Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from Ellie Burke of Classy.org.
“If your stories are all about your products and services, that’s not storytelling. It’s a brochure. Give yourself permission to make the story bigger.” – Jay Baer
Great stories make the story “bigger” because they join people together. In the social impact space, that means going beyond simply speaking about the problem you address and how your programs are part of the solution. To truly forge connections between people, often worlds apart, you need to tell a story, and you need it to strike a chord.
However, after some time, something as emotionally driven as storytelling can start to feel laborious and contrived. To keep it authentic, real, and impactful, you need to continuously breathe new life into your stories—and this means looking for new sources of inspiration.
Coming up with new ideas doesn’t need to be as hard as it might sound. Rather than develop entirely new concepts and tales, consider what small tweaks and new angles you can take, such as a shift in point of view, to reframe the conversation and remind your supporters why your cause needs support.
Here are nine places to find inspiration for telling your nonprofit’s story. By the end of this list, you’ll be ready to face your computer screen and declare, “Not today, blank page. Not today.”
Starting a nonprofit organization is a lot like waging a war. A great deal goes into the decision to begin and typically there are catalyzing events that lead up to it. The founder of your organization was likely privy to extraordinary circumstances that led to their choice to raise their banners for your cause.
Describe the turning point for your founder. Identify the moment that caused them to stand up and say, “Enough is enough.” The thought process that brought them here is likely the same thought process that will empower someone to contribute to the cause.
While it’s common to see an organization’s origin story on their website, you can push the envelope and get creative with how you tell your founder’s story. For example, in this post that Scott Harrison wrote for Fatherly, he provides a very personal account of his transformation over the years and what that had to do with his cause.
Pro tip: In addition to getting the story straight from the horse’s mouth, consider interviewing someone very close to your founder, such as their spouse or family member. How did they observe the transformation in your founder as he or she began this journey?
Research around the identifiable victim affect and its role in charitable giving has shown us the power of telling individual stories, versus focusing on a larger group. Maintain close relationships with your beneficiaries whenever possible to not only reignite personal passion for your cause, but also reignite your supporters.
Try a new angle: Go beyond putting your beneficiaries in the spotlight and pass them the mic. Rather than tell your audience an individual’s story, show them a firsthand account.
The people who work for your organization (both employees and volunteers) can play a powerful role in your storytelling. Rather than just highlighting the work they’re making possible, showcase their personal connections to your organization. This will humanize your organization and staff in the eyes of your audience and make them relatable.
Barbells for Boobs’ staff page is a great example of how you can share details about your staff members to shed light on their personalities and what they stand for.
You can also look to popular culture to inspire the storytelling in your marketing and communications. For example, Blood: Water drew inspiration from the popular HBO series, Game of Thrones, for their time-based campaign dubbed “The Real Game of Thrones.” With this clever reference they aimed to raise enough money in 24 hours to install 21 latrines in Rwanda.
Blood: Water also uses popular culture references in their social media strategy. They often participate in trending hashtags such as #TBT (throwback Thursday) that allow them to continue their organization’s story in a culturally relevant and lighthearted way. https://twitter.com/bloodwater/status/746130802170298368
Books and Film
If you’re a storyteller, you’re a writer in some facet. One thing writers are constantly advised to do to further hone their craft is to read. To be an all-star storyteller, you need to be an all-star story consumer. Whether you sit down to a summer bestseller or take the time to actually watch the commercials during ABC’s The Bachelorette (your secret’s safe with us), there’s no shortage of opportunities to consume stories. Keep an eye out for different types of stories and ask yourself what makes them effective. This will not only help you to grow as a storyteller, it will also challenge you to continually ideate.
Your mother might have told you not to talk to strangers, but as a nonprofit, approaching new individuals is a large part of the game. The next time you find yourself in a conversation with someone who’s new to your organization, stay aware of how you frame the discussion. Keep these things in mind:
What do you choose to tell them about first?
Are they surprised by any of the information you share?
What questions do they ask?
A newcomer’s perspective can be a valuable source of inspiration for your organization. Their fresh eyes can provide a unique set of lens not found among your staff or existing supporters.
Your staff and beneficiaries aren’t the only ones with personal connections to your cause. Many of your supporters also have emotional ties to your organization. You’ve probably even noticed a few “super fans” who regularly sign up to fundraise, donate, or engage with you and others on social media. Why not give these supporters a call and get to know them? Ask what drives them to engage with your organization. Just as your staff’s bios will help your audience relate, sharing what you discover about your supporters will help newcomers understand why they should get involved.
As Charles Caleb Colton famously said, “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”
In the nonprofit space, an increasing number of organizations understand that collaboration is the key to achieving the biggest impact possible. The organizations you look up to are doing incredible work. In many respects, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. While it’s important to differentiate your organization, you can take best practices from your peers and draw inspiration from their work to inform your own.
Sometimes, getting fresh perspective and advice is as simple as getting on the phone. Reach out to organizations inside and outside of your own network to understand what works well for them, what doesn’t, and what they’re excited to try next to engage their community.
An Inspiration Board
As you explore different sources of inspiration, consider storing them all in one place. You might create a physical board in your office and decorate it with printed quotes and images. Or you might use a tool like Pinterest to help you stay organized and group inspirational content you come across online. Whatever form it takes, an inspiration board will give you a place to turn to when you feel at a loss for ideas.
The next time you’re stuck, use these nine sources to inform your marketing and communications strategy and create stories that resonate with your audience and move them to engage. Where else do you draw inspiration for your nonprofit storytelling? Please let us know in the comments below.
This guest post was contributed by Ellie Burke of Classy.org. Ellie is a Content Marketing Associate and writes about fundraising strategies for the Classy blog. In her free time, she also writes young adult science fiction and fantasy.