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13 Elements of Compelling Non-Profit Storytelling

Learn how your non-profit can drive engagement with powerful storytelling that inspires, teaches and connects.

Graffiti that says "Strength in Truth"

A well-told story touches our emotions. It can outrage, sadden, delight, or motivate us. A recent study shows that emotional appeals are more effective than rational appeals for driving donations, which is why good storytelling is so vital to a non-profit’s success.

Compelling stories “show” rather than “tell.” They make your work come alive by vividly demonstrating how your organization makes a real difference and how supporters can help you do more. Rather than glorifying the donor, effective stories lift up those you serve as the real heroes while personalizing and giving context to show why your organization needs donor support. No longer are donors just giving to combat the overwhelming problem of domestic violence. Instead, they’re supporting 28-year-old Michaela as she works with your organization to overcome challenges and free herself from abuse so she can heal and start the new life she deserves.

How can you improve your impact storytelling? Follow these 13 suggestions:

1. Capture immediate attention

There are literally billions of stories out there, so you need to make yours stand out, grab the reader’s attention, and make them want more. “I was 27 weeks pregnant with my fourth child when I felt a lump” is a much more captivating than “One out of 8 US women will develop breast cancer.” Your story needs a hook that will quickly pull people in, ignite their curiosity, and make them want to read more.

2. Know your audience

Leverage your website analytics and donor relationship management data to understand who your most engaged supporters are (current and potential), their demographics, how they relate to your organization and what kind of content resonates most with them. Then tailor your stories to their interests, highlighting characters and experiences they may be able to identify with.

3. Be relatable and conversational

Make sure your story is relatable and touches on common human conditions. People may not have been in the same situation as the person in your story, but they can empathize with feeling scared, being in pain, worrying about family, etc. Use simple, straightforward language, and avoid non-profit jargon. Tell the story as you would tell it to a friend.

4. Keep it short

Remember that audiences today have shorter attention spans. It can be a challenge to get people to read past the headline. Tell your story but keep it short, stick to your overall message, and don’t get sidetracked or bogged down with unnecessary details.

5. Develop your main character

It’s important that people feel a connection with the hero of your story. Remember the real hero is the person you’ve helped, not the donor or your organization. Use quotes from the person to bring them to life and showcase their personality. While it’s common to use fictitious names and photos for confidentiality, try to share other details such as their age, what they do, where they’re from, what their lifestyle is like, characteristics they display and other information so your readers can find common ground and empathize.

6. Use detail intentionally

Details can bring your story to life and make it feel more authentic and immersive. It’s much more powerful to say, “We found an emaciated dog that had been chained to a fence in an abandoned lot” than “We found a dog.” Just make sure you don’t overdo it. Only use details that are meaningful and help people better understand the story.

7. Follow a storyline

Stories should trace your hero’s journey with a natural progression from beginning to middle to end. Start with an intro where we learn about the protagonist and their challenges. Then move through this person’s experience and how your organization helped them overcome their challenges to succeed. Wrap up with how their life has improved since then and how supporters can help your organization do even more.

8. Keep it real

True stories tend to have more impact than fiction. Make sure your voice feels genuine and authentic. Avoid the temptation to be melodramatic or sales-ey. Let the story and characters speak for themselves.

9. Keep it fresh

Don’t keep serving up the same old stories. Build it into your communications plan to produce a constant stream of new impact stories to use in different formats across your channels.

10. Find a balance

Some non-profits address very serious and painful issues. Focusing too much on the ugly side of things may motivate some donors but alienate others. Likewise, being too positive can make light of a difficult situation. Try to find a balance between the negative and the positive, leaving people with a sense of hope that they can make a difference.

11. Include facts, data and statistics

The Harvard Business Review reported that facts are 20 times more likely to be remembered if they are part of a story. Stories appeal to our emotions, but numbers provide the proof that your non-profit is actually making an impact. Andy Goodman, a regular speaker at non-profit storytelling conferences, calls the combination of storytelling and data the “one-two punch of persuasion.”

12. Create a sense of urgency

Retailers know that people are often motivated to buy when “time is running out” on a sale price or “there’s only one item left.” Donors can be motivated in the same way if they know that the need is urgent, or that their donation can help someone right away.

13. Include a CTA

Finally, don’t forget to take advantage of the persuasive power of your story by telling donors specifically what they can do next. Include a donate button or link at the end and make it easy for the reader to take immediate action.

Embrace the power of storytelling

Don’t have the bandwidth to craft your non-profit’s impact stories? We offer storytelling services to fill in the gaps and help you make the most of your outreach. Let’s talk!

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