5 Keys for Effective and Authentic Nonprofit Storytelling

August 2022

It goes without saying that effective and compelling storytelling is vital for communicating about your nonprofit to many kinds of stakeholders. Individuals must know that there is an unmet need before they can be engaged as volunteers, donors or supporters in the wider community. However, there are many potential pitfalls involved when crafting narratives about your beneficiaries and your organization's service work, especially at the boundary between "telling" evocative but realistic stories and "selling" cookie cutter or exaggerated tales. In a society awash with excessive branding, marketing appeals and a well-earned skepticism towards those asking for money, nonprofit leaders must work to avoid the bad habits endemic to this culture, while still acting boldly to garner support for their organizations. Here are five tips for navigating the complexities of storytelling and portraying your organization's needs to potential donors and the public.


1. Shift your storytelling outside of typical narrative frameworks

Stories and narrative frameworks play a huge role in how we portray the work of our nonprofits and the underlying needs that our organizations seek to address. When you are describing the struggles that a client has experienced or a volunteer's journey to supporting your organization, you are not simply communicating facts and personal experiences; you are communicating an understanding of the social problems involved, as well as your organization's perceived solution to those problems. Even when your descriptions of your beneficiaries' needs are mostly based on hard data and evidence, the people reading your materials will tend to recall the stories you told moreso than any other element. Furthermore, none of these individual narratives about clients and supporters exist in a vacuum.

The stories that nonprofits tell about their client base and communities are enmeshed in larger social narratives that operate in society at any given moment in time. Any narrative that we create about our work will be interpreted by an audience through the frameworks about social problems with which they are most familiar. As one example, the historical roots of many nonprofits as acting paternalistic and patronizing towards their beneficiaries have created strong narratives around their clients as "pitiful," "incapable" people. It can be difficult to describe the brutal effects of food poverty or the traumatic impacts of intimate partner violence on a client without falling into tropes and stereotypes of helpless and incurably broken individuals who require a (wealthy and white) donor's help to be saved from their plight.

Narratives about nonprofit clients can fall into harmful tropes that impact a number of different social groups. Some common framings include: the choice for black youth of being "dead or in jail" without paternalistic intervention; the "superhuman" mother who sacrifices her health and sanity to provide for her children; the neurodiverse young woman with autism who will never be able to live a fulfilling, autonomous life without the pity of her community. All of these narratives work to undermine the dignity and humanity of the people involved, which ironically increases the difficulty of changing society to their benefit.

Interrogating and moving beyond harmful frameworks is clearly a task beyond the ability of any one grant writer or fundraising professional, however, we all have a part to play in moving the sector beyond narratives that do more harm than good to our clients. You can take small, but concrete steps to adjust the stories you tell about your clients to showcase their dignity and autonomy, even while demonstrating the profound need they experience. 


2. Don't try to compete with pressing international and domestic headlines

In 2022, there has been no shortage of international and domestic crises for the public and nonprofit sectors to contend with: Russia's barbaric invasion of Ukraine, skyrocketing inflation, domestic terrorism and mass shootings in the U.S., and the increasingly turbulent fallout from the overturning of Roe v. Wade. Many organizations may understandably feel that these events have shifted crucial attention away from their causes, causes that do not match the immediacy or intensity of an international crisis but are still vital issues in the long term. With the accelerating rate of environmental disasters caused by climate change and the increasingly destabilizing breakdown of democratic processes in the U.S., nonprofits will have to adjust to the fact that the current level of societal upheaval and subsequent public captivation won't be going away anytime soon.

Nonprofits should not overcompensate for shifts in the public's attention by trying to fiercely compete with pressing international and domestic crises and instead should accept that many donors will shift towards supporting those causes. Organizations that work on less prominent issues or those that affect local/regional areas can focus on addressing the sense of estrangement and powerlessness that people often feel in the wake of unfathomably large and distant calamities. Local nonprofits are especially well-poised to fill that niche by working to create a sense of community during troubling times.


3. Ditch the lens of competition for one of cooperation among peer organizations 

Nonprofit organizations face tremendous pressures to compete for scarce resources and remain solvent in a highly competitive funding environment. Paired with pressures to reduce administrative costs that undermine long-term financial sustainability, nonprofits can end up working feverishly to market themselves as superior to their peers in effectiveness and efficiency as service providers. However, this approach can reinforce a zero-sum mentality among organizations in a particular sector wherein these groups view their peers primarily as competitors and not mutual collaborators. This perspective can breed mistrust, mask the inherent interdependency among nonprofits in providing for their communities and waste opportunities for shared fundraising and programmatic strategies. 

In their marketing and storytelling, nonprofits should not completely rely on trying to prove that their organizations are the best among their peers or have the greatest need. Instead, they should aim to show that they work as part of a coalition of groups to pursue intersecting goals and describe how supporting their organization furthers the broader cause. This framing reduces the scarcity mindset and reinforces the broader goal of increasing giving to the sector as a whole as a way of lifting all boats in a rising tide. 


4. Build relationships with staff and beneficiaries to gather impactful stories

While administrators and fundraising professionals undoubtedly possess deep knowledge of their organization's activities, nothing can really substitute for the perspectives of people who provide front-line services, as well as those who receive them. Only frontline staff can truly portray the daily reality of their work, while clients have the best vantage points for articulating the impact that this work creates in their lives. Nonprofit leaders should maximize the time they already spend interacting with staff members and clients by regularly gleaning compelling stories and perspectives from them. While these relationships should be maintained for many reasons, the longer that this sharing continues, the more time you will have to develop meaningful relationships and uncover important stories.


5. Balance complex portrayals of need with compelling narrative devices

Nonprofit leaders often receive the advice to reduce the complexity of their narratives and opt for brevity with the aim of capturing the attention of potential donors. While this advice is surely sound to a large extent, it risks creating oversimplified narratives that reduce the causes and impacts of various social issues to broad, murky generalizations. Even more troublingly, these habits can create the impression that the problems experienced by an organization's clients are heavily individualized and divorced from wider structures and forces that engender poverty, discrimination, etc. 

At the same, however, a nonprofit cannot expect the vast majority of their potential donors to fully engage with the most complex portraits of their clients' needs and the attendant social causes. Hardworking people often do not have the time to investigate beyond the marketing materials produced by a nonprofit and, as such, leaders must still work to craft compelling stories that evoke quick emotional responses. While there are clear limitations and wider impacts to this tendency, leaders can strike an effective balance between sober, complex analysis and bold storytelling.

At the end of the day, storytelling modes and marketing techniques can only accomplish so much in a saturated media environment. There are limits to any nonprofit's ability to convince donors that their cause is worthwhile to support and that they can make a tangible difference through this support. By resisting the temptation to compete for spectacular narratives and manipulative rhetorical devices, however, you can chart a much more fruitful and grounded communications strategy that builds authentic community for your organization.