7 Storytelling Tips for Nonprofits - Good360

7 Storytelling Tips for Nonprofits

Every nonprofit today needs to know how to be good storytellers.


Because marketing makes noise, but stories make you listen. Human beings seem hardwired to respond to stories. We’ll remember a good story well told long after we’ve forgotten all of the relevant facts and figures.

For nonprofits, storytelling is an essential and powerful tool to raise money, attract volunteers, and grow awareness. A great story with an emotional hook will not only engage your donors, it will compel them to take action.

Unlike consumer brands, a nonprofit doesn’t usually get people to open up their wallets by pitching a product or service. The only product you have is your story. How are you helping people? How are you changing the world? Borrowing techniques from narrative storytelling can help you answer these questions in a way that generates an outpouring of support.

Here are seven strategic ways to use storytelling to help your nonprofit achieve its goals:

Leverage the 3Cs of Storytelling

Creative writers spin up compelling narratives by focusing on three elements: Character, conflict, and a desire for change.

They need to create sympathetic and believable characters for readers to root for. For nonprofits, this usually means focusing on a single, real individual as your character, not a faceless group of people.

All characters need to go up against some kind of conflict or struggle to make the story interesting. What’s the conflict that your organization addresses and how do you make it real for your audience?

And lastly, your character needs to have a burning desire to make a change. This could be a desire to get an education, get out of poverty, or get clean drinking water.

Next time you write your fundraising communication, think about how you can apply the elements of character, conflict and change.

Make Your Cause Your Hero

A common mistake that a lot of nonprofits make in their storytelling is putting their organization at the center of the story. Often times, this comes across as a bunch of boring statistics and facts: “Our program does X, Y, and Z, and that’s why you should care.”

A more convincing approach is to make your cause or the people you’re helping as the protagonist. This is the real hero of your story.

Engage your audience by talking about the struggles or barriers that your hero faces to get what she needs, taking the reader through a journey of hardship and, finally, triumph. Tell a specific story around the hero’s struggle, and then show her overcoming these challenges — with your organization’s help.

Choose One Person as Your Character

Good storytelling comes down to creating emotion. But this is easily forgotten by many nonprofits when they start talking “our donors” or “our constituents.” The emotional hook gets buried beneath a mountain of facts and figures.

How do you create an emotional pull so that your audience pays attention? Focus on the plight of a single person. Tell the story of your organization or cause through the lens of a unique experience, reinforced with as much relevant personal details as you can provide.

It’s easier to elicit an emotional response when you shine the spotlight on a real person with real struggles. Remember, this is the true hero of your story. One authentic story of a human being in need is a lot more relatable than a demographic like “lower-income families.”

Focus on the Big Five Story Types

Every nonprofit organization should be able to craft at least five main types of stories:

  • The creation story: How did the organization form? What are its roots? What’s your core purpose?
  • The vision story: Where is the organization headed? What are the big, audacious goals that you want to achieve?
  • The impact story: How is your organization making a difference in the actual lives of the community in which it works? Show real examples with real people.
  • The people story: What are the personal stories of the people running the organization and what drives them to do this work?
  • The recovery story: Can you share a time when your nonprofit faced a major challenge and how it recovered from this low point? Giving insight into an organizational challenge shows vulnerability and authenticity.

Internalize Your Creation Story

The most important of the Big Five stories is the creation story. This serves as your north star. Your organization may change its strategic goals from year to year, but the creation story provides the guiding principle.

Make sure you can articulate your creation story succinctly and put this on your website, either on your homepage or About Us section. Make sure that all of your employees, especially new ones, can tell the story convincingly.

Here’s an example of a powerful creation story: Charity Water got started when Scott Harrison, then a 28-year-old nightclub promoter grew tired of the parties he was throwing around New York City. The lifestyle felt empty. He left to volunteer as a photojournalist on a floating hospital ship offering free medical care to the world’s poorest people. When he returned to New York eight months later, he was a changed man. He also realized that many of the health problems he encountered stemmed from a lack of clean drinking water. Charity Water was born.

Everybody at the organization now knows this story by heart.

Cultivate a Culture of Storytelling

Storytelling doesn’t always come naturally to a lot of nonprofits, but the best organizations are always coming up with great stories to tell. How do they do this? They make storytelling an integral part of the company culture.

The first step is to make everyone aware of the power of storytelling. Pass around examples: “This story about 6-year-old Noah got shared by 50 people on our Facebook page, and it’s led to a serious conversation with a big donor.”

Then make storytelling a common practice. Start every staff meeting by sharing a personal story or an impact story. Everyone from the CEO on down should get comfortable with sharing stories. Often times, the best stories come from the people working on the “frontlines” of the organization, the people on the ground working in the community.

Lastly, institute a formal process for capturing stories. Assign someone to ask others in the nonprofit about their stories on a regular basis, or create an online form such as a Google document that can be filled out by anyone who has a worthwhile story to share.

Think About the Visuals

Storytelling doesn’t just come through in words. Done well, visual storytelling can pack a bigger emotional punch (and more quickly) than a written story ever could. It’s no surprise that Instagram has seen explosive growth in recent years, and has become the social media platform of choice for many nonprofits such as Charity Water and Pencils of Promise.

Consider visual mediums such as videos, photography, infographics, and even cartoons or drawings to stand out in a sea of text. Happily for budget-minded nonprofits, visual storytelling doesn’t necessarily mean just expensive, slickly produced videos. In fact, a “low-fi” video shot with an iPhone can convey more authenticity in some ways than a professionally shot and edited video.

Lastly, branding driven by a cohesive visual identity is an important element of storytelling that’s often overlooked by nonprofits. When you create a strong brand for your nonprofit, program, or campaign, you help tell the story better by creating an emotional connection that’s memorable. The next time someone encounters your brand, they recall those feelings of goodwill and are more open to your messaging. Good branding combined with good storytelling makes your ideas stick.

Phat Chiem

Phat Chiem is the co-founder of StoryCraft, a brand storytelling and content marketing agency based in Santa Monica, Calif. Previously, he was a senior editor for Yahoo and a staff writer for the Chicago Tribune. He holds an MBA from Pepperdine’s Graziadio School of Business and Management.