highlights three general guidelines in impactful storytelling:

  • First, your nonprofit needs to have a purpose: Hone in on what kind of story you want to tell, the message that your nonprofit wants to broadcast to its audience, and how you want then to engage with that message through your story. These are geared towards the end game of convincing your audience to contribute. 
  •  Second, expand: Add detail to your story, paint a picture for your audience. 
  • Third, tug at heartstrings: Inject emotion into your story, make those emotions front and center. This increases audience engagement and increases the chances that they will remember the story you decide to tell.

Khaled Allen, also of CauseVox, adds to the conversation by proposing a few questions to be answered in order to take any message that your nonprofit decides to broadcast or any small narrative tidbit said in passing and turn it into a story:

  • Who is your protagonist, the hero? 
  •  What is the plot?
  • What is the setting? 
  • What is the conflict?

After considering these questions, take a look at the list of story elements below, neatly packaged for your convenience using Josh Haydon’s “3 Key Elements for Effective Nonprofit Storytelling”: The Hook, the Hold, and the Payoff.

The Hook:

  • Your story should provoke or draw out some kind of emotion within the first few seconds of a video or the first sentences of your story in order to invite them to stick around and watch or read to learn more. 
  • In order to do this, Josh Maitrelsci of GuideStar says, start with finding your thesis. What are you trying to get your audience to do? Do you want them to donate, do you want them to join your email list, subscribe to your newsletter, or participate in a fundraising event? What is your purpose, if it is outside the realm of how you can increase donations? What do you want them to take away from your story? 
  • After figuring out your thesis, put a face on it. Give your audience someone to root for, Joan Garry advises, by highlighting a specific person as opposed to an entire group, echoed by Allison Gauss from Classy. Find a singular person as a stand-in, a person that has been helped by your nonprofit. Detail their profile, show your audience what kind of person they are by outlining the character’s goals (i.e. treatment of cancer, clean water for their village, food for their children, etc.).
  • Next, show real struggle or conflict. What is it that this person fighting for? What is it that they need? Why do they need our help? What is the “villain” of your story? Some examples, from Allison Gauss, include disease (cancer), poverty,  and a lack of a voice where no one is around to speak out in the name of those in need.

The Hold:

  • This is where empathy and emotion come into play. It puts the audience their shoes and “keeps [them] engaged” until the conflict is resolved and other “plot questions are answered,” says Haydon. 
  • To provide some solid backing for that empathy you can also fold data into your story. Find articles, stats, and studies related to your thesis or the conflict at hand. You don’t have to stockpile these pieces of information, only give a few general relevant points to keep your audience’s attention. If they are still interested beyond your story, they will be able to seek out that information on their own. Pieces of hard data will give evidence and depth to your story. 
  • Place the “human element front and center and the data in a supporting role,” advises Maitrelsci. Maintain the role of data in your story where“the guiding principle must be the use of fata to enhance the human story, not the other way around.” 
  • Show how your organization solves the problem, helps the struggle, resolves the conflict; through charitable donations and dedicated manpower that helped your nonprofit take action. Show how your nonprofit helps your character overcome what stands before them, the “villain,” if you will. 

The Payoff:

  • This is the resolution where the person we have been with throughout the entire story is given a happy ending. This is also typically where you insert your nonprofit’s call to action, allowing your donors to play a role in the story by encouraging them to give, emphasizing that your nonprofit would like to continue bringing more happy endings to life, with their help.

Connecting with your audience.

Your nonprofit can craft what it believes to be an amazing story that really showcases your nonprofit, its mission, and who it helps, but if that story falls short in connecting with your audience, then all that hard work would have been for nothing. Avoid going back to the drawing board by using these devices outlined by Vanessa Lockshin, who manages her own blog, The Storytelling Nonprofit.

  • Mystery: “Make a surprising statement, or ask a question,” Lockshin says. This creates an atmosphere of the unknown, making the audience want to know more about your nonprofit or the statement and questions asked. 
  • Humanity: Create vulnerability within your stories in order to tap into the human element of your nonprofit. Offset the cold tone of statistics and data with a story that goes to the core of your organization by sharing a true life story, something that isn’t completely tailored or manicured. Be candid, advises Ryan Hansen; while some stories definitely effect the storyteller in a deeply emotional way and may be difficult to share, “brand loyalty originates with trust, just like any good friendship. Although you want to be appropriate when sharing your story, don’t hold back. Openness makes it easier for potential supporters to understand the depth of a nonprofit’s mission.” 
  • Contrast: This is closely related to mystery in that you want to inspire surprise and intrigue in your audience. Lockshin emphasizes that your nonprofit wants your audience to “consider an idea, person, or object in a new way.” Visuals can be helpful here; use images, photos, videos to help communicate contrasts in your story, bring it to life for your audience. 
  • Familiarity: Using your nonprofit storytelling style guide, which we will discuss further later on in this article, establish a connection with your audience by making sure they are able to recognize your nonprofit and identify with those in need and the people at your nonprofit working to help. 
  • Urgency: Your audience needs to be convinced of the immediacy of your nonprofit’s message. “By showing them what is at stake and adding an element of urgency,” your nonprofit can make your audience feel how dire the situation is more palpably. 
  • Ownership: Make your audience “an active part of the story,” by showing them how donations can make a difference and help your nonprofit fulfill its mission and take action. Let your audience take control by answering your call to action.

Gathering stories.

It can be difficult to share stories if you don’t have any on hand. Collecting stories should be one of the main tasks of the people who directly with storytelling in your nonprofit, whether it may be those in your communications department, social media team, or even your fundraising team. In curating stories for your nonprofit that illustrates its mission, we turn to Pamela Grow who gives a few tips in her article, “Nonprofit storytelling and you,” a few of which we have summarized for you here:

  • Have a sit-down with and interview each of your board members and ask them why they felt compelled to give their time to your nonprofit by making such a large commitment as serving on its board. 
  •  Go outside! Leave the office. Breathe fresh air. Be physically present at ground zero of all fundraisers and events of your nonprofit. Some of the best stories are found just initiating conversation with those who are involved in such events, whether in passing like a random participating or someone working the event as a volunteer. 
  • Set aside some time (Grow suggests thirty minutes to an hour) to personally call donors to thank them for their contribution and to ask them a few questions about why they continue to give to your nonprofit. 
  • Build a library of images and video as another way to illustrate the work you do. Words do weave a rich story on its own, but seeing it happen in real-time serves to solidify the credibility of your words, that you are putting them into action. 
  • Keep your ears open and listen up. During this whole process of accumulating your stories, listening is integral to make sure that you understand the story and got all the details down the right way.
  • Safeguard the voice of the original storyteller. If you are using stories that were shared with you by others, keep as much of their voice in as possible. Aside from cleaning it up to make sure that it has the proper flow, spelling, and punctuation, the storyteller’s style and voice must be preserved in order to shine through. Keep that authenticity. The type of urgency you get from the storyteller themselves isn’t something that can be easily fabricated or created from scratch.

If your nonprofit is hesitant to pursue storytelling in such a hands on way that this list describes, Julie Dixon of the Stanford Social Innovation Review, lends her help here again. This brings us back to the building of a storytelling culture within your nonprofit, this time addressing the matter of “Capacity.” This concerns storytelling being viewed as an expense rather than an investment where the previously mentioned survey conducted in Washington D.C. showed that 31% of nonprofit executives “highlighted staff resources as the number one barrier to effectively telling stories…ahead of budget or other considerations.”

For those who find themselves in this boat, and for smaller nonprofits, Dixon offers the following recommendations:

  • Internally, build a team for storytelling made of storytellers with experience or exposure in photography and video or have some training or have majored in journalism, communications, or English. Your team can be comprised of interns and volunteers to cut costs but a staff member assigned to the team should be the leader. 
  • Assign a single person to be the central force behind storytelling, who manages the collection of stories, training others to tell stories, and organizes plans for stories. 
  • A separate team can be created that works with external factors such as video and photography professionals or production companies.

Try to keep as much as possible done in-house as it can be expensive to continuously hire a production agency for every story you want to put out to your audience or implement into your messaging strategy.

Maintaining consistency in your storytelling.

There are many people involved in honing your messaging strategy and getting it out into the public. Because a story passes through so many hands, consistency is extremely important to making sure that your nonprofit’s overall brand and mission are communicated the same way across the board, no matter what kind of story you tell.

Having a content strategy in place is a good start, according to Tricia Michandani of CauseVox, as it will help keep you organized and keep your stories focused on your nonprofit’s cause, goals, work, and message.

Composing your style guide:
This piece of work is a very personal one as it will reflect the character of your nonprofit. Keeping the style of your storytelling in check will continue to keep everyone on the same page, again keeping the mission central. Your style guide should be composed of the following components:

  • Voice: If your organization was made into a real, live, breathing person. What kind of person would it be? What kind of tone would it use to communicate with others? Commanding? Gentle? Practical? Friendly? 
  •  “Voice across channels”: Because of the various channels, platforms, and mediums that your nonprofit is utilizing, its voice will vary from one place to another. The tone you implement on Twitter may be different from the tone you use on Facebook (a different subject we address in our two-part article series on “How To Conquer Social Media Marketing For Your Nonprofit”). It may even be adjusted on your nonprofit blog or in your newsletters. No matter what platform you use, you have to make sure that your voice remains consistent so that your audience is able to identify it as you. 
  • Language/Terms: Compile a list of keywords that you feel defines and are related to your nonprofit. Filter out words that you don’t want to use and create a master glossary with all of these words. This will help keep your storytelling and messaging cohesive by using an established set of words particular to your nonprofit. 
  • Style: Along with your list keywords, your nonprofit also “need[s] to document style related elements such as how you punctuate and abbreviate,” This is closely related to your nonprofit brand to include elements such as fonts, text, coloring, that will directly link your audience to remembering your nonprofit.

Conducting editorial meetings:
Organize editorial meetings with the staff involved in storytelling. Having these meetings are a good exercise in getting everyone together to review the story your nonprofit is trying to communicate and the necessary elements within it. You can also use this time  to ask your team what they believe your nonprofit’s story is in order to ensure that everyone has a working understanding across the board of the story you’re trying to tell. Have them tell it in their own words and see if similarities hold true, are consistent. Leave the floor open for conversations about how storytelling can be improved, added to, or made clearer. 

These meetings will also open up opportunities to share new stories and testimonials that could be implemented into your storytelling strategy. Encourage your team to bring in something that could have the potential to become a story to these meetings. Suggested examples include: a recent testimonial or story from those involved (i.e. volunteers), a new article, case study, and other pieces that related to your nonprofit.

How often you conduct these meetings will be dependent upon your content schedule (i.e. your social media calendar, your posting timing and frequency) and your organization’s master schedule. 

Your storytelling calendar.

Like mentioned above, schedules are important tools in keeping all areas of your nonprofit on track. Your storytelling agenda should be a part of and work with the multiple calendars circulating throughout your nonprofit. Vanessa Lockshin steps in again to make things easier by listing a couple of steps your nonprofit could take in putting that calendar together, which we summarize and comment on here.

  • Step #1: Pinpoint some opportunities to tell stories.Bust out your trusty nonprofit calendar. Take note of all of the major events happening throughout the year for your nonprofit, such as major fundraisers, recurring campaigns, and other events. Work these in combination with your content strategy and social media calendar to see where you can tell some stories. Be aware of the mediums at your disposal for telling those stories such as social media, board meetings, newsletters, emails, direct mail, your nonprofit blog, etc. 
  • Step #2: Settle on the types of messages you want to broadcast.There are many general messages that your nonprofit wants to communicate to its audience, especially in fundraising. Lockshin identifies the message within fundraising as “related to your call to action…the thing you want your audience to do, and since this is often the most important piece of fundraising communication,” your nonprofit wants to make sure that the stories you tell give that call to action weight and strength. 
  • Step #3: Curate stories.Earlier in this article we discussed the process of collecting stories for your nonprofit’s storytelling library. With this step, use that library to figure out which stories will be useful in communicating your nonprofit’s goals, depending on its immediate goals (such as getting support for an ongoing donation campaign) or general goals (like getting exposure). Start, or continue, stockpiling stories so that you ca have a library to choose from when you find additional opportunities to tell a meaningful story as the year goes on. 
  • Step #4: Arrange your calendar.Create a calendar for all of your stories with notations at the top of each month of the main messages you would like to tell through the stories assigned to that month. This calendar should also include notations of opportunities for storytelling added on as they come up. Your storytelling calendar also has the potential to be folded into your content and social media calendars. 

Stories are what hook donors in to your nonprofit and convinces them to give. Use stories as another way to build relationships with your audience. Intimately invite them to your nonprofit not as an organization, but as a human being.

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Jastine Lumbres

Jastine Lumbres
Jastine is Elevate Click's first content writer. She received her BA in English from UC Riverside and Master's in English degree from Claremont Graduate University. She currently lives in Rosemead, CA with her family.

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