4 Strategies for Meaningful Nonprofit Storytelling

Text: "4 Strategies for Meaningful Nonprofit Storytelling" overlaid over a picture of an older man telling a story.

Most of us love a good story. Whether we’re watching our favorite TV series, reading the latest best-seller, or listening to a friend relate a past experience, storytelling engages our emotions in a way that facts can’t do on their own. Stories also tend to stick with us—it’s estimated that stories are 22 times more memorable than simple facts.

For nonprofits, incorporating storytelling into your marketing strategy has a variety of benefits. Stories about your organization’s history and impact can spread awareness about your mission, encourage donors and volunteers to get involved, and recognize the supporters who made your accomplishments possible.

To help your organization start telling meaningful stories, this guide will walk through four top nonprofit storytelling strategies, including how to:

  1. Develop Characters and Conflicts
  2. Support Your Stories With Data and Images
  3. Consider All of the Audiences for Your Stories
  4. Tailor Your Storytelling to Each Marketing Channel

As you start implementing these strategies, ensure all of the stories you tell align with your nonprofit’s brand. According to Loop, nonprofit branding encompasses not only visual elements like logos and font choices, but also messaging guidelines. Effective stories communicate your organization’s overarching brand message and unique position, persuading donors that your mission is worth supporting. Let’s dive in!

1. Develop Characters and Conflicts

Before you start telling your nonprofit’s story, consider the way stories are told in popular media.. Bear in mind that you’ll take a slightly different approach to storytelling because your organization’s stories are true and used for marketing purposes, rather than being fictional and told for entertainment value. However, the basic elements of your story will be similar, including:

  • A compelling main character. In the past, nonprofits would focus their stories on a loyal donor so that their audience could relate to the main character. Most organizations have since found that it’s much more effective to choose someone their nonprofit has helped. These stories pull at the audience’s heartstrings and help them put a name and face to the organization’s mission.
  • A problem that the main character must overcome. It can be tempting to skip to the end of the story to show how your organization helped the main character. But audience members need context to understand the gravity of the main character’s predicament.
  • Specific details about how your nonprofit helped the main character. Once you’ve fully established the main character’s need, showcase how your organization’s initiatives and  hardworking supporters made their happy ending possible.
  • A call to action. Naturally, you’ll end the story with the main character’s problem being resolved. Because your stories are meant to persuade, though, it’s also important to include a call to action to get your audience to take the intended next step.

To see these elements in practice, let’s look at this story an animal shelter might use:

Dante, a four-year-old gray tabby cat, came to our shelter when his previous owner could no longer care for him. During his time here, he was brought up-to-date on vaccinations and underwent a dental procedure to treat advanced gum disease. Our amazing volunteers fed and socialized with Dante every day so he could go to his forever home happy and healthy. If you want to help cats in need like Dante, visit our Volunteer page to apply today!

This story focuses on a named individual who the organization helped—Dante the cat—and quickly establishes why he needed the shelter’s help. Detailing the specific medical and social care Dante received makes the shelter’s impact more concrete, and the last sentence calls upon readers to take action by applying to volunteer on the nonprofit’s website.

2. Support Your Stories With Visuals and Data

Once you’ve developed the basic elements of your story, consider adding different types of visuals that each strengthen nonprofit storytelling. For instance:

  • Photos help audiences visualize the characters and problems you describe.
  • Your nonprofit’s logo demonstrates that the story is true and relevant to your mission.
  • Infographics can display facts related to your story in a digestible format.

Although stories are more memorable than facts alone, connecting the concrete data your nonprofit collects to your stories helps establish your credibility. To return to the animal shelter example, the organization could add a detail before the call to action stating that Dante was just one of 200 cats they had cared for in the past year. This data point helps readers realize that the shelter regularly makes a difference for animals in need, further encouraging them to get involved.

3. Consider All of the Audiences for Your Stories

Most stories have an intended audience. An upcoming movie may appeal to science fiction enthusiasts, or someone might tell a personal story to the friend who would find it most entertaining. But identifying the audience for your nonprofit’s stories is often more challenging because your organization must communicate with a variety of audiences at any given time.

If you understand each of these audiences, you can tell stories that resonate with them and reflect well on your organization. Some common nonprofit audiences to keep in mind include:

  • Supporters. Each of your donors, volunteers, event attendees, and advocates has different motivations and backgrounds that affect how your stories resonate with them. Kwala’s guide to donor communications suggests segmenting your supporters based on shared characteristics so that you can adjust your storytelling strategies for each segment.
  • Individuals your organization serves. You’ll often feature these individuals in your stories, so provide opportunities for them to tell their stories in their own words. Remember to get permission from them before using their names or photos in your marketing materials.
  • Outside stakeholders. Adjust your storytelling to highlight your mission so that corporate sponsors, community decision-makers, and other stakeholders will have an understanding of your organization’s impact before deciding to work with you.

Understanding your nonprofit’s audiences not only helps you tell stories that appeal to each of them, but it also allows you to form stronger relationships with each of these groups that can have long-term benefits for your organization.

4. Tailor Your Storytelling to Each Marketing Channel

Your nonprofit can incorporate stories into any of your marketing materials, but your storytelling will vary based on the channel’s limitations. Consider these common marketing methods:

  • Your website. As storytelling is a nonprofit website best practice, include stories throughout all of your copy, from your about page to your blog. You can also make the visuals and data that accompany your stories more engaging by embedding videos or designing interactive infographics.
  • Email marketing. It’s best to keep emails concise, so you might tell a brief story in the message and then link to the page on your website where supporters can learn more.
  • Social media. Each social media platform requires its own storytelling strategy based on the site’s structure. For example, you might first tell a text-heavy story in a series of tweets and then rework that information into a short video for Instagram and TikTok.
  • Direct mail. Although many nonprofits focus on digital storytelling, direct mail appeals to certain donor segments and supplements your online efforts. Make sure any images you use are printer-friendly, and include a return envelope or QR code to support the story’s call to action.

In these marketing materials and any others your nonprofit uses, experiment with your storytelling techniques to determine which strategy is most effective. Analyze engagement data and consider asking your audience for feedback to improve your storytelling tactics over time.

Nonprofit storytelling can help your organization’s various audiences connect emotionally with your cause and understand your impact more deeply. Think about whether each story you tell would make sense if it were a movie—if it would, you’ve optimized your storytelling efforts. Once you add visuals, incorporate data, and ensure the format works for your chosen marketing channel, you’ll be ready to share your organization’s story!