Storytelling is an invaluable tool for non-profits. Telling great stories helps your non-profit get its message out into the world, connect with new audiences and motivate people to take action like making a donation. But so many non-profit professionals get discouraged by storytelling because they think it’s going to require the unparalleled writing skills of a Pulitzer Prize winner. In this article, I want to take it back to basics so you understand what is a story and why they matter for your non-profit.
What is a Story?
Let’s start with some definitions of what a story is to help us understand what our end goal is in telling a story.
According to Dictionary.com, there are few definitions of a story.
- A narrative, either true or fictitious, in prose or verse, designed to interest, amuse, or instruct the hearer or reader; tale.
- A fictitious tale, shorter and less elaborate than a novel.
- The plot or succession of incidents of a novel, poem, drama, etc.
- A narration of an incident or a series of events or an example of these that is or may be narrated, as an anecdote, joke, etc.
It’s fair to say that not all of these definitions are applicable to the kind of storytelling non-profits are doing. I always hope it goes without saying, but we are not telling fictitious tales! In fact, the kind of stories non-profits tell are often stories of speaking truth to power.
“The narration of an incident or a serious of events” is very applicable to the type of storytelling non-profits do. Every story we tell is a serious of events that happened to a person, place or project. And I would add that in this narration, we layer in emotions and details. It’s the emotions and details that truly make it a story and not just a timeline.
I combine these two elements in my working definition of what is a story.
A story is a serious of facts told with emotions and details
There you have it! At its very core that is what a story is.
What is storytelling?
I want to take a minute to differentiate story from storytelling. Maybe you think of them is interchangeable terms and you wouldn’t be alone in that. However, and this is a big however, at its foundation “storytelling” is a verb. That means it’s what we are doing. It’s participatory. Whereas “story” is a noun.
Now, before I lose you to the in-the-weeds grammar lesson, let me tell you why this distinction is important.
My clients and students who have found the most success in their storytelling efforts are those who understand that storytelling is really about a process. It’s the process by which you go from the inclination of wanting to tell a story to the completed story out in the world. And the benefit of leaning into this as a process means that you can shepherd each part of the process to its completion.
Here’s an article I wrote about process-thinking in storytelling and another article I wrote on how to map out your own storytelling process.
Why are stories and storytelling necessary and important tools?
Stories are a universal and innate way that we communicate with each other in our daily lives. When we tell a story, we are providing context that allows others to interpret our unique experiences. This allows them to relate to our unique experience and creates empathy between the two people.
As organizations, we are now appropriating this tactic, and with good reason.
Much of the work that non-profits are doing is not necessarily relatable to the average community member or supporter. To counter act this, we share the stories of the people we serve, the people who support us and the people who help us in the hopes that others will identify with some piece of that story and feel a connection to the organization (ie. creating empathy).
Think about this. Not using storytelling means that you are likely telling people a laundry list of services/programs your non-profit provides. Some of which they may or may not understand, and they definitely won’t be able to gather the impact of those services. But by telling a story, you can not only communicate the services/programs you provide, you can also articulate their impact. That is how someone truly understands what your non-profit is all about.