What draws people to your nonprofit, inspires action, and rallies support? The stories you tell. Storytelling is how humans connect, build relationships, learn, and share.
Storytelling is how people know who you are. It’s part of branding, but even more, it’s part of developing strong connections with supporters and your community.
Nonprofit storytelling is a crucial part of both fundraising and marketing your organization, but it extends beyond the development or marketing departments. From program staff to volunteers, from board members to media contacts, your community is full of people telling your stories. But how do you empower them to be the best storytellers they can be to market your nonprofit?
Who Tells Your Story?
When you first think about nonprofit storytelling, your mind may immediately jump to the stories you tell in your newsletter, in an annual report, or on your website. These institutional stories are important, but they’re not the whole picture of all the storytelling going on in and around your nonprofit.
Look for two groups of storytellers in your community: insiders and storytelling partners.
“Insiders” are the people who are directly connected to your organization. This includes development and marketing staff who are usually the designated storytellers within an organization. It also includes:
- Program staff: These in-the-field experts are often the first people to encounter stories about the work your nonprofit does and the people you serve.
- Leadership: Leaders carry your stories to the broader community, including to your board members.
- Other staff: Volunteer coordinators, your front desk receptionist, the folks in accounting. These people have a connection to your mission and stories to tell about where they work and why.
- Volunteers: Your volunteers have their own stories about their experience working on your cause.
- Board members: Board members are often called upon to share about your organization, and can be some of your most passionate advocates.
- The people your nonprofit serves: The kids in your afterschool program, attendees of your support groups, residents of your homeless shelter, or audience members of your concert series are all potential storytellers. When approached ethically, they can share their own stories better than anyone else.
Your community is bigger than your organization. To extend your reach and spread your message, cultivate relationships with storytelling partners, including:
- Media: Your local news sources can connect you with a much broader audience, raising awareness and getting the word out.
- Influencers: Whether they’re social media mavens or just the most connected person in town, some people are trusted influencers within their networks. When these people tell your stories, they add the credibility that comes with their personal endorsement.
- Advocates: Who else is passionate about your cause? Politicians, academics, artists, and activists can carry your banner through storytelling.
- Other partners: Corporate sponsors, donors, community partners, and other nonprofits can share your stories with their audiences and communities.
How To Empower Storytellers
How can you help your storytellers tell stories more effectively and help to market your nonprofit? Here are three tips to get started.
1. Choose Key Messages
A specific story with a clear message is one of your best marketing tools. Help your storytellers make their stories stronger by establishing a key message to point to.
Your key messages should establish the problem you’re trying to solve, show the value of solving it, and then invite the supporter to join you in a solution. You can augment your key messages with stats, proof points, or common concerns, but this basic structure is a good place to start.
If you’re not sure where to start, look to your mission. What are the most important things you want people to know?
For instance, imagine your nonprofit is trying to protect whales. As you develop your key messages, you’d have:
- The problem: Whales are unique creatures that are endangered by human activities like hunting, pollution, and encroachment into their habitats.
- The value of solving the problem: Whales are an important part of the ocean ecosystem and life on earth. We can preserve them by stopping dangerous human activities.
- The solution: Support our organization and our advocacy to protect whale habitats.
For this example, the key message you use to market your nonprofit might be:
Whales are unique creatures and an important part of the ocean ecosystem and life on earth. But human activities like hunting, pollution, and encroaching into their habitats are killing whales every day. This has to stop, and with your help, we can protect the whales and their habitats.
Once you identify your key messages, look for stories that demonstrate your point. In our whale conservation example, you might tell the story of how a fishing company was installing nets in an important feeding area for endangered whales, and your organization convinced them to move the nets to protect the whales.
2. Create and Share Storytelling Tools
If you want people to tell stories for you (especially if it’s not a function of their job) you need to make it easy. Videos, photos, infographics, templates, and talking points can all simplify storytelling.
For example, if your organization is running a peer-to-peer fundraising campaign, you can help fundraisers share their own stories and your organization’s by giving them a video about your key message, a template for creating their fundraising page, and a list of questions about their connection to your mission.
Even establishing a practice of sharing an impact story at every board meeting can function as a tool to encourage storytelling.
3. Identify Influencers and Advocates
Many nonprofits have a handle on their “Insider” storytellers, but it’s worth it to look outside of your immediate circle in search of influencers and advocates.
You may think you don’t know anyone, but think again. Your influencers and advocates do not have to be famous. Did your local council person attend an event at your nonprofit? Share a story with them, and ask if they’d like to share it with their constituents. Are there niche social media influencers who have an affinity with your cause? Does one of your volunteers have a gigantic Twitter following? These are all potential storytellers.
Storytelling partners can introduce you to people you’d never otherwise meet. What’s more, the trust and confidence that come with a personal recommendation are incredibly valuable in a climate where trust in nonprofits is low.
Share Your Mission, Share Your Stories
The benefits of building a storytelling community are many. Your message goes farther, your audience grows, and your storytellers are empowered to help your cause, deepening their own connections to your nonprofit. Most of all, your mission is celebrated and showcased, and new people can join you in pursuing it. So start looking for all the storytellers in your nonprofit’s circle, and equip them with messages and tools to tell stories even better.