Story arcs play an important role in non-profit narrative development. We often place a lot of emphasis on individual stories and use those individual stories in fundraising and communications. But if we zoom out from those individual stories, we can see that each story we tell (and every fundraising and communications piece for that matter) is part of a larger story arc or narrative.
As a non-profit professional, it’s essential to come out of the weeds of individual storytelling so that you can be strategic with what you tell your audience over time. In this article, I’m going to share more about the role story arcs play in fundraising campaigns and 3 steps you can take to intentionally develop your next story arc.
Why Non-Profits Need to Think in Story Arcs
You probably had a favorite TV show or maybe a favorite book series. Over time, a season in the case of a TV show, a story arc reveals itself. It’s not always something you can fully understand in the moment because you’re in it. But at the end of that season, you can look back and see the highs, lows, conflict, and resolution in the show.
Non-profit fundraising and communications programs are like this. Though we operate year-round, you can think of each year as being your own “season.” Some organizations go further to work in 90-day increments. Here’s a video tutorial I made that walks you through how to create a 90-day communications plan. If you’re able to elevate yourself from the day-to-day, you have the opportunity to proactively shape the story arc you plan to roll out over that time frame.
This practice matters a great deal in fundraising and communications. It can enhance your campaign’s effectiveness by:
- Allowing you to sequence messaging in a way that moves the audience towards your goals
- Building audience engagement over time as you reach the climax of the story arc or campaign
- Telling the best individual stories to get your message across
If you’re interested in further reading on story arcs, this post from Nonprofit Marketing Guide is great.
Next, let’s talk about the steps you can take to build a story arc for your next fundraising campaign.
3 Steps to Build a Story Arc for Your Next Fundraising Campaign
Building a story arc for a fundraising campaign can be broken down into three steps. These are steps you can take during the campaign planning process. For example, if you were building a story arc for year-end fundraising, you’d want to go through these steps in September or October.
PS – Need some advice on planning your year-end fundraising campaign? Read this article next.
Step 1: Define your timeline
The first step in building your story arc is to define your campaign timeline. The amount of time you have to work with will dictate how quickly your story arc unfolds. It can also influence other decisions you’ll need to make about your campaign, which I talk more about in this video.
When I run email fundraising campaigns for clients, I plan most campaigns on 4 to 8 week timelines. This allows enough time for the pre-asking phase of the campaign and the asking phase of the campaign.
Step 2: Map out the beginning, middle and end of your story arc
Once you have your timeline nailed down, you can begin to map out the story arc itself. This is where you’ll define (at a high level) what the beginning, middle and end of your story arc entail. Think about this as what you want your audience to know at each point in the arc.
I personally do this by working backwards from the endpoint of the story arc. Let’s say I’m running a fundraising campaign for a brand new program an organization is offering. The end of the story arc is someone making a donation to help solve a problem. To make that case and get people to take action, I’m going to need to demonstrate need and build urgency (the middle of the arc). At the beginning of the arc, I’m going to want to lay the groundwork by introducing the concept of the program and why the organization is undertaking it.
Step 3: Determine what kind of content to use at each point in your story arc
The final step to mapping out your story arc for your fundraising campaign is to determine what kind of content you want to use at each point in your story arc. There are many kinds of content you could use in your story arc from individual stories, videos, photos, quotes, explainers, interviews, and so on. Now that you know what you’re trying to accomplish in the story arc, you can make a more informed decision about how.
Let’s say at the beginning of your story arc you are introducing a brand new program your non-profit will soon begin offering. In this introduction, you’ll want to focus on why you’re offering this program and the benefits it will offer. You could do this through an explainer, through an interview with a program staff member, or through an individual story. Sharing personal stories can be very powerful and very effective.
Those are the three steps you can take today to start building a story arc for your next fundraising campaign. If you aren’t a fundraiser, you can apply these steps to building a story arc for a communications campaign, too!
If you’re ready to take the next step in your story arc, watch this video tutorial I created on the story structure for individual stories.