Nonprofit storytelling is the most powerful way that you can attract support to your organization. So how do you start in engaging in storytelling for nonprofits, and how do you do it in a successful and ethical way?
In this article we will explore exactly what to do to tell your organization’s story, delving into the most comprehensive list of organizational storytelling examples and tips. So let’s dive in!
What Makes a Good Nonprofit Story? What to Include
To write a good nonprofit story, you should consider your overall goals for telling the story, what structure will make it most compelling, and how you can incorporate visuals to further communicate your message.
Here are some guiding questions and examples you can use as you develop your goals, structure, and visuals:
- What type of story do you need to tell?
- Example: is this a story about your overall impact, a story of thanks, or is this about how to make the case for a particular program?
- Who is your audience for this story?
- Example: potential donors, seasoned volunteers, board members.
- How do you want the audience to feel after they hear this story?
- Example: do they feel compassionate towards the people you serve? Do they feel proud of the volunteer work they have done with your organization?
- What action would you like your audience to take?
- Example: donating to your annual campaign or becoming a regular volunteer.
An Organized Structure
- Where is this story going to be located?
- Example: on the website, embedded in a grant proposal, or in a letter to donors.
- What length would you like the story to be?
- Example: a paragraph, a page, or multiple pages in an annual report.
- What sort of data do you have available that you can include?
- Example: census data on the area you serve, compelling research, or narratives from program recipients.
- Does the format of the story allow for you to include videos and pictures?
- Example: a story for your website that you can incorporate many visuals into vs. a donor letter with less space and no room for videos.
- What pictures or videos do you have that illustrate your cause?
- Example: pictures of the area that you serve or videos of volunteers in action at a site.
- Do you have a need for and the capability to design an infographic?
- Example: if you have a lot of facts and figures to explore in your storytelling, an infographic can make it more easy to follow.
Why is Storytelling Important in Fundraising?
Successful nonprofit fundraising is based on artfully appealing to your supporters’ empathy. When people have an emotional response and connection to a nonprofit’s mission, they feel compelled to get involved.
Telling a story gives you the opportunity to elaborate on your mission and inspire supporters to volunteer, donate, and engage with your nonprofit.
Storytelling for nonprofits involves both highlighting the compelling need and communicating how taking action solves the issue. Showcasing how donors’ support makes a true difference in accomplishing your mission makes them feel fulfilled in their efforts.
Storytelling can be used in each aspect of your fundraising initiatives, including:
- Your overall digital presence (e.g., social media and websites that direct to your giving portal)
- Grant writing
- Annual campaigns
- Peer-to-peer appeals
How Do You Write a Nonprofit Story?
Here are five key steps to create a foundation for a good nonprofit story:
1. Understand Storytelling Basics:
What makes a story? Reviewing this National Story Network resource on the components of storytelling can help you get a good feel for how to tell stories in general.
2. Review Nonprofit Storytelling Examples:
Spend some time looking over nonprofit storytelling examples to get inspiration. We have included a list of examples in the later sections of this article!
3. Decide on Your Goals:
Once you get a good feel for how to tell a story, think about what your goals are for your particular story. It’s important to understand what you are trying to accomplish before you begin writing.
4. Select and Create the Structure:
Create an outline for your story. Refer back to your goals to make sure that each part of the outline is helping to further your goals for telling the story.
5. Collect and Select Visuals:
Once you have your outline finished, collect and curate the visuals that will help further your story’s message. You might even want to create visuals specifically tailored for the story you are telling.
Here’s an awesome nonprofit storytelling worksheet by America’s Charities that you can download to help guide your storytelling brainstorming:
21 Storytelling Tips for Nonprofits
1. Articulate Your Vision
One of the most compelling points of your nonprofit’s mission is your vision of a better world. Highlight that vision in your storytelling as the ultimate goal of what you are working so hard to accomplish!
2. Appeal to Values
An excellent way to emotionally connect with your audience is to appeal to core human values like truth, peace, love, and honor. You can appeal to these core values by selecting community stories that illustrate them, such as a program participant’s love for their family or the honor found in advocating for endangered species.
3. Use Real Life Examples of Your Work
Whenever you can, highlight real-life stories of your work and try not to rely too heavily on generic examples. Remember that this story is about your nonprofit and its impact first and foremost!
4. Identify a “Main Character”
In following the principles of storytelling, your story should focus on the journey of a “main character”—someone or something that has been impacted by your cause and your organization.
Remember that your main character can also be your nonprofit organization if you are telling a story of your impact.
5. Describe An Issue/Problem/Struggle
Conflict is a key part of storytelling. For your nonprofit, it is the “villain” that you are combatting—for example, climate change or food insecurity. Your “main character” should face this “villain” midway through your story.
6. Emphasize Your Successful Outcomes
Highlight your accomplishments with a particular focus on outcomes—measurable, tangible results that you have achieved in your target area of work. Tie that back to the issue/problem/struggle, and how you made a real impact on solving that issue for your main character.
7. Focus on Clarity in Your Writing
Be careful to stay focused on clarity in your storytelling—think of the quickest and clearest ways to make your point. Remembering your goals can help you stay on track. No one wants to read a story that is difficult to understand or follow.
8. Write to Appeal to Your Target Audience
Think about who your target audience is, and tailor your story to appeal to them. Emphasize the importance of volunteering if you are looking for volunteers; the importance of donations if you are looking for donors; and the importance of your work overall if it is a general story of impact of your nonprofit.
9. Incorporate Statistical Data Thoughtfully
Data can be a deeply compelling piece of your story, but be careful not to rely too heavily on facts and figures. Incorporate key pieces throughout your story as opposed to focusing solely on statistical data, which can be dry and lacking in emotional appeal.
10. Focus on Your Mission in Action
Storytelling for your nonprofit should always be built around your mission statement, focusing on what that mission looks like in action as you engage in your programs and initiatives. Telling your story is a chance to add detail to your concise mission statement.
11. Explore Changes That Have Happened Over Time
As you craft your story, consider the changes over time that your nonprofit has experienced. Highlight both key historical and recent milestones, and changes in your catchment area. Your focus should be on illustrating the importance of your work and the need for it to continue.
12. Simplify Complicated Subjects
When you write your story, keep in mind your audience’s perspective in reading the content. Break down your more complex work into accessible concepts that your audience will be able to follow.
13. Write conversationally and naturally
As you’re developing the content of your story, write in the same conversational way that you would speak to someone about your work. For example, if you are writing a story to include as part of a donation thank you letter, imagine that you are speaking to that donor face-to-face over a coffee.
14. Engage Specific Audiences
If there are details you can incorporate to appeal to the specific audience you are crafting the story for, highlight them! For example, if you are writing to your listserv of regular volunteers, emphasize key contributions that the volunteer team has made to the organization’s mission throughout the year.
15. Invoke Imagery to Inspire Imagination
Add in descriptive adjectives and describe scenarios in deep detail. You want to leave your audience with imagery that sticks in their mind and inspires them. Paint the scene of what your community looks like, sounds like, and even smells or tastes like if you’re doing something like community gardening!
16. Collect Stories from Program Leaders and Volunteers
To write narratives that are reflective of your work, tap your program leaders and volunteers to collect stories of both significant events and their day-to-day operations.
17. Avoid Jargon
Stay away from industry jargon and acronyms whenever possible. If you absolutely need to use them, provide a brief, easy to understand definition that makes the content accessible to your audience.
18. Update Stories Regularly
Your work is constantly scaling and evolving, and so should your stories! Create a system to ensure you are regularly updating your stories with current information.
19. Build A Storytelling Team
If your organization has the capacity, include storytelling as part of the regular duties assigned to key staff and volunteers. Have your team set time aside to capture narratives, take pictures and videos, and brainstorm ideas for storytelling.
20. Provide Links to Additional Information
When you are closing your story, provide an opportunity for the reader to find out more information. If you are closing with a call to action, make sure to clearly include the information they need to complete that action.
21. Proofread and Peer Edit
Lastly, remember to proofread your work! To create a professional-looking story, the grammar and syntax is critical. If you have a colleague who is available (or a member of your storytelling team!) have them take a look at your story and provide honest feedback.
11 Best Practices for Ethical Nonprofit Storytelling
A crucial concept to keep in mind when developing storytelling for your nonprofit is looking at your writing through an ethical lens. It is key to highlight your work without compromising trust, privacy, and other keystone values of your nonprofit.
Here’s a list of tips for ethical storytelling for nonprofits to help you lead your storytelling with ethical best practices:
1. Lead With Your Clients’ Best Interests First
When you are telling your organization’s story, remember that the people and communities you serve are important above all else. If you lead with that consideration, the rest of these ethical tips will come easily.
2. Remember That Your Are in a Position of Power
As an organization serving vulnerable communities, remember that you are in a place of power and influence. When you collect information for your programs, remember that it should never be something that is contingent on individuals and communities receiving services.
3. Create and Implement a Digital Media Release Form
If your organization is working with people, create a release form that’s incorporated into the intake process. This form should also be shared with staff, volunteers, and anyone who might be involved in the storytelling.
4. Ensure Informed Consent at All Times
Ensure that individuals fully understand the way their stories are being used. Remind anyone whose stories are being incorporated that they can withdraw consent at any time.
5. Engage Folks That Your Serve in the Storytelling Process
Invite your clientele and community to be involved in telling your nonprofit’s story. Create space for them to share their ideas and input whenever possible.
6. Tell the Truth
Never exaggerate details for dramatic effect. Both your audience and the community that you serve deserve a real portrayal of your work.
7. Consider Compensating Individuals for Their Time
If you are gathering stories from those that you serve, consider compensating them for any extra time spent interviewing them.
8. Limit the Identifying Information You Collect
Only record information that you need to tell a compelling story about your organization’s work. If it’s not important to the success of your program, it’s not information that you need to ask about.
9. Protect Privacy
Let your clients, volunteers, and staff decide how much information that they are comfortable sharing. Use pseudonyms when possible, and withdraw any other details at the individual’s request.
10. Don’t Reinforce Harmful Stigmas/Stereotypes
While you are crafting narratives as part of the storytelling process, create genuine portrayals of the people you serve. Be careful and considerate when selecting content.
11. If You Have Questions, Consult Experts
If you find yourself in an ethical gray area, do not move forward with incorporating information into your storytelling until you have carefully considered the implications and consulted experts as needed. Consider taking this nonprofit storytelling pledge from Ethical Storytelling and incorporating it into your organizational policies.
13 of the Best Nonprofit Storytelling Examples
Now that you have a toolkit of tips and best practices for nonprofit storytelling, here are some of the best nonprofit storytelling examples you can use to guide you as you craft your organizatin’s story.
This is a short and sweet story for a donor appeal that shows how much can be said with just a few lines of text combined with an emotionally evocative picture. It has a well-described main character, a struggle, and impact statement geared towards a potential donor, as well as strategically placed buttons to allow the audience to complete the desired action.
The charity:water’s story is probably one of the most widely known examples of successful nonprofit storytelling. Over the years, it has become the industry standard of what makes a stand-out nonprofit story.
You can see the emotional response that it evokes in their audience just by looking through the YouTube comment section. Their mission and vision focus on the essential human need of water, and on the incredible need that exists in the communities they work with.
The Centre for Community Organizations created this excellent video that follows a very classic story structure, following the journey of a main character (Iman) and her experience with racism and bias nonprofit organizations.
The video concludes with the Centre’s vision for what the nonprofit community could be in the future. Their story’s goal is to compel their audience to imagine a different world, and envision how the audience could be a part of that change. Looking in the comment section of the video, you can see that is exactly the experience that the viewers had.
This video follows the story of Debby Shore, one of the founders of Sasha Bruce Youthwork, a nonprofit organization dedicated to working with unhoused youth. Their story covers a few different topics, highlighting the journey of both leadership and clients, as well as touching on the need for ongoing support. This is a good model for a story in a video format.
The Advocates for Children of New Jersey tell a very clear and succinct story about why they do what they do in the first two sentences of their “Who We Are” section: “Children can’t vote. They have no political influence. They can’t tell our state leaders what they need. That’s why we’re here.”
The introduction compels the audience to learn more about the organization that is doing empowering things for New Jersey kids.
Highlighting your grant-funded work is an important story to be able to tell. The Kentucky Nonprofit Network provides a clear and compelling “thank you” overview of their work, breaking down the sections of their grant project and corresponding story into easy to read sections that make the purpose clear to the target audience.
Robinhood tells their story on the front page of their website, using professional photography and graphics to spark interest to continue scrolling. The ultimate purpose of their storytelling ends at the bottom of their page with a call for donations, but they also provide opportunities to click through to other pages on their site.
Of note in their storytelling is their use of data and highlighting the huge amount of money they have contributed to the communities they serve.
Here’s another great example of a quick, succinct story—the Center for Nonprofit Management highlights their vision, the main characters (nonprofits), the problem (lack of resources) and their solution (connecting nonprofits with the resources that they need).
CNM couples that hook with a video embedded right next to the text, so once they have the interest of their target audience, they have the immediate ability to learn more by playing the video.
9. The Malala Fund:
The Malala Fund highlights their work by segmenting their catchment area and the unique challenges and solutions for each area. They provide compelling pictures and statistics that emphasize the text. The focus of this storytelling is to spread awareness of the issue of education in Brazil during the pandemic and how their programming addresses the issue.
10. The Literacy Lab:
The Literacy Lab created a really compelling story that explores the schedules of their tutors so you can see exactly what a day looks like for them. This is a great example of how to tell stories about your program staff in an engaging and accessible way.
BellXcel has an entire section of their website devoted to telling stories of the impact of their work. Take a look at how they explain terminology from their programs to make them accessible to a wide audience and at how they spotlight the students and teachers.
12. The SELCO Foundation:
The SELCO Foundation has an approach to storytelling that is unique, strong, and prioritizes a great user experience when clicking through their program highlights. As you scroll through the page, the story literally unfolds in front of you, starting with the background and ending with how the SELCO Foundation helped with their built environment approach.
The Firelight Foundation explains their impact through a theory of change—the story of how their organization fulfills their mission and vision. Creating a graphic like this is an excellent tool for communicating the impact of what your organization is doing, and is a good place to start in storytelling if you are looking to communicate how your programs and services work together to enact change.
Additional Resources on Nonprofit Storytelling
Here are a few more resources you can use to continue to hone your storytelling skills and start creating!
1. How To Collect Your Stories
We’ve thoroughly explored how to tell your nonprofit story, but you might also be wondering how to collect them! Check out this nonprofit storytelling worksheet by J Campbell Social Marketing that can help you get in the right frame of mind to collect the information you need to tell your nonprofit’s story. There are also some great webinars from Instrumentl that can speak to the nuances of storytelling, like putting together a logic model.
2. Digital Storytelling for Nonprofits
Looking for more information on how to tell stories in the digital space? This article by Nonprofit Tech for Good delves into what your digital storytelling ecosystem should look like to make sure that your stories reach your audience in the online realm.
3. Create Graphics to Tell Your Story
Specialized media like infographics and logic models can be an excellent way to tell your nonprofit’s story. Check out this post from the Modern Nonprofit for ideas on data visualization.
4. Tell Your Story Using Videos
If the video storytelling examples we went over above inspired you and you want to put one together on your own, here’s a how-to video with 34 tips and tricks by the media group What Took You So Long? What’s cool about this resource is that the video provides video clip examples of what you should do in your own video.
Wrapping Up: Storytelling for Nonprofits
When you create a compelling story for your nonprofit, you engage your audience to support your cause. This includes the stakeholders that provide crucial support: volunteers, donors, and grantors.
Crafting an engrossing story is made easy by strategizing, outlining, and drawing inspiration from successful storytelling by other nonprofits. Now that you have the tools and resources that you need, go tell your nonprofit’s awesome story!