A Guide to Great Nonprofit Storytelling
How to tell better stories on behalf of your organization
Storytelling is powerful. As humans, we're primed to be deeply affected by stories. Throughout history, they've helped us transmit knowledge and perpetuate our cultures and traditions. They are memorable. They build connections. They motivate us to act. So, how can they be harnessed for your organization?
I was hooked on storytelling well before it became a buzzword. My ravenous story consumption led me to The Moth, a nonprofit that empowers people to tell true stories about their lives on stage. I've since told a story in front of 800 people and been featured on their podcast. Before tech, I worked in nonprofit marketing and fundraising and recently joined the Palantir.net team as a Senior UX and Content Strategist.
At the 2022 Nonprofit Technology Conference, Danielle Smith and I presented "A Guide to Great Nonprofit Storytelling." Danielle is the Communications Manager at Gateway Public Schools, a San Francisco nonprofit. Her background in journalism and creative writing helps her tell stories that get people excited to support Gateway.
While we focused on nonprofits, what follows is valuable for telling stories on behalf of companies too.
What are great stories?
They aren't messages. While you may have heard messaging and storytelling used interchangeably, they’re very different things. Messages fit on a bumper sticker. They are clear and directive. "Don’t talk to strangers" is a message.
They are defined by characters and action, with messages and values embedded within them. Stories reflect how we see ourselves in the world and the kind of world we want to live in (or avoid). "Little Red Riding Hood" is a story with the message "don’t talk to strangers" embedded within it.
They include characters, a setting, a plot, and often a moral or theme. However, rather than writing stories to a rigid framework, use these storytelling elements to improve a story that is falling flat.
They show rather than tell, putting the reader in the author’s world and trusting them to come to their own conclusions. Consider this example:
- Version 1: I went to the pound and adopted the brown puppy, because it was the cutest one there.
- Version 2: I went to the pound and saw the little brown puppy staring up at me with his big round eyes, blinking slowly, and wagging his tail. His ears flopped all over the place as he stumbled over and sank into my lap. My heart melted and knew this was the dog that had to come home with me.
Version 2 trusts you, the reader, to understand that the little brown puppy was the cutest one there. Allowing you to come to that conclusion yourself allows the story to make a much bigger impact.
They need to be ethical. The hero of a nonprofit’s story is a member of your community, not your organization. Your story needs to honor what your hero is going through and how they see themselves. Approach your subject with trust and transparency, giving them as much agency and control over how their story is being told as possible.
Tell your hero how the story will be used and who the intended audience is. For instance, students might present themselves a little differently if their friends’ parents are likely to encounter the story versus donors they’re less likely to know personally.
Give your hero an editing pass before the story is published. There’s a chance they could see a really heart-wrenching detail and ask that it be removed, but in our experience that’s rare. Instead, when people see their story told in a structured way for the first time, it often sparks ideas and they want to contribute more or give additional context.
How do I become a better storyteller for my organization?
Great storytelling is an emotional, not intellectual pursuit, so we think it’s best learned through studying existing stories. We’re surrounded by stories and we know when they work (and when they don’t). And, drawing inspiration from others is a great place to start crafting your own story.
We evaluated four stories with those who attended our session, framing our discussion with the following questions:
- What purpose does this story serve for the organization that created it?
- What works about this story?
- What could be improved?
Hyundai created our first example, a car commercial featuring Spiderman. Its purpose might have been to communicate the 300 mile car range (a dry topic difficult to make interesting) or to connect to Gen Z as they come into financial independence. It works by building the connection between a beloved character and their product and actively dispelling negative perceptions (less powerful, short range) of electric cars. It could be improved by focusing more on the product and considering the impact of deflating a beloved superhero. Overall, we believe this is an effective story told within limited time constraints.
Beth Ann Fennelly created our second example, a Micro Memoir entitled Small Fry. Its purpose might have been to illustrate her curiosity, cleverness, and playful sensibility. It works by engaging a sense of mystery (what’s in the closet?) and providing rich detail. It could be improved by having a clearer moral and offering the grandpa’s perspective. Overall, the author demonstrated that a lot can be accomplished within a paragraph (which can be all you have of someone’s attention).
Gateway Public Schools created our third example, a video produced for their big fundraiser. Its purpose was to get people excited about Gateway’s pandemic work while avoiding interviewing students directly after returning to school. It works by featuring authentic interviews and organic kid moments. It could be improved by being a little shorter and hearing directly from students. Overall, it successfully inspired donors to contribute to Gateway.
Habitat for Humanity created our fourth example, a story of a family impacted by their work. Its purpose might have been to show that their work makes a difference long after a family moves in and to inspire people to contribute. It works by being an emotional, raw story that keeps Maria as the hero while also including her family. It could be improved by featuring a stronger call-to-action and expanding on how Habitat helped Maria. Overall, it tells a complete and moving story without requiring significant effort to create.
How do I create a story for my organization?
First, make sure you're clear on the answer to these questions:
- What do you want your story to achieve for your organization? Asked another way, what do you want people to know or believe about your organization after encountering this story?
- Given your previous answer, who are some potential protagonists from your community for your story?
- What mediums (long-form written, short-form written, podcast, video, etc.) do you already have available for telling this story?
- Given your previous answers, what medium would work best for this story?
Then, follow these steps:
- As an ethical storyteller, interview a potential protagonist
- Once you've found your protagonist, outline your story
- Write an initial draft of your story
- Ask a team member to review it for you, then make any necessary edits
- Ask your protagonist to review it for you, then make any necessary edits
- Tell your story, then keep telling stories
- Don't confuse a message for storytelling, but do infuse your stories with a message
- Is your story falling flat? Go back to the basics: character, conflict, and resolution
- Respect the real people serving as your protagonists, and keep the story centered on them—not your organization
- Become a ravenous consumer of stories and emulate your favorites to develop your own style!