Even if you’ve heard a lot about the importance of storytelling for nonprofits, it doesn’t change the fact that telling a good story is hard. Even when the story you’re trying to tell is your own. And especially when you’re deeply connected to the mission.
There is a lot to consider when telling your nonprofit story and communicating the experiences of others when the goal is to educate, advocate or fundraise. From the medium you use (written, video, audio, photo essay) to the ethics of sharing stories from others, storytelling is a process and a practice that’s continually evolving.
So who do you learn from? How do you know if it’s working? We’ve compiled a list of storytelling experts and organizations that you can turn to for tips, advice and inspiration.
Where to Learn About Storytelling for Nonprofits
If you’ve already been working on your storytelling skills, you’ve probably come across nonprofit marketing gurus like Julia Campbell and Vanessa Chase Lockshin. (If not, add them to your reading list!) But there are some additional folks we think you should know for their insightful storytelling tips.
Great stories have a structure, and the same goes for storytelling in general. There should be an overarching strategy for storytelling at your nonprofit, and the resources from Storytelling for Good can help. Move through a series of lessons to get you from strategy and content to engagement and evaluation. As they say in the introduction to storytelling strategy:
Stories that achieve real and meaningful change don’t just materialize—they’re strategically conceived, creatively executed and attached to measurable outcomes.
With all of the pressure on nonprofits to tell stories for marketing and fundraising, it’s easy to lose sight of the way that stories are told and who gets to tell them. Ethical Storytelling is a go-to hub for training, templates and examples, including their podcast series. While you’re there, consider their pledge, which says, in part:
Whether through blogs, emails, social media or video, using story to highlight an organization’s impact is an engaging way to invite people into the good work being done. From the complexities of social issues to the benefits and downsides of nuanced solutions, great stories not only inspire but educate. Yet, all too often, organizations view stories as merely a way to raise funds. This reduces stories to a mere transaction, when they are so much more.
Have you ever thought that telling a great story at your nonprofit could bring in some media attention? The Turn Two Communications blog does a nice job covering the ins and outs of storytelling for nonprofits as well as the shifting media landscape, like making better pitches. In a recent post, they talk about finding the real stories at your organization:
Often, the best stories are found when you are away from your computer, interacting with those in and close to your organization. The pandemic has certainly complicated this. Still as much as is safe and possible, it’s important to get away from the keyboard to talk – and listen — to clients, staff, and stakeholders.
Recognizing that stories have the power to build movements and fight for justice, Working Narratives offers a treasure trove of storytelling best practices in their online guide of 32 (!) short chapters. Kick off your learning with an introduction about the role of stories in driving social change:
Every time we tell a story, whether it’s when making a speech or taking pictures, we create something. We discover ourselves and each other, and what we can accomplish together. Sometimes the stories we tell are the change we make, and they change us just as much as they change the audience. By creating, we stay hopeful and strong, we testify.
The Constructive blog is full of storytelling best practices from a wide range of angles: visual storytelling, ethical data-driven stories, design empathy and more. Their thoughtful explanations and reflections based on working with nonprofits are real food for thought. In particular, I think a lot of organizations that struggle with storytelling can relate to this article on long-form content:
[W]hen your mission revolves around a complicated issue, is connected to a problem in a far-away place or the distant future, or is just removed from the concerns of people’s everyday lives, maintaining audience engagement is inherently more difficult. This challenge is even more significant for think tanks and research-driven nonprofits who often publish jargon-filled content. So, how can nonprofits apply the fundamental principles of storytelling to deepen audience engagement, even with the most complex content? Just follow some basic principles that storytellers have used for years.
Where to Find Storytelling Inspiration
Different missions (and budgets) tell stories differently, but we think you’ll find some incredible inspiration from these organizations and their approaches to storytelling for nonprofits.
- The UnHeard project from the YMCA of Greater Seattle paired musicians and youth experiencing homelessness to capture and communicate stories in a whole new way. Watch videos of young people sharing their experiences and hear the songs based on their stories.
- River City Food Bank created Between the Lines Stories to show that “Hunger isn’t always visible. Sometimes you have to read between the lines to get the real story.” The format is both visual and share-worthy, putting faces to honest and open tales of strength.
- Proving the power of a blog on your nonprofit’s website, Northern Rangelands Trust does a great job showcasing everything from giraffe rescues to the tale of a turtle guardian. It just goes to show that good storytelling can both honor and go beyond the human experience.
At the end of the day, one of the best ways to hone your storytelling skills is to…tell stories. And, of course, enjoy the stories of others. Bookmark the resources and examples that resonate with you, then consider the types of stories that your nonprofit can share to engage and build community.
Are there other experts in storytelling for nonprofits that you recommend? What do you think makes for a great, mission-based story? I’d love to see more examples, too! Let’s go to the comments.