Inside Look | This guide will cover the following topics:
- 01 Introduction
- 02 Outline Your Nonprofit Storytelling Ambassador Plan
- 03The 6 Best Types of Stories for Nonprofits to Share
- 04 Conclusion
What is nonprofit storytelling, what does it do, and what does it matter for your nonprofit?
Storytelling should be actionable - inspiring listeners or readers to take an action on your behalf, whether your goal is to get more members, donations, event attendees etc. It should also make readers want to share the story with others.
Let me start with two scenarios.
You receive a dry-form letter in the mail from a breast cancer research charity that bought your name from another organization’s mailing list.
You are confused because breast cancer research is not even your passion – protecting the environment is.
You receive a personal message from a friend on Facebook asking you to sponsor her in a walk for breast cancer research, in honor of her mother.
She tells her story about watching her mother suffer from the disease, and why she wants to help others in her situation. She then asks for a small donation to help her reach her goal and help people like her mother.
While breast cancer is not a cause you usually give money to, you love your friend, and you want to help.
That is the incredible power of storytelling ambassadors!
In this blog, I will show you how to outline your nonprofit storytelling plan and provide you with prompts to help you get started. Let us dig in!
02 Outline Your Nonprofit Storytelling Ambassador Plan
Where do you begin when creating a storyteller ambassador work plan? Take some time to answer these questions for your plan:
Q1 WHO: CHOOSE THE PEOPLE WHO ARE GOING TO COLLECT THE STORIES.
Who in your organization will be responsible for collecting and organizing the stories? Have this person start a story idea file in Dropbox to keep story ideas, photos, videos, news articles, and other inspiration.
Q2 WHO: MAKE A LIST OF ALL THE PEOPLE WHO ARE GOING TO TELL STORIES.
Consider donors, volunteers, as well as people who have gone through your program.
Q3 WHAT: WHAT TYPES OF STORIES ARE YOU GOING TO COLLECT AND TELL?
I created the six Story Type categories, found in the next chapter, to provide you with a framework within which to begin collecting the stories around you. Your nonprofit will undoubtedly have more types of stories to share and ones that do not fit into these categories. I encourage you to write down all potential types of stories to find a good mix, rather than relying on one type of story. (You can read the next chapter, then come back to write down your ideas.)
Q4 WHEN: WHEN WILL YOU COLLECT THEM?
Look at your nonprofit calendar for the year. Where are there opportunities to collect stories? Where are there opportunities to tell stories?
Q5 WHERE: WHERE ELSE CAN WE LOOK FOR STORY IDEAS?
Some ideas for places to look include:
- Current events
- Print materials and collateral
- Smartphone – get on the ground in the front lines
- Thank You letters
- Calendar – mark of all opportunities where you can COLLECT and/or SHARE stories
Q6 WHY: WHY ARE YOU TELLING THESE STORIES?
Always explain the why when collecting and telling your story. Why are you telling these stories, and why now? To what end? What does success look like?
Q7 HOW: HOW ARE WE COLLECTING THESE STORIES?
Are you going to collect the stories via email, in Dropbox, in a network folder?
Q8 HOW: HOW ARE WE TELLING THESE STORIES?
Are you going to post the stores on your website, email newsletter, social media, press releases, at events, etc?
03 The 6 Best Types of Stories for Nonprofits to Share
1. IMPACT STORIES
Too many nonprofits go about their work every day, only saying how many people they fed or how many applications they helped fill out. Doing the work is definitely important, but to what end? What is the result? And how can you convey the impact in a story?
Impact stories are the most important stories you can tell about your nonprofit are not actually about you at all! They are about the people, animals, or environment you have helped. They are the lives you have changed. How has the world improved because your organization is in it?
Stories about the outcomes of your work in your storytelling arsenal. Donors, volunteers, staff, community stakeholders - they all want to know what impact your organization is having on the problem. Impact stories will make them feel like they are a part of the mission being accomplished.
QUESTIONS TO ASK WHEN CREATING IMPACT STORIES:
- Are you really affecting social change? In what specific ways?
- How can you showcase the impactful work you are doing through those you have helped?
- What would happen if you closed your doors tomorrow?
Impact stories can feature some data points (“We served 1250 meals to hungry children this year”), but they should not be data-driven.
Rather, effective impact stories feature one person or one family whose life was changed by the work you did for them. Lives saved, animals sheltered, research funded, environment cleaned, kids taught – all of these are outcomes that your donors and supporters want to feel like they are a part of.
The best feature of these stories is their rawness and authenticity. Often taken with smartphones, the videos and photos do not rely on fancy props, staged backgrounds, music, or narration to get their point across. The emotion conveyed by a child drinking clean water for the first time is enough to show the impact.
Too few nonprofits share their impact stories because they can be challenging to create. We don’t like to pat ourselves on the back and congratulate ourselves on a job well done. Let’s change that. I go into greater detail on places to get impact stories in the next chapter.
EXAMPLE: charity:water uses Instagram to tell their impact stories in fifteen-second videos and compelling photos. They often feature a story of one woman in the field or one family whose life has been completely changed by having access to clean drinking water.
2. USER-GENERATED STORIES
User-generated stories are those generated by your community – your donors, volunteers, staff, and supporters. These are the storytelling gold standard, as they are often shared widely across social networks and increase exposure for the organization.
Getting stories from the outside is much easier said than done. Simply placing a call for stories on your website or sending out an email usually is not very effective. People are incredibly busy and their attention spans are miniscule.
How to get them to actively participate by creating and sharing their own story with you?
Here are some tips for getting user-generated stories:
Make it very easy.
Try to avoid a complicated submission process with a list of fifty rules and regulations in tiny type. Unless it is a contest or sweepstakes and you need their information in case they are the winner, do not ask participants for personal information at all. Simply have a place online where they can upload or post their stories, or create a specific hashtag where you can search for their stories on social media.
Be where they are.
Ask for stories where people already are (most likely, on their phones and on social media). Keep the process simple. Have people submit their story via email, Facebook, or Twitter. That way you only have to monitor three places.
Find out where your community spends its time and go there first.
Provide an incentive.
Holding a competition or a contest with a great prize can really motivate people to share information.
Make it fun.
Don’t make it seem like work or another task on the To Do list – make it fun! Get people to share stories with their kids, or in funny costumes, or parodying a popular TV show. The more creative you get, the better response from your community.
EXAMPLE: The Trustees of the Reservation in Essex County Mass. asked their Instagram followers to go on an Instagram Scavenger Hunt with them over the winter, snapping photos in certain locations and sharing them using the hashtag #FrostyFun2014. The most fun and creative photos were taken on Trustees’ properties and were featured on their Instagram account, as well as their email newsletter and website.
Spread the word.
If you have a database of contacts, send them a special letter and email informing them about the new campaign to get user-generated stories. Post about it on your social networks and promote it at all events.
EXAMPLE: To raise awareness of women in the fields of STEM and to shed light on the challenges women often face as they pursue careers in these maledominate fields, the Society of Asian Scientists & Engineers (SASE) created the social media campaign #SheInspiresMe.
On social networks and via an email to their supporters, participants were asked to share a personal story of a woman or women in their life who inspired them and why. These stories would be tagged using the hashtag #SheInspiresMe, and some were featured on the SASE Facebook Page, Twitter feed, and website.
Acknowledge and thank!
It takes effort, time, and courage to share a personal story. Make sure that everyone who participates gets a personalized thank you and public acknowledgement.
Creating a specific hashtag such as #SheInspiresMe is a fantastic way to encourage supporters to spread the word online, and to collect stories and experiences.
3. VALUES & ETHICS STORIES
Your donors and supporters want to better understand your organization to make sure that you have shared values and ethics. By expressing your values and ethics through a story, you demonstrate what is at the root of your organization. Examples of nonprofit core values include but are not limited to integrity, excellence, empowerment, honesty, and embracing diversity.
Value stories allow new people to immediately identify with your nonprofit and figure out if it’s for them. (Reality check: As awesome as you are, your nonprofit isn’t going to resonate with everyone. Sorry!)
The main reason that people get involved with specific causes is that the cause and the organization embody their morals and values. I am not going to donate to a cause that harasses people and bullies potential supporters. But others may find that approach effective and in line with what they believe to be moral and ethical.
We know that donors give to your charity based on shared values. In what ways can you convey your unique values and beliefs to supporters?
EXAMPLE: A great example of value and ethics storytelling can be found on the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). EDF was created by a small, passionate group of conservationists in Long Island who wanted to save the osprey, bald eagle, and peregrine falcon. This dedicated band of people fought hard and eventually got the harmful chemical DDT banned in Long Island in 1966, and subsequently played a large role in the nationwide ban. By reading their value story, a supporter can immediately identify with their history of perseverance against all odds, their willingness to fight for the underdog, and their continued commitment to grassroots organizing.
4. SOCIAL PROOF STORIES
Social proof, also known as social influence or herd behavior, is the tendency of individuals to assume that the crowd knows best. This is why you may choose the restaurant with the longest wait over the other restaurant with no one in it – you assume that others know more than you.
Social proof is the reason that businesses and charities alike vie to get huge celebrities on board with their latest campaigns. The thinking goes that if a household name like Angelina Jolie supports it, it must be worthwhile!
Even if you don’t have an A-List celebrity touting your cause, social proof stories can be effectively used by your nonprofit to leverage support. Ask yourself: Who are your most vocal supporters? Which influential community members have been moved by your work?
EXAMPLE: One of the most widely-celebrated social proof campaigns is coordinated by the It Gets Better Project. Their mission is to communicate with lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth and let them know that there is hope and support for them around the world.
In their ongoing campaign, It Gets Better enlists LGBTQ celebrities to tell their personal story of coming to terms with their sexual orientation. The heart-wrenching and intimate stories detail the challenges that the individual celebrity faced along the way, and provide words of hope and support for others that may be in the same situation. In these emotional videos, the celebrities endorse the work of the It Gets Better Project, and list ways that a viewer can get directly involved.
HERE ARE THREE WAYS TO COLLECT AND TELL SOCIAL PROOF STORIES:a) Try local sources.
You may not have nationally known staff and Board members, but I’m willing to bet you could get the mayor, a state senator, a local TV news celebrity or sports figure to explain why they support your nonprofit. (And if they don’t know about you, make them know.)b) Collect stories from funders.
Directors of large foundations and major gift donors like to hear from other people that run in the same circles. If you have a longtime donor vouching for your organization to other donors, this is a much stronger reason for support than if you are just tooting your own horn all the time.c) Coach these storytellers.
Have the influencer or local celebrity tell their story of how they first became involved with your nonprofit. Ask them to discuss the main reason they are passionate about your cause and the work that you do. Why do they believe your nonprofit is vital to the community, and what enhancements have been made possible because of it? You will need to coach these supporters a bit, by asking provocative questions and getting the conversation rolling.
Offering donors and supporters social proof stories will make them sit up and take notice, and further compel them to get involved – especially if you are a small, community-based nonprofit without a large base of support.
5. FOUNDER STORIES
I know that the founder of your organization has a great story to tell. Otherwise, why go through the hard work of starting a nonprofit? Let the world know the story behind your founder or founders.
EXAMPLE: The global education nonprofit Pencils of Promise features their Founder’s Story prominently on their website.
Adam Braun founded Pencils of Promise in 2008 after an eye-opening trip to India. He was inspired by a young boy begging on the street, whose only wish was for a pencil. There is much more to his story, but the beginning draws you in and makes you want to learn more.
People deeply empathize with Adam’s touching story, and they identify with the thinking behind his idea. This makes for a strong connection to the organization and a more loyal supporter overall.
IN GETTING INFORMATION FOR THIS STORY, YOU NEED TO ASK THE FOLLOWING QUESTIONS:
- Why was your organization created? What need did it fill?
- Who identified the need and when?
- What was that like for them?
- What were their struggles in the beginning?
- What did they sacrifice?
- What did they gain?
It is important to get the founder’s permission before sharing such a story. Your founder may be reluctant to be in the spotlight, and that is certainly their right. However, if you can show them examples of other nonprofits using their founder stories to connect with their audiences and supporters, they will certainly come around.
6. JOURNEY STORIES
Sharing examples of a nonprofit’s journey (also called “learnings”) are all the rage in funding circles. Showing that you aren’t perfect and that you are willing to be agile is important to many donors.
Sticking with the status quo just because you have done it that way for 50 years isn’t going to impress many people. Telling me the ways in which you learned and changed as a result of an obstacle or failure – now that is exciting!
EXAMPLE: Examples of Journey stories can be found in The Denver Foundation’s video series, 10 Years 10 Stories.
The Denver Foundation created a series of videos depicting real-life stories from nonprofits who were awarded grants. Most organizations would solely focus on the positive and the grant recipients with stellar outcomes, where everything went as planned. Not in this series!
Not all the grants and programs worked out the way they were meant to, but the great part of the story is how the nonprofit leaders discuss what they learn and what they still have to work on.
Supporters of the Foundation’s work leave feeling like the stories haven’t been sugarcoated, and that they want to be involved with the work to see it to its conclusion and help with improvements along the way.
TO THINK THROUGH POSSIBLE ANGLES FOR A JOURNEY STORY, ANSWER THE FOLLOWING QUESTIONS:
- In what specific ways can you show your supporters that your nonprofit is continually learning and improving?
- Did you start out in one direction and then discover a different, greater community need?
- How have you adapted to the needs of your constituency throughout the years?
- What challenges have you recently faced, and how did you overcome them? Or not?
It’s important to recognize that in reality, only about 1% of your fanbase will drive 20% of the traffic to your website, and a whopping 75% of the interaction on your social media channels.
This means you should focus on cultivating this 1%. Don’t worry about pleasing everybody!
At the end of the day, remember to focus on inspiring action. Ambassador storytelling is not about talking about yourself, but rather, allowing ambassadors to share their stories as they relate to your organization.