Written By: Bailey Benzle - Jul 10, 2018
Blog7 min read

Nonprofit Storytelling: 5 Ways Nonprofits Can Identify Their Best Storytellers

To effectively grow their organization, communicators need to rely on one of the oldest forms of human communication— nonprofit storytelling.

Even throughout history, we rely on the storytelling of our ancestors to provide us an understanding of where we’ve been, and more importantly, where we are going.

If you think about every person you consider to be a great communicator, chances are these individuals have an affinity for storytelling. Whether it’s speaking to a massive audience or reciting a bedtime story, storytelling can have a profound impact on the audience.

Through storytelling, we have the power to influence people, their emotions, behaviors, and actions. Stories are unique in that they are far more effective in appealing to our human side than other methods of communication.

Because of how powerful storytelling can be, nonprofits are always trying to understand how they can better master this form of communication.

Throughout this article, we will uncover ways your nonprofit can not only execute better storytelling but also empower and identify your organization’s best communicators.

The Importance of Nonprofit Storytelling

In order to advance an organization’s mission, nonprofits need to influence behavior change amongst many different people. Nonprofit storytelling helps create the context to empathize with one another as well as inspire us to think and act differently.

Storytelling is the puzzle piece which connects donors, community members, volunteers, beneficiaries, and other supporters of the organization to each other.

Many organizations are well aware of the importance of nonprofit storytelling but are not leveraging it to its fullest potential.

Components of a Great Story

Under the right circumstances, any well-crafted story can appeal to donors of all kinds. A powerful story should have these key elements:

  1. A timeline of events
  2. Contextual details/background information
  3. People involved
  4. Problems
  5. Solutions
  6. Supporting data
  7. Underlying emotions

The most engaging stories are ones where we can empathize with those involved.

Stories are a series of facts strung together with supporting details. But without eliciting some kind of emotion, nonprofits miss out on the full impact a story can have on those who are listening.

Data Fuels the Plot

Despite how compelling data can be, good stories stick with us much longer than any single data point or figure. Data should never take the place of a story but instead, be treated as a crucial component which supplements a good story.

The purpose of data in a story is to lend your organization some credibility. Facts and figures are the details which provide greater context to how a nonprofit played a significant role in a story.

Nonprofit Storytelling on the Internet

One of the lessons to be learned from the rise of the Internet is that people have varying preferences when it comes to consuming content.

The idea of a story can be easy to grasp in the context of face-to-face interaction, but stories can be repurposed into many different formats. Depending on how a constituent interacts with your organization online, a single story can come in the form of a video, in-depth blog post, interactive web experience, and so on.

Because of how open and connected the world has become through the Internet, it’s challenging to make your nonprofit’s voice heard. This is why powerful storytelling is more important now than ever.

The good news is that nonprofits have a wealth of great storytellers right in front of them. All it takes is knowing where to find them and creating a culture of storytelling to make the process more natural. Here are a few things to keep in mind when trying to identify your best communicators and finding the stories worth telling to move your organization forward.

1) Creating Consistency in Your Nonprofit Storytelling

Before worrying about identifying the stories your nonprofit wants to tell, it’s important to make sure you have a unified vision of the nonprofit as a whole.

Taking into consideration the organization’s history, values, goals, and how all of this feeds into the overall mission, you should have an idea of the kinds of stories that are worth telling.

Here are a few questions to ask yourself during the evaluation process:

Does this story effectively communicate our mission?

Does it inspire a change in behavior or leave a lasting impression?

In the end, a story should be a tool to achieve a goal, whether it’s to spread awareness or to raise money.

Consistency is a critical concept that should be kept in mind throughout your entire storytelling approach. The reason for this is that no matter how a constituent comes into contact with your nonprofit, the inherent storytelling is universal and easily understood.

2) Highlighting Founders, But Not Too Much

In many nonprofit organizations across the world, the founding members are often the most easily recognized storytellers. This is particularly true if they have attained a level of celebrity through external pursuits or if their work with an organization has had a considerable cultural impact.

Founders are natural storytellers and are commonly viewed as leaders, instrumental in creating the organization’s vision. But the important thing to remember about founders is that they are real people with remarkable experiences.

However, there are times when too much focus on a founder can take the spotlight away from other individuals who have a story worth sharing.

Humans are social beings, and it’s much easier to experience empathy when a story is told from the perspective of a relatable, “real” person. Again, founders can be a good source of storytelling but make sure to spread attention evenly.

3) Identifying Recipients

For clients or program recipients, these individuals reflect how the work of your organization impacts the lives of real people. These people will have the most engaging stories to tell, but it can be difficult to compile stories from program recipients.

The first place to start when trying to collect these compelling stories is getting support from organization leadership. With their full endorsement, you’ll have a much easier time gathering stories across the organization.

When there is a shared mentality that everyone’s experiences are valued, you will hopefully have an idea of which recipients to engage. The idea you must impress upon recipients is the value their story can bring to the organization and future program recipients.

For example, let’s say that you work with a nonprofit which sources expensive equipment for individuals diagnosed with ALS. The story worth telling here is how these machines vastly improve the daily life of someone who’s motion and speech are an immense challenge because of their disease.

Getting first-hand testimonials from family members can also be a powerful way to communicate. Even as you educate supporters about the issue and your cause, weave in stories and personalities that bring your work – and the need for your services – to life.

If your program recipient is “all-in” on sharing their experiences, then you’ll also have a more genuine story to tell.

Encouragement is critical since many recipients may shy away from the attention or have concerns for their privacy. You don’t want to pressure them into doing something they aren’t comfortable with, so always be polite and respect their wishes if they decline.

4) Identifying Other Constituents

Some of the most dedicated advocates a nonprofit has are their constituents. These are the real men and women with genuine encounters which demonstrate all that your nonprofit has achieved and where it’s going.

Focusing on constituents makes it simple for prospective donors, partners, and others to empathize to motivate them to take a specific action. This means breaking it down into finding individuals who represent:

  • Donors
  • Partners
  • Board members
  • Volunteers
  • Staff

Please note that the above is nowhere exhaustive, but more of a quick list to think about. Ideally, you already have at least one of each of the above within your organization who has a worthwhile story.

The idea is to focus on stories in which prospective constituents can easily envision themselves becoming involved with your organization.

For example, let’s say you have a staff member who’s been working for the organization for several years and has witnessed impressive growth during that time. Part of your recruitment efforts should involve highlighting that long-time staff member’s experience with your organization.

5) Identifying Public Figures, Influencers

For many decades, large companies and nonprofits alike have partnered with influential individuals to grow the organization. From traditional celebrities to online content creators, influencers typically have a large social following and can leverage their audience for the good of a nonprofit. These partnerships can be long-term or specifically designed to raise funds for a dedicated campaign.

However your nonprofit has engaged with influencers in the past, these people are prime candidates to become communicators. These stories can either be first-hand accounts or focusing on the success of previous campaigns with supplemental data.

The best influencers to identify are the individuals who have either had a specific relationship in the past or a natural affinity for your organization’s cause. In many cases, some of your biggest influencers may also be some of your major donors, so it also helps to talk about their direct and indirect contributions.

Again, try to keep in mind any privacy concerns, so be sure to get the right permissions ahead of time.

Cultivating a Culture of Nonprofit Storytelling

The best thing any nonprofit can do for themselves is not only to tell great stories but to create a culture which embraces everyone’s story, empowering them to engage people on a deeper level.

A nonprofit is not defined by a handful of individuals, but rather the collective groups that are driving the organization forward. Nonprofit storytelling will come naturally to those who openly celebrate the experiences of everyone the organization touches.

The need for nonprofits to tell their story will never stop, so it’s best to instill a mindset where everyone’s perspective is appreciated and valued. Once you have the makings of a culture that embraces storytelling, let’s recap these key considerations for successful nonprofit storytelling:

  1. Have a unified vision of your nonprofit’s storytelling – Make sure that when trying to tell your organization’s story, you always keep in mind things such as your values, goals, and overall mission. They will contribute a level of consistency in your messaging, no matter who is telling the story
  2. Tell the story of your founders – The history of your nonprofit is important ad your founders may be a good “face” for your organization. Just remember to not place too much emphasis on your founders to appeal to multiple constituents.
  3. Find the right success stories – Every nonprofit has lots of success stories, but it can be hard to find program recipients who are eager to share their experiences.
  4. Place value in everyone’s stories – Some of your best storytellers may be your staff, volunteers. Always encourage them to share their perspectives.
  5. Leverage influencers – If you have a standing relationship with celebrities, online influencers, or public figures, use them to your advantage. These can be effective in many ways and have the potential to spread awareness amongst newer audiences.
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About Bailey Benzle

Bailey Benzlé is the Director of Pre-Sales & Sales Enablement for Omatic Software where she supports both internal staff and clients by determining the best solution to meet unique nonprofit needs. Her responsibilities include working with organizations of all types and sizes by providing evaluations, software demonstrations, answers to technical questions, and resources for any product questions. Prior to joining Omatic Software, Bailey held multiple sales roles at Blackbaud and in the Target Analytics division of Blackbaud®. She also spent seven years in the non-profit sector, as a marketing specialist and Raiser’s Edge end-user. Bailey graduated from Elon University with a bachelor’s of science degree in Biology.