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How to Harness the Power of Storytelling for Your Nonprofit Mission
Learn nonprofit storytelling best practices that can equip your entire team with memorable messages that motivate your supporters.
Today's nonprofits are in constant competition — but not with one another. Even though you're vying for the same funding and resources as other organizations, your real challenge lies in breaking through the noise, the chaotic news cycle, and the ever-buzzing world we live in. Your story is your strength. It's how you stand out in a crowded space, stay present in your supporters' hearts, change minds, smash stigmas, and recruit even the most unlikely folks to champion your critical cause.
At Camp Impact, we featured a master class on nonprofit storytelling from Tania Bhattacharyya, Founder of Lumos Marketing. A marketing expert and former Executive Director of New Directions for Women, she shared best practices from her many experiences in helping her own organization grow as well as others through the power of resonant storytelling.
After Tania's presentation, we heard about the storytelling successes of several nonprofit leaders. After you read about nonprofit storytelling tips from someone who knows best, watch this video to listen to their stories and get their tech recs.
Why Storytelling Matters
Think about the last big fundraiser or community event that you attended. Do you remember any of the facts or figures that were presented? You might remember some, but it's almost guaranteed that you remember at least one of the stories. That's because:
- Stories help people see themselves in the journey to your mission and, in turn, buy into that shared vision.
- Stories are a cornerstone of human connection, which makes them powerful catalysts for change.
- When the listener hears a story, it challenges their worldview about who they are and who they want to be.
How to Tell a Resonant Story
Going to the moon was possible because we set a vision for it. We shared it as a sticky idea. We created messaging around it. And that helped that idea stay present in our minds and made it seem possible even though it was impossible before. So as long as you've done your research and are aligned with the right community, you’re never asking for too large of a donation.
The outcome of telling your story is trust, and trust comes from being able to tell that right story to the right person at the right time. Take Oprah’s Lifetime Achievement Award speech:
5 Takeaways from Oprah’s speech
Stories paint the vision of a different world so that your audience can see it, feel it, and want to join you in that vision. We can't do this work alone. We need to bring other people with us on that journey.
Get right into it.
Oprah didn’t waste any words. She didn’t go on and on about how great it was to receive the award. She went right into the story, which instantly captivated her audience.
Make thoughtful pauses.
Pauses give you, as well as the listener, the space to think and feel. When we get nervous, it's very easy to talk really fast, but there's a lot of power in the pause, so be sure to use it.
Show with your words, don’t tell.
Get descriptive in your stories and let your words paint a picture for the reader. Oprah didn’t say, “We were poor.” She talked about sitting on a linoleum floor, which instantly invites the readers into her childhood home.
Bring listeners through a moment in time back to the present.
In her story, Oprah leveraged circularity to take us back in time and guide us into the present, magnifying the impact of her message. This format and timeline of incredible change is truly the stuff of ugly cries, so use it any time you can.
Prepare to tell the story.
Oprah wasn’t reading from her notes or looking down at them. She likely memorized them, but her delivery was natural and conversational. It was apparent she practiced and was very well-prepared.
Build an Army of Ambassadors with Powerful Stories to Share
Your board members often look for ways to get more involved, but they don't know what stories to tell and what to say. The same goes for your passionate team members and volunteers.
Work on a storytelling strategy with your board and your team so that everyone behind your mission has a story in their back pocket ready to go at gatherings, galas, and events.
Create story frameworks at your next board meeting. Add it to the agenda to share and document stories and create a story library that’s accessible to everyone on your team.
Types of Mission-Driven Stories
To help you plan your storytelling initiative, consider these story types to pull for your library. These storytelling narratives are developed by Marshall Vance, a community organizer and Harvard professor whose framework was widely used in President Obama’s breakout 2008 campaign.
The Story of Self: Team Member, Board Member & Volunteer Stories
What story inspired you to do the mission-critical work you did today? Was it a personal challenge, or did someone you met in the field change your mind about an issue? What event or person made you a part of this movement and why?
Your Nonprofit’s Story: The Story of Us)
Why does your nonprofit exist? What problem motivated you and your team to band together and get to work? How did it happen? What is your goal?
Urgent Issues and Campaigns: The Story of Now
What needs to happen right now? What is your urgent need? What can supporters do today to help you reach your shared vision?
Opportunities to Share Your Story
Prepare your back-pocket stories so they’ll shine in these very public spaces and places.
Meetings and conferences
Think about when you attend AFP or community meetings, and they say, "Everybody take the mic for 30 seconds to share about who you are and what you do." Often this opportunity is completely wasted because most people talk about the name of their organization and their title and nobody remembers that.
Create a verbal business card that includes a brief story of why you specifically do what you do, the problem that exists, how you help solve it, and the outcomes connected to your work. You could say all of this in three sentences and 30 seconds, and people will remember this way more than the typical elevator pitch with your title and organization name.
Your LinkedIn profile’s About section
Your LinkedIn About section is a great place to share pieces of your personal story. Recommend this to your well-connected board members. Ask them to tell their Story of Self that reveals why they choose to be involved with your organization and what your mission means to them.
Podcasts, webinars, and presentations
When you’re a guest speaker, think Oprah and win the room instantly by starting with your three-minute story.
In your new donor email welcome series
Include your Story of Us in your new donor email welcome series. With the rise of peer-to-peer fundraising, you likely have lots of new donors who gave because of a friend’s appeal without knowing about your organization’s mission, roots, and impact. This series provides the perfect opportunity!
How Long Should Your Stories Be?
We have so much to share. We know all the stats and want to cram all the information in there, but you don't need to give everything at once. Think about your goal, and narrow your story accordingly.
Three minutes is the sweet spot for your story. And remember, you will be practicing telling your story in front of people. Just like you did while watching the Oprah video, note where your audience leans in. You should also note where they might get lost or if they get bored. Do they say, "Tell me more"?
These are all indicators of whether or not your story hits or if it's one you can shorten or cut out altogether. Stories get better every time you say them, so the more you tell them, the more you'll use them, and the better you'll hone them to resonate. In short, you've got this! Just keep going, and you'll become a captivating storyteller in no time.
Explore Nonprofit Storytelling Tech Recs from Trusted Peers
Looking for tech tools to help you collect and enhance your mission-minded stories? Get the scoop from nonprofit leaders like you! Check out what they recommend below, or get the full story in this video.
Collect stories from your community with ease
Founder and Executive Director of SportsWorks International NGO, Inc. John Kilntworth used MemoryFox to obtain buy-in from partners in 20 countries around the globe. He sends them a link so they can upload photos, videos, and text through the MemoryFox platform and then easily share these stories through our website, social media, and email newsletters.
Identify the stories and campaigns that best engage your supporters
Growth Officer at Team Awareness Combatting Overdose (TACO) Amanda Grennan Chief looks to Ethos Tracking to easily create and pull reports and run the organization more efficiently. She notes their customer service is “amazing” and consistently works with her team to serve their unique needs.
Track the progress associated with your services to produce greater impact
Data Manager at Family Housing Advisory Services LeAnn Kassube leverages SureImpact to help her track behaviors, mental health, social stability, and other measures relevant to their clients’ success and funders. Ultimately this empowers her team to help the whole person and whole family, rather than just a portion of their needs.
Find These and More Storytelling Solutions on Pond