“Stories constitute the single most powerful weapon in a leader’s arsenal.”
—Dr. Howard Gardner, professor Harvard University
True words from Dr. Gardner, perhaps most true for those who lead nonprofit organizations. They wield a weapon of need, passion, and compassion. These are concepts that grab people and form narratives that drive action in advocacy, donations, volunteerism, and more. So as a nonprofit leader how do you capture these moments? Where do you even start? It's pivotal as a nonprofit leader to understand the fundamentals of storytelling we'll cover here as they'll ensure no matter how you decide to tell your story you'll connect with your audience and reach your goals.
Where To Start
“At its very core, marketing is storytelling. The best advertising campaigns take us on an emotional journey – appealing to our wants, needs and desires – while at the same time telling us about a product or service.”
– Melinda Partin, Multimedia Producer, Digital Marketing Director
Think Big Picture. Think Strategically.
Storytelling for your nonprofit must always have a purpose, where there is purpose there is passion, and where there is passion there is power.
Start with a strategy and create an overarching campaign that the stories you're telling can fit in. Think about the goals of your campaign — whether it be to educate, drive donations, political action, or volunteer efforts. The goal of your storytelling efforts should always be to move people. Move them from inaction to action. Classy.org has a quick read that details 4 storytelling strategies for nonprofits with examples of each which might serve as a great starting point for your strategic storytelling efforts.
A story without a strategy, a purpose, or a lesson is not a story at all but merely words and images compiled with no effect. It goes beyond just connecting narrative with passion, but connecting a narrative with action and giving people ways to engage with your nonprofit. Don't just tell them things, give them things. Give them ideas, give them tools, give them the power to tell your story for you.
Stories Require An Audience.
"Storytelling offers the opportunity to talk with your audience, not at them."
― Laura Holloway, Founder and Chief of The Storyteller Agency
Don't Be A One-Way Street.
Speaking of having people tell your story for you, audiences don't magically appear like unicorns (wouldn't that be nice?). They are defined, developed, and nurtured groups that connect with your perspective and mission. Nobody wants to put countless hours into creating a campaign, fleshing out stories within their organization just to have them sent off into the void never to be heard from again. Create stories that engage your audience, start conversations, and get them invested in your goals. That's not only how you can talk with your audience through storytelling, but grow it as well.
If you haven't already, take steps to further define who your audience is. Nonprofits can often have more complex audiences than for-profit organizations, so keep it simple and remember the people who make up your audience are all centered around your mission. This a great guide from HubSpot that dives into techniques to help you further develop your audience including building personas.
Finding Truth In Voice.
Knowing your audience is one thing, knowing your voice is completely different. Your nonprofit's voice in storytelling should be an extension of your organization's brand and culture. It provides the feeling, authenticity, and weight behind your words. This blog from the Badger Group (specifically their graphic) does a good job of simplifying how to define your nonprofit's voice. I like to break voice down into 4 categories:
- Archetype/Persona (see the 12 archetypes below)
Each of these informs the other, so once you start discovering certain aspects of your voice like tone you can start to understand what language conveys that tone. Never let your voice in storytelling be this ball and chain either — certain goals or actions require a different voice from your organization; that doesn't make it any less authentic. Stories and communications around advocacy or political action may require a sense of urgency that those highlighting donors or volunteer events won't have and that's okay. You can still have consistency while branching out to tell your story creatively.
Stories are meant to capture our imagination, they bring us together, and drive us to action. These are the types of stories nonprofits need to be telling to grow, and more importantly, accomplish their mission. Whether it be through advocacy, donor campaigns, or education there's a story to be told at your nonprofit. Take the time to think strategically, understand your audience, and craft a voice that authentically tells your story. I realize I may have gone overboard with all the storytelling quotes at this point, but I'll leave you with one more that I find very fitting for nonprofits:
"The stories we tell literally make the world. If you want to change the world, you need to change your story. This truth applies both to individuals and institutions."
--Michael Margolis, CEO Get Storied, Educator, Future Anthropologist