Best Practices in Nonprofit Storytelling - How to Structure Your Stories

Best Practices in Nonprofit Storytelling – How to Structure Your Stories

Julia Claire Campbell Nonprofits, Storytelling 2 Comments

Storytelling That Sticks is open for enrollmentI am on a mission to help nonprofits of all sizes become better communicators. This is the first of a multi-part series designed to show nonprofits the most effective ways to amplify their stories using digital storytelling techniques. 

When you think of storytelling, what comes to mind?

A campfire, a group of children sitting around a teacher, a few close friends chatting over glasses of wine or bottles of beer?

For me, I think of my nighttime routine with my two kids. We read at least one children’s book, usually two or three, every night together.

Even though they both love books, they prefer the nights when I tell them a story from my own life, especially stories from when I was a child.

A daily routine of sharing stories together helps us reconnect after a busy day and relate what we learn from the story to our everyday lives.

It gives my children a better understanding of who I am as a person, and it helps them to see that I went through many of the same experiences (although, with not nearly as many Barbies and Matchbox cars).

Storytelling is not only a fantastic way to relate to other humans on a personal level, but it is also a fantastic marketing and fundraising tool.

When done strategically and in harmony with online channels like social media, storytelling can and will help you accomplish the goals of your nonprofit.

All nonprofit professionals and volunteers need to start thinking of themselves as storytellers and not “executive directors,” “development directors,” or “board members.”

A comprehensive marketing and fundraising plan is of no use without the gasoline of good stories to fuel it.

What Do We Mean by a “Story”?

Human beings think in stories. We attend movies and plays, we read novels, we watch TV, we tell each other about our lives and our struggles.

We express ourselves and what is most important to us by telling stories.

Storytelling has existed since the beginning of time as a way to connect people and to relay important lessons. They are also a way to ensure that important lessons from history will not be forgotten.

Great stories transcend cultural differences and language and make us understand the innate humanness in all of us.

Think about the tragic love story of Romeo and Juliet. That story has been told millions of times in millions of different settings because the main themes of love and tragedy continue to resonate with people across all demographics.

A traditional story has what is called a “narrative arc”: a beginning, a middle, and an end.

There is a protagonist—the subject with whom the audience is going to identify and follow through to the end.

There is also an antagonist—the obstacle or challenge that the protagonist faces, also known as the villain.

The antagonist or villain does not need to be an actual person. It can be the loss of a job, the death of a family member, or a surprise illness.

An example of a story structure that may work for your nonprofit:

Beginning: Our protagonist, Single Mom Susan, works at a corporate retail chain and goes about her day-to-day routine with her smart and precocious seven-year-old daughter, Grace. Susan works hard and makes many sacrifices so that Grace can get a great education as well as take dance classes on the weekends.

Middle Part 1: Out of nowhere, Grace starts feeling tired and sick. She is taken to the hospital where she is diagnosed with leukemia. The moment she gets the horrible diagnosis, Susan’s life begins to fall apart all around her. She can’t afford the medical bills and can’t get paid time off from her job to take Grace to all of her doctor appointments. Susan lives across the country from her family members and has no outside support to help her.

Middle Part 2: Through a coworker, Susan hears about your organization, The Helpful Nonprofit. The Helpful Nonprofit provides transportation to Grace’s appointments as well as vital help with child care and career training, which results in Susan finding a better paying job with more flexibility.

End: Grace is doing better and getting the treatment she needs, but there is still a long way to go. Susan, with the continued support of your organization, is upbeat and hopeful that things will get better for her family.

The Reader Should Help Write the Ending

The purpose of sharing Susan and Grace’s story is three-fold:

1) It sheds a bit of light on what your organization does (that is, you help families in need). Hopefully, this will help others who may not have known about your range of services to seek your organization’s assistance.

2) It is a story of an individual family and not a large, unnamed group of people with whom the audience cannot identify or visualize.

3) The story is one with which many families can empathize, especially if they have suffered hardship or illness in their lives. Thus, it will inspire people to get involved through volunteering, giving donations, or by sharing the story with others.

Who would not want to help Susan and Grace?

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Remember that stories about those you serve do not have to be 100 percent positive and candy-coated.

Don’t hide your dirty laundry. Don’t tell a bland, “vanilla” story.

The reality is that the work that you do every day entails fixing messy, complicated problems and alleviating real struggles.

Your donors need to understand that these challenges are very real and require their attention and involvement.

In telling your stories, the protagonist should cause people to think twice and to ask themselves, “If I were in this situation, what would I do? How would I handle it? And how can I help this person overcome it and attain a happy ending?”

Important note—A great story does not always need to have a picture perfect ending! Sometimes, too-perfect endings don’t ring true.

The key is to be authentic and to choose a story that will resonate with your audience.

The best stories should also compel people to insert themselves into the story to help write the ending.

After hearing or reading this story, your audience should be asking, “How can I be a part of creating a happy ending for Susan and Grace, and others like her? What small or large action can I take to help?”

This is an excerpt from the book Storytelling in the Digital Age: A Guide for Nonprofits. To get a free chapter sent to your inbox, please sign up here

Do you need a step-by-step guide to creating digital storytelling campaigns?

You are in luck!

Sign up and get a free chapter of my new book, Storytelling in the Digital Age: A Guide for Nonprofits. This book is designed to be a step-by-step how-to guide for small and mid-size nonprofits that want to learn how to set goals, measure results, and carry out amazingly successful digital storytelling campaigns!

When you sign up, you will also receive my free weekly bulletin with tips, tricks, and advice for savvy nonprofits on how to kick butt at online marketing and fundraising.

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Comments 2

  1. Brenda Masters

    My name is Brenda Masters. I have read several of your blogs and have joined your Facebook group.

    I run “Collaborating for a Cause”, (CFAC) a nonprofit that provides education and support for small nonprofits – everything is free to the nonprofits. I am about to go live with a website where I will have a blog and feature great materials for them – I call it a “learning library”. We meet live monthly and I have an expert speaker. I am also now starting remote sessions where others in rural Arizona can join the meeting via Zoom. The learning library is going to be something that the remotes can access as well. I started the first meeting in June 2014. CFAC consists of myself and a few interns from time to time. I work part-time for a nonprofit in Chandler, AZ . Since I semi-retired – and am one of those baby boomers who want to give back, CFAC is my passion.
    I would like your permission to republish your blogs, etc to our group. If you are ever in Arizona, please come and talk with us – pro bono.

    1. Post
      Julia Claire Campbell

      Thanks for contacting me Brenda, as long as you give me attribution and link back to my website I am happy to let you republish the blog posts! I appreciate you thinking of me and I hope that I can be a great resource to the nonprofits that you serve.

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