Harnessing the Power of Storytelling for Nonprofit Success

Every day, your nonprofit tells a story. Whether conveying to constituents how your services can meet their needs or demonstrating to donors how their support makes that happen, the effectiveness of your messaging is crucial to your nonprofit’s success.

Humans have been telling stories since the beginning of time. Some of the greatest storytellers throughout history have captivated the world with their iconic narratives and pioneering story craft. From Aesop, Confucius, Homer, and Shakespeare to Walt Disney, Steven Spielberg, and the shows and podcasts we obsessively binge-watch today, storytelling has shaped culture all over the world.

Some of the most effective brands in advertising–Nike, Dove, Apple, Microsoft–are always spotlighting everyday people in product launch videos to showcase innovation through compelling user stories and testimonials that are grounded in emotion.

So, what can nonprofits learn? And what can they apply from these great storytellers and great stories of the world?

The Power of Storytelling

Storytelling has such a rich history because it is one of the most effective ways for humans to connect with other humans. That is the most important part nonprofits’ work. Storytelling attracts more resources (donors, volunteers, partners), builds credibility, and rallies communities internally and externally around a mission.

Stories can inspire emotion and connect with people’s values, which translates to a greater ability to fund important programs and advance the nonprofit’s mission. They also build brand awareness and enhance reputations, fueling a nonprofit’s ability to do the greater work.

The Benefits of Storytelling

Spreading awareness through stories exposes the nonprofit’s work and mission to new audiences that you wouldn’t otherwise have had access to and solidifies its reputation as a trustworthy organization. The same is true for membership organizations. Brand building through storytelling helps bring in new members and constituents from circles outside the typical audience base.

Powerful stories can also motivate team members and stakeholders. Inspiring stories that spotlight real human impact from the field energize internal teams and remind everyone why their work matters. Uplifting stories can motivate policymakers and other external stakeholders as well.

Best Practices of Storytelling

Fortunately, you don’t have to be Aesop or Shakespeare to be a good storyteller. Nonprofits can learn a lot from these top tier storytellers about how to make their stories more compelling and impactful. And it can be summed up in one word: authenticity.

Authenticity requires transparency and accountability, and nothing does that better than highlighting real-world stories that spotlight what the nonprofit achieves with the funding it receives. This transparency will continue to nurture a greater trust and loyalty for the organization, which is crucial to its success. These stories also provide measurable results to prove responsibility, which is just as important.

Authenticity through transparent and candid stories from the communities a nonprofit serves may be challenging, but the tension in a story is compelling. Good storytelling has dramatic moments that create suspense and uncertainty, which ultimately resolve and touch the audience emotionally. It can also create more urgency around problems that the nonprofit is trying to solve.

Especially in government-funded nonprofits, there is much tension around needs–needs of the constituents for services and the organization’s needs because it lacks funding from other nonprofits. When their story is being told, whether it’s to a government official, the public, or a potential donor, employees often provide the best testimonials of the challenges that are out there and how the organization is resolving them.

Characterization is also essential in creating a compelling story. Vivid back stories and experiences that humanize the protagonist of the story make people care. Nonprofits should spotlight these personalized stories and the specific people being impacted. Making audiences laugh, cry, cheer, or be inspired or outraged will trigger both self-reflection and motivation.

It is helpful to weave in pop culture and trending concepts to create stories that resonate. These unique branding hooks will make your story more compelling and help you break through very crowded, noisy social media and other channels. This is often best achieved through polished media, photography, sound and editing. The production quality is vital to compete for attention in the crowded media landscape. Storytelling is most meaningful when done skillfully.

The most compelling nonprofit storytelling will combine hard facts with moving narratives. Facts are important to authenticity, but the power lies in speaking to both the head and heart. Profile specific people (or even animals, in some cases) to put a face to the cause. These tangible illustrations of the facts help build empathy and draw people in. Facts inform, but feelings motivate.

If possible, use a variety of media types. Telling stories through print is still very effective, but a campaign using video, photography, social media and other formats will help reach broader audiences. The more types of mediums, the wider the audience.

The best media type(s) will depend on the audience. Look outward to see what your peers are doing, but that only sometimes means it will work for you. Take the time to understand what audience you’re trying to reach and then conduct research to find where that audience is spending the most time. If you are trying to attract a new donor base that is not typically on social media, your incredible story will never reach them there.

No matter what media type you choose, always conclude with a call to action. Whether that’s to donate, volunteer, or share the story on social media, make it crystal clear what you want your audience to do next.

Strategies for 2024 Storytelling

Stories are even more powerful when you consider that can be recycled and told repeatedly. Your nonprofit’s story should be shared in multiple ways. In addition to your digital and print marketing, continue to share these assets at in-person events, virtual meetings, and presentations to potential large donors or board members.

As technology and ideas continue to evolve, here are a few of the most effective ways nonprofits are getting the most value out of their storytelling efforts:

  • Client journey videos that spotlight any client’s transformational journey from before they received your services to after. This could be done in a series of short videos or articles.
  • Profile volunteers and their personal anecdotes in newsletters, websites and social media.
  • Use free or affordable tools to create infographics that share complex data in meaningful, easily digestible ways.
  • Create donor thank you videos or testimonials of others your nonprofit has impacted.
  • Highlight your  nonprofit’s organizational history and impact to make it a character in the story. Include milestone dates, key achievements, and upcoming new programs.
  • Tap into the power of artificial intelligence to execute the campaign and fill in any gaps in marketing talent on your team. AI can generate storytelling concepts and even write the narrative.
  • Consider student partnerships to involve students and schools in creating the stories and foster word-of-mouth storytelling.
  • Provide coverage of key events throughout the year through social media “takeover” by an ambassador and/or live feeds from the event, expanding your reach exponentially.

Storytelling is critical to your nonprofit’s overall ability to do its work and advance its mission. Historical and current-day examples prove that stories build communities and change lives. From volunteers to board members, storytelling should be a top priority for everyone with a great story to tell about your organization this year.

David M. Rottkamp David M. Rottkamp, CPA, is an Audit Partner and Nonprofit Practice Leader, at Grassi. David has over 36 years of experience providing audit and advisory services to the not-for-profit and health care industries. David focuses on organizations serving individuals with special needs, religious organizations, educational institutions, membership associations, social service providers, healthcare providers, foundations, and the arts and culture world. David’s technical knowledge allows... Read full bio

Categories: Advisory