Nonprofits & Storytelling

Nonprofits & Storytelling

Regardless of how many years you look back, societies and the human spirit have survived on storytelling. Oral storytelling evolved into written words, and printed books became digital screens. The medium doesn’t matter; it’s the message that captures our attention.

I watch my youngest sister take 137 pictures with her friends at the lake. She opens Instagram, chooses the single picture, then labors over the appropriate filter, the perfect caption, and the right hashtags. As a good big brother, I should give her a hard time, but I remind myself: this is how her generation tells stories.

A large part of brand strategy is the process of discovering and telling your brand’s story. You can let other people tell your brand’s story, or you can decide how you want to tell your story.

Most of us remember sitting in a classroom learning about the structure of a story and wondering how it would ever be useful in our professional lives. That basic structure is exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution or dénouement if you like fancy words. We may have forgotten the words, but we still use the structure even if we are telling a friend about something funny that happened at Starbucks.

I see many nonprofits who have forgotten this structure. Many nonprofits tell the exposition only and then hit potential donors with a call to action.

What effective fundraisers have discovered for their organizations is that telling a good story is crucial to moving your cause forward. Our brains make decisions based on trust, emotions, and logic. These are referred to as ethos, pathos, and logos as the modes of persuasion developed by Aristotle. For nonprofits, a well-told story will transition into a call to action, which many call their “ask,” and it will touch on all three of these decision triggers.

Donors don’t support you because you are a 501(c)(3) and they’ll get a small tax deduction. That is part of the trust and logic that enters the decision process but is simply a rationale for the emotional decision they have already made. That is why I joke with nonprofits that their story doesn’t begin with their IRS designation. The thought makes us laugh, but daily I see websites for nonprofits that begin with “we are a 501(c)(3) in Texas that does X, Y, and Z."

A well-written story becomes a key that unlocks an emotional response. A problem needs a solution. A protagonist needs a hero. Our hearts and minds love the feeling of these parts coming together.

In the stories that we consume, we exist as bystanders. We scroll through Facebook, sit in a movie theater, or relax on the couch with a good book. We have no ability to change the outcome. There is no choose your own adventure. Fundraising is the only storytelling medium where a person gets to choose the ending of the story. The audience gets to be the hero of the story.

When a donor, especially a major donor, realizes that they can help determine how your story ends, you have created more than a revenue stream. You have partnered with a real person who will be an ambassador for your cause. They will tell your story for you.

Top of mind awareness is what sustains these donors. Your nonprofit’s story occupies real estate in the minds of your donors. The consistent stream of quality content is the rent you pay to maintain that real estate. It doesn’t matter if other lovers come calling, they are loyal to you. Their affections are set on you.

This is my simple process that I believe in. I believe in it because it works.

Below are two examples to show how storytelling can intimately pull a viewer into your story. 



VCD + WE.Collective Production Company: Finch Music Track: Jarryd James "Do You Remember"

Daniel Hicks