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Have you ever assembled a board report or designed a marketing campaign for your nonprofit that just felt like it was missing something? 

Even with eye-catching statistics or compelling visuals, your efforts to engage your audience and drum up support for your mission will fall flat if you don't know how to tell captivating stories about your cause and your impact. 

Nonprofit storytelling is an art form that every organization should master. This guide explores the power of nonprofit storytelling and best practices to try. We'll cover:

Sharing your organization's stories will help you breathe life into your communications, leaving your supporters inspired and eager to take action for your cause. Let's get started! 

Click through to learn how UpMetrics can help you with nonprofit storytelling!

What is Nonprofit Storytelling? 

Nonprofit storytelling is the practice of sharing your organization's mission, vision, values, and impact through compelling narratives.

By telling stories, your organization can appeal to its supporters' emotions in memorable and meaningful ways, encouraging them to help you reach your goals. 

Nonprofit stories may come from your organization's founders and team members, who can provide an insider's perspective on your work. But they may also come from beneficiaries whose lives have been changed by your services, dedicated volunteers who have given hundreds of hours to your cause, or donors whose support drives your mission forward. 

And no matter their source, these stories can take a variety of forms, such as:

  • Impact Reports: An impact report combines quantitative and qualitative data to showcase your organization's progress toward its most important goals and objectives. With storytelling techniques on your side, you can make dry data come alive in your reports.

  • Case Studies: A case study is an in-depth narrative that walks through how your organization accomplished a certain project. These can focus on specific programs or initiatives, or even highlight the story of an individual beneficiary. 

  • Blog Posts: Blog posts are articles you share on your nonprofit's website and can be a vehicle for any kind of story, whether it's a recap of your latest fundraising event or a history of your organization's founding. 

  • Emails: You likely send your target audience a variety of emails featuring updates on your operations, invitations to events, appeals to donate, and more. Infusing your emails with narrative can give them a human touch that helps your messages stand out.  

  • Social Media Content: Social media content is shorter and snappier than most nonprofit communications and will look a little different for every organization depending on where it’s posted. This type of content also lends itself well to sharing multimedia alongside the written word. For instance, you create an Instagram post that features a photo of your team at work or share a video on Facebook that includes an interview with a board member. 

  • Videos: Footage of your team working together or beneficiaries in need, paired with engaging audio and emotionally evocative music, can immerse your audience in your cause and get them thinking about how they can further their involvement. 

  • Podcasts: Many organizations use podcasts to share their thought leadership and explore their causes and related issues in greater depth. In a podcast, you can share the stories of current events related to your cause or feature beneficiaries or subject matter experts and their connections to your work. 

There are plenty of other forms your stories can take, from speeches at fundraising events to fundraising mailers during your year-end campaigns. Think of it this way: Whenever you communicate with your organization's audience, you have the opportunity to share engaging stories.  

The Benefits of Storytelling

As you build your storytelling skillset and become adept at engaging your audience with narratives, your organization will experience several benefits. These include: 

  • More awareness for your cause. What is more likely to generate interest among those who haven't heard of your organization—your animal rescue's mission statement or the story of a surrendered dog finding its new home? A story can capture people's attention and get them excited to explore your cause on a deeper level. 

  • Stronger connections and increased engagement. Stories appeal to the emotions. They can leave us inspired and hopeful or eager to see positive change take place. They also foster empathy and understanding. These feelings help your supporters feel more connected to your work and inspired to act, whether that means donating, volunteering, or attending an event.

  • Enhanced trust and credibility. Storytelling is a type of social proof in which you prove that your organization is making a difference in the lives of its beneficiaries. By sharing specific stories from real people, you can build trust with your supporters and enhance the credibility of your programs and services. 

Great Examples of Nonprofit Storytelling 

In addition to learning how to tell your own organization's stories, it can be helpful to get inspired by effective examples of storytelling by nonprofits in the wild. Here are some of our favorites:  

MENTOR California's "State of MENTORing in CA" Report

MENTOR California is a nonprofit that strives to expand high-quality youth mentoring relationships in California. In the organization's recent report on the state of mentoring in California, the organization includes several stories.

Screenshot of the State of MENTORing in CA report

First, MENTOR California shares its origin story and outlines its mission. Then it dives into its impact data, gathered and analyzed using the UpMetrics impact measurement and management (IMM) platform. The data helps to prove the claims the organization makes throughout the reports. These claims are further brought to life with evocative stories gathered from a beneficiary focus group and interviews about different mentoring programs across California. 

The real star of the show in MENTOR California's storytelling efforts in the report is its impact data. Its quantitative and qualitative data provide tangible evidence of the importance of the organization's work and demonstrate the nonprofit's commitment to staying accountable to its community. 

Interested in enriching your own storytelling efforts with impact data? UpMetrics can help!

Click through to learn more about UpMetrics!

WWF's Seaweed Diving Blog Article 

World Wildlife Fund (WWF) works to protect the environment. In a recent blog article, WWF shared a story about Patagonian Indigenous communities diving to harvest a scarce type of seaweed used in cosmetics and food and their recent efforts to protect their diving waters from overharvesting. 

Screenshot of a WWF blog article

The blog post features interviews with both experienced and new divers who share details about the harsh realities of a diver's life and hope for the future. The post also includes several descriptive details that paint a powerful mental picture for readers. For instance, exhausted returning divers are described as "dazed aquanauts" with "faces... shriveled like prunes." 

In addition to great interviews and writing, the article features high-quality images of the divers at work and the seaweed that provides their livelihood. Overall, this is an excellent example of how a nonprofit can pull its audience in using the written word and compelling images. 

American Heart Association's Survivor Video 

The American Heart Association is dedicated to fighting heart disease and stroke. On the organization's YouTube channel, it features survivor stories from individuals affected by heart disease and other conditions.  

Here is an example of one of the videos:

In this video, Megan Hilt shares her personal story of being diagnosed with heart failure at age 18 and having a heart transplant at age 19. She goes on to share that while her health doesn't permit her to carry her own child, her dream of becoming a mother is possible through working with a gestational surrogate. 

Pictures of Megan, her family, and her hospital visits are shown throughout the video, illustrating her life story. And at the end, she shares a message for women everywhere: "Heart disease can happen to anyone at any age...We need to take care of ourselves so that we can take care of other people, but our health is just as important." 

This candid interview and the other videos in the series puts a human face on the larger issue of heart health, personalizing the cause for the American Heart Association's audience. 

Days for Girls' Podcast Episode  

Days for Girls is on a mission to provide menstrual health education and increase access to menstrual products for girls and women around the world. The Days for Girls Podcast takes listeners behind the scenes of the nonprofit's operations and interviews thought leaders from around the world who work to empower women and girls. 

Screenshot of the Days for Girls podcast web page

On its most recent episode, "The Period Positive Workplace Initiative with Diana Nelson and Jess Strait," the show host and two Days for Girls team members discuss the story of how The Period Positive Workplace Initiative got started and explore why it matters for businesses and their employees. 

The episode also gives listeners tips for encouraging their employers to join the program and how their workplaces can become Period Positive Workplace certified. 

This podcast episode illustrates an important principle of nonprofit storytelling—the need to include a call to action. By providing information about a specific program and encouraging their audience to get involved, Days for Girls provides further education about a cause their supporters care about and doable suggestions for taking action. 

Understanding Key Story Elements

Storytelling is both an art and a craft, one that can be honed through practice and learning. To become a talented storyteller, begin by reviewing the key elements reviewed in every story:  

This image and the text below show some key elements of nonprofit stories.

Character 

The character in a story is who or what the narrative is centered around. Depending on the nature of your nonprofit's work, your character(s) might be: 

  • A person, like a beneficiary, donor, team member, or volunteer
  • An animal, like an endangered species or a rescue animal in need of a home 
  • A place, like a historical landmark, underfunded school, or city park in need of a clean-up 

A good character is someone your audience can identify with and root for, whose background and traits they can relate to. Your character will experience some form of growth or transformation over the course of the story. 

Setting 

Setting is where your story takes place. 

No matter the specific setting of your story, your job as a nonprofit storyteller is to make your audience feel like they are there by using descriptive language. Invite the audience to experience the sights, sounds, and smells of the setting so that they feel totally immersed in your narrative. 

Plot 

The plot of a story is simply the sequence of events that takes place.  

Typically these events will follow this structure: 

  • Exposition: This is where the set up of the story, meaning the setting, characters, and any necessary context or background, are laid out. 

  • Inciting Incident: This is the event that puts the story into motion and gets the character(s) to take action. 

  • Rising Action: This is a series of several events and conflicts that build tension in the story, increasing your audience's investment in knowing its resolution.  

  • Climax: This is the peak moment of the story where the character(s) face their biggest hurdle or make their biggest decision. 

  • Falling Action: These are the events that set up the resolution of the story. 

  • Resolution: This is the ultimate outcome of the story, where the main conflict is resolved. 

To get an idea of how the pieces of this structure work together, check out this example: 

  • Exposition: Barbara is a single mother of four living in a low-income neighborhood. She wants to provide a better life for her children by getting a new job, but she doesn't know where to start.  

  • Inciting Incident: One day, Barbara's hours at work are cut, and she decides she's had enough. She sets out to find the resources that can help her put her best foot forward in her search for a better job. 

  • Rising Action: Barbara learns from a friend about a nonprofit in her area that offers job training and educational programs for single parents. She enrolls in their program. As Barbara works through her courses, she faces a few hardships, from dealing with childcare to spending late nights studying. But she also has several triumphs, like getting an A on a big research paper and taking advantage of several opportunities to practice job interview skills with a mentor. Eventually, Barbara succeeds in graduating from the program!

  • Climax: At her next job interview, Barbara aces it with the skills and tools she's gathered, and is offered the job! She feels immensely proud and takes her kids out to dinner to celebrate. 

  • Falling Action: Trouble strikes again, however, when her new childcare arrangements fall through right before she starts her job. Supported by the community she found in the program, she adapts to the changing conditions of her life. Things smooth out and Barbara starts to thrive. 
     
  • Resolution: A few years later, Barbara has achieved financial stability and can give her children the life she always dreamed they would have. She receives a promotion at work and begins volunteering with the nonprofit once a month. 

Conflict 

Conflict refers to the obstacle(s) a character faces in a story. There are different kinds of conflict, such as: 

  • Character vs. character conflict
    • Example: An environmental nonprofit's advocacy faces opposition from a wealthy local developer 

  • Character vs. society conflict 
    • Example: A young woman in a developing nation experiences obstacles when trying to get an education

  • Character vs. nature conflict 
    • Example: A nonprofit's volunteers face a number of setbacks during a hurricane clean-up

  • Character vs. self conflict 
    • Example: A talented teen in a nonprofit sports program experiences self-doubt ahead of a big game

Your stories may have one or more different conflicts. The main thing to remember is that there will generally be one main conflict that your character faces, and that while the character will drive the action, you'll need to demonstrate how your organization actively helps the character to overcome that conflict. 

If you're writing a more straightforward story about your organization or its history, you can be more general in how you present the conflict. 

Resolution

The resolution of a story is the final outcome of the narrative, the part of a story that wraps up all the remaining loose ends. 

Though resolution was mentioned above as an important event in a story's plot, it's worth calling out more specifically as an essential story element because this is what your audience needs to get closure. They need to see your character(s) solve their problems, face their demons, and reach their goals. 

For nonprofits, resolution helps to reinforce the importance of your work and connect the dots for your audience between your community's problems and the solutions your organization provides. 

A satisfying resolution should also leave your audience feeling hopeful and optimistic. 

7 Steps for Effective Storytelling 

Now that you know the basics of nonprofit storytelling, you're likely eager to begin sharing meaningful stories of your own. Follow these steps to get started: 

This image and the text below describe the process of telling a great nonprofit story.

1. Determine the purpose of the story. 

There are several reasons you may want to share a story with your community. For instance, ask yourself the following:

  • Do you want to use your story to raise awareness?
  • Do you hope to encourage donations?
  • Do you want to invite more people to volunteer?
  • Is your goal to share your organization's impact and achievements?

Determine how storytelling fits into your larger goals for marketing and engagement. This will guide how you write your story and share it. 

2. Identify your audience.  

Depending on the story's purpose, you might be speaking to beneficiaries, donors, volunteers, funders, board members, or the general public.

As you write your story, keep your audience in mind and tailor it to their expectations. For instance, a story aimed at a grantmaking organization should focus on your nonprofit's needs and previous impact. 

3. Decide who the story is about. 

Sometimes the character(s) of a story will present themselves to you. Other times, you'll need to decide the perspective from which you want to tell your story.

For instance, a nonprofit focused on tutoring at-risk youth could tell a story from the point of view of a student, teacher, or parent. Each approach will make the story a little different, but each is compelling in its own way. Decide whose eyes you want to see your story from, taking your audience into consideration. 

Also remember to not over-center your organization as the hero or savior in the story. Keep the emphasis on the real people driving the action. 

4. Choose how you will communicate the story. 

Remember, stories can take a variety of different forms. Determine how you will share your story, whether that means: 

  • Writing a blog post
  • Designing a social media campaign 
  • Writing a speech 
  • Creating an impact report 
  • Filming and editing a short video 
  • Recording a podcast 

Knowing what "genre" you're working within to share your story is important because it affects how you write your story.

For instance, how you tell a story in a podcast is going to be slightly different than how you would tell it in your impact report. The former calls for a more casual tone and perhaps some soundbites from the characters involved in the story. The impact report, though, may require a more formal tone and a few compelling visuals. 

5. Write the story. 

Using what you know about story structure, write your story down. Even if the finished product the story is going into doesn't involve the written word, writing the story down will help you ensure you include all the essential elements and give you the opportunity to revise it before you share it with the world. 

Jump ahead for some tips to make your stories pop off the page!

6. Revise. 

Every story requires some editing before it can be shared. Read back over your story, checking for the essential elements, clarifying your main message, and double-checking the accuracy of your claims. Add in any extra details or context that you feel add to the story. 

Once you feel like the story is finished, ask a trusted colleague to read it and provide feedback based on the goals you have for sharing the story.

7. Share your story. 

Now it's time to share your story with the world in your chosen form. When you "publish" your story, be sure that you're encouraging your audience to act on what they've learned in some way.

Your call to action (more on these below) can take many forms, whether you want your supporters to donate, share the story with their personal networks, or even respond to it in a comment or message. 

Expert Tips for Better Storytelling

Once you have the basics down, start taking your storytelling efforts to the next level. Try these strategies: 

  • Be descriptive. Your elementary school teacher had it right when they said "Show, don't tell." Rely on the five senses—sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste—to provide the details that make your audience feel like they're experiencing the story right alongside your characters. 

  • Use high-quality visuals. The right visuals can complement your storytelling. Aim to include pictures of your team at work, photos of your beneficiaries, or even engaging infographics. Remember that visuals should add value, context, and details rather than just cluttering your stories. 

  • Back up your stories with impact data. In your stories, you'll likely make several claims about your organization's achievements and the effects it has on its beneficiaries. Back those claims up with impact data, both quantitative and qualitative, to make your stories stronger. To get impact data, begin measuring and managing your impact

  • Incorporate a call to action. Your call to action should invite your audience to do something. The best calls to action are short and memorable. For instance, at the end of a blog post sharing the story of a dedicated volunteer, you might include a call to action that says, "You can make a difference too! Sign up to volunteer today." Or, if you want to be more subtle, demonstrate the desired action to be taken. For example, in Barbara's story above, the organization might not include an explicit call to action but it may talk about how Barbara got involved with the organization that helped change her life by volunteering. 

Wrapping Up

Storytelling is an essential skill that every organization should master in order to better connect with its supporters, encourage action, and inspire hope for a better tomorrow. 

Use the information in this guide to begin building your storytelling skillset, and remember to pay attention to the stories in the world around you to get inspired! 

To learn more, check out these other resources from the UpMetrics team: 

Click through to learn more about UpMetrics and how it can help you with nonprofit storytelling!

Post by UpMetrics Staff
June 27, 2024