Hone Your Craft: The Art of Nonprofit Storytelling

This article was originally published in Nonprofit Hub Magazine.

Everyone has a favorite story. Whether it comes in the form of a book, a comic, a movie or a video game, we all have stories that we like and ones that we decidedly dislike. Maybe we fell in love with the characters, or maybe it was the writing, the setting or the theme. Some of our favorite stories are fiction, and some of them are nonfiction. But even when the stories we love aren’t rooted in fact or based on history, we connect to them on a real, human level. Even stories about alternate worlds and mystical creatures get us caught in the feels.

What is it about these stories that makes us feel, think and understand the world? I don’t claim to have the clinical, psychological answer to a question like this, but I do know that human beings use stories to craft the world around them. Whenever we face a conflict or dilemma, we recall stories—whether they’re our own or not—to help us deal with them. And to tell a story that is interesting or compelling to someone else is to know what stories are already in their brains.

That’s where we, as nonprofit storytellers, need to begin.

Starting your story from scratch

Before all else, you need to be able to tell your organization’s “origin story.” That is, you need to be able to explain where your nonprofit came from. Where and when did the idea begin? What was the process like? Being able to emphatically and confidently tell your origin story will make a world of difference when talking to potential donors and volunteers.

Perhaps the most important component of a good story is development. How did the characters change? How did the world change? What about that change is significant, especially as it relates to the reader? These are the questions you should keep in the back of your mind when crafting your story from scratch—especially if it’s an original, untold story.

If you and your organization are doing things no one else is, you need to tell people about it. More importantly, you need to tell them about it in such a way that they won’t be able to forget. What did the community look like before your organization started? What did the world look like? What does it look like now? If you can, find a specific example to build your story around. It can be a person whose life you changed (or could change), or an organization which benefited from your work. Using these types of examples gives your story a human element—a phenomenon with which others can directly relate and empathize.

Telling a story that’s already been told

In many cases, the story your nonprofit needs to tell has already been told. But don’t worry:  even if the world has already heard a similar story, they haven’t heard your version. Just because a potential donor is already engaged with an organization dedicated to youth development doesn’t mean that same donor won’t give to your youth development nonprofit. It all comes down to the way you tell your story.

Let’s think about this in terms of famous literature (I know, I know, I was an English major in college): if readers were to discount all other twentieth century dystopian novels just because they read Orwell’s 1984, how did so many others succeed—thrive, even—during the same time period? The answer, of course, is that they succeeded in telling a different version of a similar story. For example, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is the same as Orwell’s story in that they both take place in near-future America, where a totalitarian government has taken control of nearly all aspects of daily life. Put simply, the settings of these stories are nearly identical. Yet, despite their similarities, they manage to tell wildly different stories. The authors found what made their stories unique and capitalized on it. You need to do the same.

Now that we’ve exited our literature lesson, it’s time for you to author your own story, no matter how different from or similar to others it may be.

From the experts

Lori L. Jacobwith, founder of Ignited Fundraising, has helped hundreds of nonprofits raise millions of dollars through effective storytelling. According to Jacobwith, it’s vital that your story is relatable.

“Stories should be about real people who need something,” she said. “And hopefully something your organization provides.”

Empathy is also incredibly important when crafting and telling your organization’s story. There should be a moment—or several moments—when people see themselves or someone they know inside your story. The more people who can relate your mission and your story to their own lives, the more likely they will be to engage with your organization.

In this day and age, it’s also imperative that your story is brief and concise. Jacobwith recommends your story be between six words (just a short tagline) and two minutes in length. Some argue that the average human attention span is a mere eight seconds, so you have to make your words count!

Andy Goodman is a nationally recognized author, speaker and consultant, and he, too, is outspoken about the importance of storytelling in the nonprofit sector. Goodman said he believes that good stories need to be accompanied by effective metrics. He stated that telling an effective nonprofit story is like a “one-two punch.” The “one” of the combo is telling the story that gets someone’s attention, and the “two” is backing that story up with real, concrete statistics that give your story legitimacy.

“You have to have a combination. The stories alone are not enough…if you only have the stories, if you don’t really have the data, you haven’t done the due diligence,” he said.

Stories are important, and not just to writers and avid readers. They’re important to everyone, including you and your organization. Whether you’re telling a brand new story or learning to tell a well-known story in a new and engaging way, you’re doing important work. Learn to craft your story effectively, and you’ve won half the battle. The other half is getting people to listen.