When I agreed to do this blog post, I went to Google and the words “nonprofit storytelling” brought up 660,000 pages of websites, blog posts, dedicated conferences, LinkedIn groups, and, of course, experts to overwhelm me. It seems that everywhere I turn, folks are talking about storytelling. However, I know storytelling is more than just the most recent hottest trend for marketing gurus (remember QR codes?), but a real and powerful way to get people to join your cause. Storytelling has been used effectively for thousands of years, and the Internet opened up exciting new ways to tell old stories. What could I possibly add to this growing flood of expert knowledge?
Andy Goodman, whose presentations on nonprofits communications are funny, brilliant, and super useful, gives some help. He advocates that nonprofits tell six different types of stories – what he calls the “sacred bundle.”
- The Nature of Our Challenge Story
- The Creation Story
- The Emblematic Success Story
- The Values Story
- The Striving to Improve Story
- The Where Are We Going Story
Each of these story types can be linked to a strategic goal, and, told well, can increase the impact of the work we do. Check out Andy Goodman’s books for more.
Similarly, one of the most engaging sessions from The Storytelling Non-profit Virtual Conference that I participated in was Marc Pitman’s “The Five Buckets of Stories Every Nonprofit Needs and How to Harvest Them.” It was also very useful and engaging. So, again, what can I add?
Addition by Subtraction
I am going to try addition by subtraction. Many of the smaller nonprofits I work with have small staffs, tiny resources, and limited time. They also have huge passion and big dreams. For many, just getting out the newsletter and an occasional Facebook post feels like about all they can do. How can they identify, draft, refine and publish six different stories?
While I still think organizations should strive to gather their “sacred bundles” with all six of Goodman’s story types (or fill Pitman’s 5 buckets), here are the three that I suggest nonprofits start with. Once you build a culture of storytelling, tackling the remaining stories come much easier.
The Founding Story
This is the one most experts agree on but is one that few nonprofits tell well. Some organizations think “what does it matter how we get started? It’s the work that counts.” However, situating the organization as the solution to a problem that was so big it inspired someone to act immediately puts the audience on your side. You will slay the dragon together!
In those cases where the founder is still available and an asset, the story can come from her. In those cases where the founder is not available or no longer an asset, the story can be pieced together from vision statements, grant applications, interviews, and marketing materials. As with all stories, the story should introduce a character (the founder or founders), the problem they wished to solve, and the nonprofit as the solution. If mission or organization has changed significantly, the Founding Story can be an opportunity to explain the shift while still claiming values based in the original vision.
Here is one example: http://350.org/about/what-we-do/. 350.org was created as a global movement, but it still involves a central character (Bill McKibben) trying to solve a single problem: how do you get people to care about global climate change?
The Impact Story
This is the type of story most nonprofits want to start with. It is the simply the story of the work the nonprofit does from the point of view of a beneficiary, and is appealing because the story is about the work nonprofits do. Many organizations have dozens of testimonials from their clients and have little difficulty putting together this type of story. Some others might struggle to find a good story if their clients are protected by privacy, are a larger group of people (as in advocacy groups), or are even tracts of land or animals. I urge these nonprofits to be creative and think about secondary beneficiaries. If you can’t tell a story about the main client you serve, how about a supporting character? Who else’s life is improved by the work you do? Again, the story should include a human character, attempting to get to a goal, with an obstacle in the way.
Here is an example:
In this video, educator Ron Berger tells the story of how Austin, a first grader, learned how to draw a butterfly. While the main character in the story is a young boy, the story illustrates the power of the Expeditionary Learning model for all students. For more on them, check out Expeditionary Learning.
The Why I Do the Work Story
This is one of my favorite types of stories to tell, but many nonprofits rarely tell them. They may feel uncomfortable asking their staff or volunteers why they give their time and money. However, when meetings include time to for people to tell the story of why they are there, it often yields truly inspiring words from the people who are actually carrying the work – who sometimes don’t consider themselves “marketers.”
With a nod to Vanessa Chase (who shared it in her blog), here is one of the most deeply moving I’ve seen recently:
It tells the story of why Dr. Alex Levy does the work he does, and what will make him stop. Check out the Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children.
The Final Sum
Whether you’ve gone for the half-dozen in your sacred bundle, filled your five buckets, built an entire story bank full of stories, or are just getting started, creating a culture of organizational storytelling can help in so many ways. Yes, whatever marketing and fundraising assets you are creating will be improved with a well-told story. But the stories above can also be used to unify organizational culture, assist in strategic thinking, and help organizations transition to new people or directions. Talk about these story types with your staff and see what they have to offer. It is always a good time for story time.
This guest post was written by Todd Felton.
About Todd: I am a writer, teacher, digital strategist, and a thrower of frisbees for dogs. I graduated from Cornell University and did my graduate work at Syracuse University. I’ve taught high school English, founded a writing center, written three books and numerous articles, and helped nonprofits make the most of digital tools. I live in Amherst with my wife and two sons. My website is http://rtfconsulting.co.