nonprofit storytelling

Words are everything in fundraising. Your success is found in the strength of your nonprofit storytelling.

The way you tell your story and engage people in your message can make or break your fundraising efforts.

Again, words matter.

You’ve probably heard this already – that storytelling is important. But do you really understand it?

What do we mean by storytelling?  And how do you tell a good story?

At its most basic level, storytelling is a way to convey facts, information, history and experience from one person, the teller, to another, the listener, but it goes deeper than that.

Stories are interactive, bonding.

Shared stories can tie whole cultures and groups together. Shared stories bind all sorts of people, from families to religious groups.  Your best friend is your best friend because there are a few stories only the two of you share.

In the nonprofit sector, stories are one of the strongest ways to make emotional connections between donors and charities.

Nonprofit storytelling lets donors and volunteers know that they are making an impact and making life better for real people.

In other words, you are letting your donor know that she is part of your story and most importantly part of the beneficiary’s story.

So, what does it look like to use storytelling in fundraising, especially when it’s done well?

Why is Storytelling an Effective Tactic for Fundraising?

Nonprofit storytelling is effective for increasing funding and engagement for several reasons.

  • It connects with the emotions. Stories are much more powerful and motivating than merely using statistics or discussing administrative goals.  Donors and volunteers don’t support you so you can buy a new printer or move into a better building.  Those things may be important, but only as a means to the real goal of helping make the world a better place.

  • It shows donors that their actions are making a difference. They need to know that goals are being met and lives are being improved.  The emotional satisfaction can keep them motivated and prevent burnout. It may inspire them to donate more and get more involved with your cause.

  • It gives dignity and context to the beneficiaries and connects their lives to the donors. Telling stories prevents your beneficiaries from being just another statistic.  It gives them depth and authenticity.  It allows them to have a voice in your message.  It reminds everyone involved that you are helping living, breathing people.

What’s Your Nonprofit’s Story?

Nonprofit storytelling is so important to your fundraising that you need to spend the time to practice and get it right.

First of all, what is your story?

Your story is what you say about the lives you change and why it’s important. And it’s based on what your donors are interested in, which is not necessarily the same as what you want to tell them.

  • Your story is not your mission statement. It’s your mission statement in action. It’s what happens at the end of the day when your nonprofit is doing what it was created to do.
  • Your story is about how your nonprofit changes lives. Your story includes who you help, and most importantly, WHY you do it.  It’s the endgame for you AND for the donor.  If someone asks you why you put so much work and energy into your nonprofit, this is the story that answers that question.

nonprofit storytelling

To tell your nonprofit story well, put the audience first. This is not about what you want supporters to know; it’s not about the trials and tribulations of an average day at your organization.

The donor may have some interest in how you run your nonprofit day to day, but by and large she cares about the end result.  Did her donation of time or money help someone?  Was there a measurable impact? Is someone better off today because of the donation the donor made?

Don’t just tell the story of how many dogs your nonprofit rescued.  Illustrate your nonprofit in action by telling the story of one dog whose adoption made a real impact in the life of a special needs child or the dog that rescued an elderly man from loneliness.

You may want to spend some time on the front lines of your nonprofit gathering stories and creating a story library so you have several ready when you need them. Be sure to either get permission to tell the story or change the names and pertinent details to protect privacy.

Whatever story you tell, include the pieces that are most compelling.  Emotional impact is where the rubber meets the road and causes people to reach for their wallet.

What Makes for Compelling Nonprofit Storytelling?

Once you’ve identified a story that exemplifies your nonprofit at its best, the question is how to tell it.

Learn to tell your story in a way that really affects your donors, tugs at their heart strings, keeps them on board, and even inspires them to give more. When you get really good at this, you’ll find fundraising gets a lot easier because you can motivate people to give every time you ask.

There are a lot of resources to help you write a compelling story for your nonprofit. But there are few things you can keep in mind every time you tell your story.

  • Link the donor directly to the beneficiary. Donors want to feel like this is their story and their support in action. This is not the time to discuss the administrative minutiae about how the food was transported or the intricate process you go through to match volunteer tutors and students. You want this story to have an emotional impact, not leave your donors snoring! That means you should use the word “you” many times and tell the donor how they are the hero of the story.

  • Tell the story like a fireside chat. Make nonprofit storytelling conversational and informal. This is not the time to prove that you’re the next William Faulkner. How would you tell this story to a friend?  Your mom?  Don’t use jargon, acronyms, or industry slang.  Make the story friendly, engaging, even slightly humorous when it’s appropriate.

  • Grab the reader right from the get-go.  Using visuals or colorful imagery, set the stage and draw the reader into the story.  Just as a beautiful banquet table makes you anticipate a good dinner, the beginning of your story should be inviting and make the donor want to hear more. Set the table with a dramatic opening or an emotional hook.

  • End the story effectively. While you want to let your donors know that things are improving for beneficiaries, let them know that their part of the story isn’t over yet. The ending is yet to come, and you will need them to make it happen. Let the donors know if the beneficiary will still need your help or if there are others who still need their help.

  • Focus the story. The story shouldn’t ramble or have subplots and tangents. Stay focused on the details that delineate the problem and the answer that you provide. Use only context that has to do with the connection between the donor and the beneficiary. People these days literally have the attention span of a goldfish, so keep your story short to keep the donor engaged.

  • Use visuals. Photos and videos have immediate appeal and draw people into a story FAST. In the rushed world of social media, you may find yourself skimming a good deal of information, stopping only when something catches your eye. Visuals have the impact that makes a reader stop and focus on your story. In fact, sometimes a video or series of photos can tell the story for you. Or let someone you’ve helped tell their own story. You can also use pictures of your volunteers in action working with beneficiaries. Just be careful to provide context and dignity to your beneficiaries when using them in your story. Here’s a great example of video storytelling from The Girl Effect

Good (and Bad) Examples of Nonprofit Storytelling

If you’re like most, a good example can give you the practical ideas you need. So, here are some examples of nonprofit storytelling that you can use for ideas and inspiration when you’re working on your own stories.

As you read, take note of what you personally respond to. Good stories use adjectives and vivid descriptions of people, places, and things. They include concrete details so that the listener can empathize with the beneficiary.  A good story includes an emotional angle. A bad story uses lots of insider language, jargon and “we.”

Example #1. Year-end appeal

Here’s an example of a year-end ask that could be much stronger. Notice that the image at the top makes you think this is a thank-you note, maybe a year-end thank you. There’s no emotional hook in the beginning and the emotion doesn’t come until the end where it’s muddied by lots of jargon. It’s possible that the organization’s loyal donors might read and give to this, but people who are new or not solidly connected to the nonprofit might not take the time to read it, or skim through the opening and delete the email thinking it’s a thank-you.

Example #2: Year-end appeal

Here’s another year-end email appeal that is very confusing – is it a thank-you or a request for money? It needs to be one or the other. If you’re asking for money, DON’T start with Thank You. If it’s a thank-you, DON’T ask for money or anything else.

While this does tell us that it was a record-breaking year, we have no context for the numbers. How much of an increase is that? Regardless, the numbers aren’t inspiring. We need a story about one cat or dog that was saved and why it matters that they were saved.

What would YOU think if you received this?

Example #3: Email appeal

Here’s a GREAT example of an appeal that uses storytelling to grab the reader’s attention and hold it all the way through. Notice how the appeal opens with a photo and a story that is so vivid you can imagine it clearly in your mind.

Example #4: Email appeal

Here’s another great example from CMMB (Catholic Medical Mission Board). Notice the extensive use of photos and the words from the beneficiary herself. Also notice how it’s all connected back to the reader toward the end with “When you turn on the faucet…” and how that makes you feel.

The power of an effective story

You don’t have to provide life-saving services to tell a good story.

Here’s a great example of a reframe that beautifully illustrates how the right words can make all the difference. Thanks to Jerry Panas and the Institute for Charitable Giving for sharing it a while back.

“There was a blind man who sat down on a sidewalk beside a beautiful city park to beg from those who passed by. It was a lovely day in early May.

On a piece of cardboard, he crudely wrote in chalk, ‘I’m blind.  Please help me.’  He set his hat in front of him. By noon, he had collected only a few pennies.

A businessman, walking to lunch, peered at the meager offering the blind man had received. The businessman stopped long enough to write another chalk message on the backside of the cardboard sign, and then continued on his way.

The blind man held the new message for others to see. Then something strange happened. The blind man’s hat quickly filled. After lunch, the businessman returned and remarked on the difference.

‘What did you write on my sign?’ asked the blind man.

‘The same thing you wrote,’ replied the stranger, ‘but with a few different words.’”

What did the businessman write?


The Bottom Line

Using the right words when you talk about the work your nonprofit does can dramatically increase results you get when you’re fundraising.

The right story can grab donors by the heart and inspire them to give.

What stories can you tell about the work your nonprofit does that will paint a vivid picture in your reader’s mind’s eye AND motivate them to get involved with your organization?

Keep practicing and refining your technique.  Once you get really good at nonprofit storytelling, fundraising will get easier and you’ll raise more money, which means you can make a bigger difference in the world.

And THAT’S what we’re here for.