You hear an awful 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. Our opinions and beliefs are both rational and emotional; and while facts may appeal to our left brain, narratives hold the real power to sway our emotions. In a competitive nonprofit fundraising environment, creating this emotional connection can make a tremendous impact.
Cause-driven organizations, specially those in human services and community development, tend to have the raw material for powerful impact stories right at their fingertips—stories of hope, redemption, new beginnings. Yet not all commit the necessary resources to gather and craft them. The problem’s not always the size of the organization—or their budget. I know of several smaller nonprofits that make it their business to obtain excellent stories and stunning images, in some cases, directly leading to funding. While the effect of a great impact story may not always be this tangible, its power is hard to deny. So how can you effectively go about creating them?
Techniques for Documenting Nonprofit Impact Stories
Impact stories put a human face on your organization, providing a glimpse into the lives of individuals or communities. Crafting them effectively requires commitment. As our recent project for Columbia University demonstrates, prioritizing storytelling can bring organizational impact to life in powerful ways. Here are some recommendations to help put the full force of your organization, no matter its size, behind the effort.
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… Many organizations fail to make the investment on good photography for a variety of reasons. But it’s more than worth the investment. Don’t undermine your nonprofit’s stories with poorly-lit snapshots and bad cameras. If you cannot fit a professional photographer in your marketing budget, you could consider applying for a grant from PhotoPhilantropy, who help match nonprofits with professional photographers. You can also build your image library by equipping your on-the-ground team with reasonably priced compact cameras that create stunning images, such as the excellent Olympus E-PL3 or Canon S95. And remind everyone to shoot generously! You’ll never regret having too many images to choose from, and you can always edit down.
Put it all together, and creating stories that help bring your impact to life 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 your audience can believe in, nothing is more important.
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