You hear a lot about “storytelling” in the nonprofit world these days, and with good reason. Much of the buzz is backed by research: studies show that stories have unique powers of persuasion. And in a world awash in bad news stories, the uplifting stories nonprofits can share are motivating. Nonprofit narratives hold real power to increase our understanding and connect with our emotions. Which is great news, because so many social impact organizations have a plethora of content for powerful nonprofit storytelling—stories of hope, redemption, new beginnings, and progress. But as many of us who are engaged in nonprofit communications know, creating compelling content is hard work!
Top Techniques for Nonprofit Storytelling
While the effect of a great impact story may not always be this tangible, its power is hard to deny. So, how can nonprofit storytellers and communications professionals break through the content creation barrier and craft compelling stories that help advance their missions? The good news is that the size of an organization or their budget doesn’t determine success. Here are some ideas to help spur your nonprofit storytelling strategies.
Impact stories put a human face on your organization, providing a glimpse into the lives of individuals or communities. They’re also an essential asset in developing a nonprofit’s brand. As a recent project we did for Columbia University demonstrates, prioritizing storytelling can bring organizational impact to life in powerful ways—even at a global scale. Consistency really matters, so the key is to set up a plan and stick with it
1. Enlist Your Team. Gathering great stories is very much a team effort, and much of the work will probably fall on your on-the-ground personnel–the people who best know the individuals and communities you serve. Clearly explain your goals to your team, and how their perspective is invaluable in meeting them. Then enlist them in the search for great stories.
2. Keep Stories Focused and Relevant. You’ve got to balance adding details to create rich stories that connect and communicating impact. Focus on stories that best summarize your organization’s work, but avoid getting side-tracked by irrelevant detail. Keep stories moving at a swift pace and always ask others to critique and help you edit.
3. Keep Stories Light. Your stories should approximate the tone of your brand as a whole, but they benefit from a more conversational tone that doesn’t sound newsy or clinical. A conversational tone helps bring audiences closer, while a clinical tone has a distancing effect.
4. Bring Characters to Life. You can’t have great stories without great characters. Help readers relate to your characters by adding small details of people’s appearance or demeanor. If you don’t have enough material to sustain attention, try adding details on the environment to put your characters in context.
5. Don’t Forget Quotes. Let your subject’s shine though in their own words by soliciting quotes and testimonials. Long quotes seldom work well in their entirety, so look for soundbite-style quotes, and trim judiciously or paraphrase where you can.
6. Deliver Multiple Perspectives. Communicate your organization’s impact at different levels–individual, community or region, for example–though impact stories profiling entire groups or communities. Don’t forget to use quotes to bring individuals into focus.
7. Tell Your Story Over Time. Hopefully, your programs are effecting tangible change over time. If so, create an organizational structure that supports gathering stories that document your progress and which keep your stories up-to-date and engaging—encouraging an ongoing dialogue with your audience.
8. A Picture’s Worth… Don’t forget the power of imagery to express your nonprofit’s story.—and definitely don’t undermine your nonprofit’s stories with poorly-lit snapshots. There is good stock photography to be found, but it takes time and a critical eye to dig through. Consider applying for a grant from PhotoPhilantropy, who help match nonprofits with professional photographers. And, build your image library by equipping your team with compact cameras that can create stunning images. Whatever your approach, you’ll never regret having too many images to choose from and you can always edit down.
Nonprofit storytelling is an effort that requires commitment, but which shares the unique perspective only your organization can offer. And when it comes to building a nonprofit brand that your audience can believe in, nothing is more important.