Notebook with quote: what's your story?

Storytelling is the best fundraising tool a nonprofit has. In a world where we are completely bombarded with information and input, storytelling is a refreshing and inspiring way to show the world who your organization is, what your mission is and why everyone should care. 

This post will give you ideas for finding and sharing stories so you can stop simply telling the world about your organization and start sharing the real story: why your work is needed and why they should get involved.

Why Storytelling Works

Effective storytelling for nonprofits takes an abstract problem or idea and turns it into a real situation that affects real people. Use your organization’s mission and values to help identify stories that will draw supporters into your world and encourage donors to invest in your vision. Why just inform when you can tell a story that engages audiences and inspires action?

What Makes a Good Story?

The recipe for a good — or effective — story is based on three simple ingredients:

  • Hook

Your story only has a matter of seconds to catch your audience’s attention, so you need a hook that elicits an emotional response. Your hook could be a surprising fact, shocking outcome or narrative that paints a powerful scene. 

Let’s use an animal shelter as an example. Instead of saying, “Our animal shelter rehabilitates homeless pets and helps find people to adopt them,” you might write, “Tonight, more than 3,000 homeless pets in this community will struggle to find food and shelter from the cold.” See the difference? The first version provides a fact but doesn’t elicit emotion while the second version paints a picture of homeless pets that really tugs at the heartstrings.

  • Problem

If there wasn’t a problem that needed solving, your nonprofit wouldn’t exist! So what’s the problem your mission seeks to address? How does your work make the world a better place? Many organizations miss the mark by saying only what the problem is without making people understand why it’s a problem.

Continuing with the example of an animal shelter, here is a clear but uninspiring problem statement: “There isn’t enough space at our shelter to take in all of the animals who need care.”

Now let’s incorporate language that offers a better understanding of how this is a problem for the community, not just the animals: “Without space and resources to serve all of the homeless animals in our community, hundreds of cats and dogs will continue to breed and spread curable illnesses to both wild and domestic animals in neighborhoods across the county.

People are more likely to support your work when they can clearly see how your organization benefits the larger community, not just a specific or isolated group.

  • Hope

Be careful not to present the problem as something so big and severe that it seems unsolvable or incurable. Your story should provide audiences with hope for a better future — one that’s made possible by your organization’s work. It doesn’t matter if your organization can’t solve the problem all on its own, but an effective story must give audiences a feeling of hope or you risk the danger of audience apathy.

Where Are the Stories?

If your nonprofit provides direct services for individuals, animals or families, client success stories are a great place to start. But for organizations whose impact isn’t always tangible — or whose services require protective confidentiality — client impact stories may not be an option.

Here are some other potential sources of storytelling content:

  • Volunteers

Ask them to tell you why they chose to volunteer at your organization and what connects them to your cause. Encourage them to share any special moments or experiences that have touched them as a volunteer. Chances are, those stories will touch donors, too!

  • Staff

Interview your colleagues using the same approach as we discussed for volunteers. Staff with a longer history offer a great perspective on how the organization has changed and grown. Ask them to tell you a story about a client that really affected them professionally or a project that has been especially important to them.

If service isn’t the focus of your organization’s work, think about your coworkers personally. Ask a colleague to share how the organization has helped them grow professionally or achieve a personal goal. New employees are a great source of storytelling content, too. Use their enthusiasm to spark interest from potential supporters and get you back on the radar of former (or fatigued) donors.

  • Partners and fellow advocates

One of the most successful fundraising videos I ever made didn’t focus solely on client stories. Instead, we also included partner testimonials that couldn’t have been more glowing than if I had scripted them myself. This was a great way to discover the power of peer promotion. As the audience sat captive watching our video, they heard how our organization made others’ work possible and how we were critical leaders in our industry as well as effective service providers. When thinking about who you impact directly, remember to think outside of services and about the larger community you are a part of.

Have the Stories But Don’t Know Where to Share?

  • Facebook posts

Suggest a Story button on ActionSprout

Choose the Stories tab on ActionSprout to find Recommended stories for your feed. To make your own recommendation, click the Suggest a Story button on the top right of the Recommended Stories page and follow the prompts.

Not only will posting your stories through your social media feed help your existing supporters stay engaged and informed, but it also makes it easier for others to share updates and stories with a larger network who may not know much about you (yet). Want to make it even easier for others to find and share your storytelling posts? With the Suggest a Story function in the ActionSprout Stories tab, you can recommend your posts as a story in ActionSprout topics like Social Media & Nonprofits as well as topics directly related to your work. By recommending your storytelling content, you’re putting your story in front of thousands of ActionSprout users who can extend your reach even further than a traditional Facebook post.

  • Newsletters

This is a no brainer! Everyone on your newsletter distribution list is already a fan of your work and wants to see your organization succeed. This is the perfect stage for you to share an inspiring story and remind your network about the major day of giving coming up!

  • Eblasts

Sure, you told your networks about #GivingTuesday in your last newsletter, but that was a whole month ago! If your constituents are anything like me, they’ll need a reminder (or two) before the big day. What does this have to do with storytelling? A compelling story with an emotional appeal is the difference between an email asking for money and an email that inspires giving. 

  • Blog posts

Capturing and sharing stories through website articles or a blog is helpful in a few ways. First, it creates an organized archive of your best stories so that they are easy to share, reference and revisit. Next, sharing your story link via social media, eblast or newsletter drives traffic to your website. Two birds, one stone.

  • Social Actions

For the best donor conversion or completion rates, you need to use the Social Action feature in ActionSprout. Not only will you see an increase in fundraising results, but the tool also makes it easy to write, target and track your campaign asks on Facebook. Pledging donations with the user-friendly Social Action interface is fast and completely safe. Then, Social Actions make it painless for your donors to share their contributions on Facebook. By doing so, your supporter encourages those in their personal network to read your story and learn more about your organization.

Storytelling is a powerful communication tool. And with the right tools to share your story, you can raise more awareness — and funds — for your nonprofit. With all of the tools and support available for fundraisers online, sometimes I wonder how we ever raised money before social media! Do you have a great storytelling example to share? Send us your best storytelling story for a chance to have your campaign featured in the ActionSprout blog.

Direct stories, suggestions, and ideas to candice@actionsprout.com.