Episode 016 – Effective Nonprofit Storytelling

Donor Communication, Podcasts

By Jeremy Reis

Storytelling is the foundation of excellent nonprofit marketing. Jeremy is frequently asked, “how do I effectively tell our story?” In this special episode, Jeremy Reis explores effective nonprofit storytelling that produces results. You’ll learn the tips and tricks to writing great nonprofit stories that raise funds and builds relationships with your donors and stakeholders.

Full Transcript:

Today we’re going to learn effective nonprofit storytelling.

Nonprofit fundraising at its core is storytelling. Telling a story of how your organization has helped one beneficiary be transformed is the building block telling the story of your organization. In nonprofit development the story we use in fundraising is called The Story of the One. It’s called the story of the one, because you’re telling the story of how one beneficiary’s life was transformed, what it was like before the nonprofit helped, during the transformation, and after the organization helped. It’s a story that emotionally connects the reader to the cause. Giving isn’t a logical decision, it’s an emotional one. You need to emotionally connect with someone to overcome their attachment to their hard earned dollars, and show them that your organization can be the tool that connects their desire to support a cause with the ability to do good work. You’re the hands and feet to their desire to give back. Maya Angelou said, “People will forget what you said, people forget what you did, but they’ll never forget how you made them feel.”

So why do we use stories? Using a story helps a reader put themselves in the place of being able to help that specific beneficiary. The story fires in the parts of the brain where the reader can experience the emotions in the story. When you tell a story of transformation, the reader can actually feel how the beneficiary feels, having his life changed. Let’s take a look at two real appeals from nonprofits.

Children across America and around the world are hungry and waiting for your help. Your gift will supply them with food and essentials. Hunger is a daily reality for boys and girls across America. You can make a difference for children in need with your gift today. Even if only one child goes to bed hungry tonight in America, that’s one too many. No child should have to live in fear wondering where their next meal will come from.

In this email appeal, there is no personalized Dear Jeremy line, but instead, it opened with that first line that I read, “The children across America and around the world are hungry and waiting for your help.” At the end below, the text with a donate now button.

Now I want you to contrast that first email with this one from a different nonprofit organization.

Dear Jeremy, will you help me put a big smile on the face of a hungry and hurting little boy like six year old Tony? It’s hard to believe here in America, especially this time of year, but just a few weeks ago Tony was going to bed hungry nearly every night. His family simply didn’t make enough to consistently serve a health dinner. Instead, Tony would only get nourishment in his school lunch, but then friends like you stepped in and provided meals for Tony and his family. You turned around Tony’s holiday season so now he doesn’t have to worry about where his next meal will come from. His parents don’t need to decide between paying for heat or buying groceries, you can put food and other essentials into the hands of children like Tony.

The appeal continues on to the call of action. Do you see how through both appeals that they’re focused on hunger, but the second appeal connected you to the cause? It helped you see the face of hunger in Tony, and put yourself into the shoes of the donor that helped Tony and his family. The first appeal is still common with many nonprofits using statistics instead of stories. When you put a face onto the problem that you’re solving, you allow the reader to feel the transformation and believe that she can make an impact on a real life.

Stories are part of being human. We’ve a long tradition in story telling. For many people, telling stories is the ideal way for them to learn. Telling a story helps them connect with the story teller in a unique way. Several studies have shown that the brain stimulation that occurs during story telling, has a unique way of syncing to the same areas of the brain that fire between a story teller and someone hearing the story. In other words, the reader or listener can feel and think the same as the story teller. So when you look at that image of the brain firing and the neurons firing, it actually syncs up between the story teller and the person listening to the story. You can tell a compassionate story that moves someone to get involved. You can actually think the thoughts when you hear the story that the story teller is thinking in his own mind.

This is so powerful. This is a powerful way to move someone to become involved in your nonprofit, and to move them to give towards something they’re passionate about solving. Every appeal you send out should have a story. If your nonprofit supports abandoned puppies, you should tell the story of Jack the terrier who was a abandoned, rescued, treated and placed in a good home. If you work with homeless veterans, tell the story of Bill the vet who found shelter, food, job training, and now has his own place and a steady job. No matter your cause, a story will connect someone who has a passion for your cause with your organization to support those beneficiaries. Without a story, a fundraising appeal lacks the punch to move the reader to donate. Sure, you may raise a little bit of money with statistics, but a story that connects with the reader, and it connects that reader to a real live person, that moves people to give.

So what kind of stories should we use? Each type of nonprofit communication piece it’ll have different story requirements. For an annual report, or a thank you communication, you’ll probably choose stories that show the impact of your work. For a fundraising piece, you’ll want an emotion and driven story that connects the donor to a specific fundraising campaign. Whatever story you use, you’re going to need to decide for that particular communication piece the right story for that purpose. And to do that, you need to understand your audience. Your audience has a specific desire for types of stories that align with their desire to give to a particular cause. Each communication piece you design will have a specific audience that you’d like to reach. So the first step in deciding which story to use is to determine which audience is the right one for this communication piece, and what is the best story to accomplish your goal?

For example, you have an email going out to drive advocacy, you’re going to probably want a story that demonstrates advocacy and action with people who support your organization. If you have a direct mail letter being set out for fundraising, you pick an emotional story designed to increase fundraising response. Your audience and your goal for that communication piece with that particular audience, that’s the first factor to decide which story to select. The more personal and specific a story is, the more it will connect with the reader. This is particularly true with stories that show the transformation in the beneficiary’s life. When you’re reviewing potential story options, select stories that have a strong transformation element. When a potential donor is reviewing an appeal, he’s often looking for that story of transformation to feel good about where his donation is going to do with your organization. If you have a strong story, he’ll feel like your organization will invest that donation wisely.

Storytelling is a powerful way to move the reader to become a donor. Using the story of the one, your nonprofit will discover that the emotionally connecting stories that create a foundation for your marketing and for your fundraising.

Thank you for listening to this episode of the Nonprofit Answers Podcast. Please take a moment to rate and review this podcast on iTunes for your favorite podcasting service. Your rating and review will help other nonprofit professionals find this podcast to get their nonprofit questions answered. Thanks again.


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