How to Create Stories That Boost Nonprofit Fundraising and Engagement
As a nonprofit organization, telling a story can be one of the most effective and persuasive communication tools we use. Stories can explain what your organization does, who it benefits and make it memorable. Once you learn to tell your organization's story and make it a fundamental part of your outreach strategy, you should see an impact on your fundraising and your ability to connect and engage with donors, partners and your community.
Our brains are wired for stories. It's how we learn, how we make sense of the world and how we communicate. Stories affect us physiologically; they can increase our brain's neural activity and generate empathy at a chemical level.
Stories are also a great way to break through the deluge of content coming our way because they can create an emotional connection, empathy or a new way of viewing and understanding complex issues. If your organization tells stories explaining the root of a problem in a human way, you can shape how people understand the issues your nonprofit tackles and the solutions you offer.
How to Tell a Good Story
We've all heard that it's essential for a nonprofit to tell its story, but going from theory to practice can be challenging. How do you tell a good story? It's crucial to do more than share information about a program and its success.
Use the Elemental Components of a Good Story
First, you need a protagonist or hero. You want someone sympathetic or compelling. Then you need to have the building blocks of a story that has three acts:
- An introduction with a hook to draw your audience in, setting the stage and introducing the characters
- Rising action as the stakes get higher and we begin to understand the hero's goals and obstacles, leading to a climax where the hero risks it all
- A resolution that changes the hero (It’s a story of transformation that your organization helped happen at some point along the way.)
This provides a brief overview of the building blocks of a story, and there are many good resources to help nonprofits craft compelling stories, including The Science of Story Building and Storytelling for Good.
Create Psychological Impact
While at Pixar, I had the honor of working with some of the world's greatest storytellers. One director, Andrew Stanton, did a TED talk about storytelling. He said that what draws people into a story is "the well-organized absence of information." Andrew describes it as giving the audience “two plus two,” rather than “four.” This forces the audience to put some of the details in for themselves.
Psychology research calls this the "causal bridging inference." It suggests that making your audience piece together information provides them with more in-depth insight and creates longer memories of the experience. Having some “empty space” can allow them to insert their own experiences and create connections that form a deeper level of engagement.
Be Authentic and Conscientious in Storytelling
Tell stories that are authentic to your brand and your values. Be open to being vulnerable and true because stories that seem contrived or phony are often picked up on by an audience.
Be conscientious of the people that form your stories, and ensure that they are comfortable and ready to tell their story. You want to help people share stories for the right reasons, not because they feel obliged.
If you are with an organization that maintains confidentiality for your beneficiaries, you can still tell stories with a pseudonym or composite character. In the alternative, you can tell the story of a donor, volunteer, partner, staff or board member, as everyone contributes to the mission of your nonprofit.
Create a Storytelling Organization
Now that you know the elements of a great story, how do you capture these stories throughout your organization?
Gather and Store Stories
First, set up a system to gather stories. Create story brainstorming meetings and story circles to get staff and other stakeholders together to share their experiences and collect ideas and sources for stories. Develop a way to organize your nonprofit's narratives and have a story bank to save them. Make it available to everyone in the organization so that they can refer to them before any event, conference or board meeting.
Make Everyone a Storyteller
Second, remember that everyone in your organization is a storyteller. Every staff and board member communicates what the organization does and its mission. Storytelling can't just fall on the plate of the communications or development team. Getting everyone involved in telling stories from the top down will increase the success of your organization.
Learning to capture and craft stories for your nonprofit does take time and effort, but will be worth it for your organization. Within your nonprofit, creating a space to tell stories will educate the staff, volunteers and board about the critical work of your organization, creating comradery and a shared sense of purpose. When done well, stories also create meaningful connections between your nonprofit and its donors, partners and community.
After all, everyone loves a good story.
Leeann Alameda has more than 20 years of experience in directing and implementing best practices in marketing, branding, communications and advertising in both the private and nonprofit sectors. She is the founder and principal consultant of Alameda Marketing Solutions, which provides marketing strategy and branding services for nonprofits, foundations and mission-driven businesses.