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Nonprofits: 5 Steps to Creating a Powerful Story that Engages Donors, Others

While a picture is worth a thousand words, tell the story and you can engage and connect, evoke emotion, and ultimately create a call to action. Stories have power! That story could be a bedtime story as a child, a family tale shared for generations, or a story that enlightens you on a topic you knew nothing about. For nonprofits, stories are the nature of their work, as the story translates the services or the funding provided into a living and breathing representation of a mission. While facts are always valuable, they are easily forgettable; a story lives on.

So why is storytelling so important for non-profits?

Nonprofits are always trying to forge engagement and relationships with a potential client, donor, or volunteer. Through a story you provide a window into your world; the needs of your organization; who and how you help serve your community; and why it matters to the audience. Creation of an impactful story requires key steps that insure your nonprofit’s personality comes through in vivid color. For nonprofits, their mission provides the secret sauce that for-profits only WISH they had.

STEP #1: Define Your Objective
In order to measure success, you must define what you intend to accomplish. This is an important lesson for nonprofits with limited resources in terms of time, money, and staff. Clarity is key. Consider the following


SMART goal examples:

  • Increase the number of volunteers by 10% by the end of this fiscal year vs. current levels.
  • Increase revenue from corporate sponsors by 10% vs. one year ago.
  • Increase individual donors’ contributions by 5% over previous direct mail appeal results.

STEP #2: Identify Who You Want To Reach
Closely linked to your objective is your audience definition. A great message to the wrong audience isn’t a great message! Identifying your audience can begin with the basics, such as demographics (age, gender, education, and income); and add to that more advanced components, such as perspective (awareness of your organization) and motivation (areas of interest). These elements help create a robust target audience that enable you to design your message accordingly.

How do you identify your audience? Look around your organization. What is the profile of your current volunteers, donors, and employees? An initial target audience might be as simple as mothers of school-age children, 20-45 years of age, living within 10 miles of your facility, and who have attended parenting classes at your facility.

STEP #3: Build Your Stories Around Key Realities
Obviously, central to powerful storytelling is choosing the most impactful story. Again, explore your sources in your clients, volunteers, employees, and donors. Ask and listen to them. Think about the barriers and motivators of your various target audiences, and what stories about your organization will resonate. Stories that have high emotional value, complimented by data, tend to create an affinity towards an organization. Help your audience “connect the dots” to understand your organization’s impact with these three important components.

  1. Orient the audience to understand the work of your organization through a brief elevator speech.

    For example, if you are a nonprofit organization that is devoted to supporting family caregivers of seniors in your community, your elevator speech might be: Caregivers often find themselves caught in the middle between their parents and their own family, struggling to provide support for their loved ones. Our volunteers meet caregivers where they are, to provide counsel on community resources, as well as direct support through much needed low-cost respite.

  2. Create a “face” for your organization by providing an insight into the need and the impact of your organization through data, a quote, testimonial, photo, or video that reinforces your efforts.

    Through our efforts we have served over 50 caregivers this year, with an average of 200 hours of respite, for them to recharge and take time for themselves while their loved one is in good hands. Jean is one of those caregivers. “I reached a breaking point. I wasn’t there for my family, my job, or my mom. I realized I couldn’t do it all and I contacted ABC Nonprofit. They connected me with reliable and compassionate volunteers to help to provide meals and personal care for my mother. This allows me to have some time to recharge and be better for everyone because of it. What a Godsend!”

  3. Make the ask based on your objective.

    Do you know a Caregiver who is struggling? Consider offering your time and talent to help make a difference.

STEP #4: Select Your Communication Vehicles
There is no single recipe to follow when it comes to communication; although it is closely aligned to budget and your target audience. A mix of traditional vehicles such as newsletters, blogs, emails, or direct mail that can be amplified by targeted social media campaigns should be considered. Importantly, it is better to test a handful of smart, well-executed activities that reinforce each other, than to over-extend yourself.

For example, a blog that resides on your website, posted with an engaging headline on your target audiences’ social media platform of choice can make your story work that much harder. Once again, tap your current clients, volunteers, and donors to understand where folks tend to engage and get their information.

STEP #5: Test And Measure To Know What Works
To maximize a nonprofit’s limited financial and human resources, it’s important to identify what worked and what didn’t. Begin by evaluating your overall results vs. your objective — and then consider other measurements regarding multiple messages and the vehicles used. Evaluate the options for return on investment and engagement metrics, such as “likes,” “shares,” and conversion rates (i.e. website traffic generated from social media posts).

For nonprofit organizations, mastering the art of storytelling is essential for connecting with their audiences. Powerful stories can break down walls and bridge gaps in understanding. Moreover, creating the right narrative in your content marketing efforts can drive engagement and encourage support for your cause.

"Storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world today."
Robert McKee

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