3 essential elements of nonprofit storytelling that persuades

3 Essential Elements of Nonprofit Storytelling That Persuades

Julia Claire Campbell Nonprofits, Storytelling 3 Comments

Storytelling That Sticks is open for enrollmentNonprofits, no matter their size or mission, are working to change hearts and minds around important issues every single day.

Whether you are trying to get new members for your performing arts center, to entice people to adopt dogs and cats, or to create advocacy actions around climate change – you are in the business of persuasion.

To persuade is “to move by argument, entreaty, or expostulation to a belief, position, or course of action.” 

In his writings on how to become a great public speaker, the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) described three “modes of persuasion”. 

These modes – Ethos, Pathos, and Logos –  are the essential elements required to convince your audience of your viewpoint. 

In order to collect, craft, and share stories that will move people from passive to passionate, let’s explore how Aristotle’s 3 modes of persuasion can be used to improve our nonprofit storytelling.

1) Ethos – The ethical nature

Ethos is the part of the story that establishes trust and credibility.

Think about the last time you attended an event with a speaker or a webinar. Before they speak, the host reads their bio and highlights some of their biggest accomplishments.

This is to establish “ethos” and prepare you to listen to what the speaker has to say.

Great branding also falls under ethos, as the brand is meant to elicit trust and authority.

When crafting your story, think about the questions that the audience may have:

Why should we listen to you?

Why should we believe what you are telling us?

Ethos in nonprofit storytelling can be created by:

  • Using language that is appropriate to the audience – no jargon or acronyms that they won’t understand.
  • Finding a compelling, authentic character to tell their story. Authenticity establishes credibility – this person has been through it. They know what they are talking about.  
  • Brand reputation. Is your organization established and credible? Do you have integrity?

Humans of New York has established a brand that people trust and turn to for inspiration every day:


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(1/3) “It was obvious from the very beginning. Abnormal wrist and ankle movements. No eye contact. Poor eating patterns. She didn’t sleep until she was 2.5 years old. And she never liked to be rocked or snuggled. There’s a groove you get into with a child– and we just never got there. The bonding didn’t happen: not for her, and not for me. Those first couple years were so dark. Every day I thought it was going to get better. I’d tell myself: ‘I’ll get it right today.’ But I never did. Our pediatrician didn’t have any experience with this stuff. I never even heard the word ‘autism’ until she was two years old. And I’ll tell you what: it was a relief to finally hear that word. To finally learn there was something wrong… but let’s not say ‘wrong’— something different about her. It wasn’t just that she didn’t like baby food. Or that she didn’t want her mom. It was something else. It was something different. When I walked out of the doctor’s office that day, it was the first time I felt like I wanted to defend her. It was the first time I felt like we were on the same team.” (Special Olympics World Games, Abu Dhabi, UAE)

A post shared by Humans of New York (@humansofny) on

2) Logos – The logical rationale

Logos is the part of the argument – or story – that appeals to logic and reason.

This makes the story make sense, and encourages us to pay attention because this is a problem that needs solving.

Questions to be asked when forming the Logo piece of the story:

Why is this issue important?

Why is this story vital to understanding this issue?

What is the problem?

Does the evidence support you?

Logos in nonprofit storytelling can be created by:

  • Interspersing facts and statistics within the story.
  • Using analogies to make the problem easier to grasp and understand.
    Citing other authorities on the issue.
  • Sharing case studies backed up by data around the issue.
  • Facts, statistics, analogies, citing other authorities, social proof

In Hungry Kate: The Girl with the Belly Ache, The Community Foodbank of New Jersey highlights the problem inside the story: Kate is one of 400,000 kids who struggle with hunger in New Jersey.  

3) Pathos – The emotional appeal

Ethos is important for establishing the credibility of the story, and Logos is vital to get us to understand that this is a problem we need to do something about.

However, no story can be truly effective without Pathos, the emotional appeal. We like to think that our rational side is in charge, but it rarely is.

We know that emotion is an essential element in getting people to take action.

We are saturated in story, we are saturated in messages competing for our attention.

Only stories that resonate at a deeply human, universal level, beyond a recounting of “things that happened”, are going to move people from passive to passionate.

One of my favorite nonprofit videos is Eunice’s Dream: A Poem from Kibera School for Girls.

Rather than pulling heartstrings and making me feel sad, it inspires me to help other amazing girls like Eunice accomplish their dreams: 

Effective storytelling involves a deep understanding of human emotions, motivations, and psychology in order to truly move an audience. People do what the heart tells them, and then they rationalize their decisions using logic and reason.

How can you use Ethos, Pathos, and Logos in your nonprofit storytelling?  

What do successful online fundraising campaigns have in common?

They have specific, achievable goals.

There is a sense of urgency to participate – a matching gift, a deadline.

There is trust built up BEFORE the campaign launches.

There is infrastructure in place to promote the campaign.

Use this free Planner when planning your next online fundraising campaign!

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