How to Tell A Compelling Nonprofit Story: Part 1 (#12NTC)

Last week I had the joy of participating in #12NTC (the 2012 NTEN—Nonprofit Technology Network—Conference), with so many incredible peers in the nonprofit sector. I learned a ton, from one-to-one conversations and from the formal sessions, and will be sharing those insights and guidance out with you over the weeks to come.

Four storytelling superstars and I jointly presented Say It in Pixels: Visual Storytelling in the 21st Century (12NTCSIIP). Cara Jones of Storytellers for Good and I kicked off with some must-dos for every successful story, narrative or visual:

  • Why stories work: NTC keynote speaker Dan Roam said it best—stories are a memorable way to convey the essence of the challenge, issue or our impact or ask.
    • Our mission statements tend to fall short in their capacity to be compelling and cause that “lean forward” moment. Sometimes the personal story does what the mission statement cannot.
    • Stories are also easy to remember and repeat.
  • What makes people lean forward for more of the story:
    • The time-tested story arc with a clear beginning introducing the characters/people and the challenge, middle where the leads are sent out into the world and face the challenge head on, ending with resolution and a resonant conclusion.
    • Aiming for the heart, so you engage your audiences at an emotional level first.
    • People/characters that people can identify with.
    • A way that listeners/viewers can help resolve the challenge (as a donor, citizen advocate, volunteer).

Cara also shared a clear and doable framework for presenting people/characters that folks will connect with:

  • Let characters lead: Whittle the big picture down to one or two people. When we tell the stories of the masses, we lose the emotional connection and are overwhelmed with the hopelessness of the challenge.
  • 4 G.O.A.L.s in identifying the people who will be featured in your story: 
    • G = Genuine: People who can talk honestly about the struggle.
    • O = Outgoing: A high energy level comes off as moderate energy on camera.
    • A = Articulate: Able to tell (or be) a good story.
    • L = Lively.

What makes your nonprofit’s stories work, or what’s getting in the way? Please share your guidance or roadblocks here.

P.S. Get more peer guidance on strengthening your organization’s stories with our no-charge   2012 Nonprofit Marketing Wisdom Guide,

Nancy Schwartz on April 11, 2012 in storytelling | 7 comments
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  • Brian

    I agree! Stories are HUGE, and often the best way to transition from informing to motivating. 

    I completely agree that your 4 G.O.A.L.s are a great way to package the story you want to tell to a group of donors, volunteers, future friends, etc. To me, as the Fund Development professional, it’s best to get out of the way and allow the people you serve to share what the nonprofit work has meant to them. Putting a face on the work you do can go a long way in getting people to “lean forward.”

    So how do you find that person to help you “testify” to the greatness of the nonprofit work you do? How do you know if they can get up in front of people and talk? Will they shine on camera? How do you know if they will have a compelling story?

    You’ll only know, as a fundraiser, if you have already spent significant time with the people you’ll ask. So often we, as fundraisers, focus on running out into our communities (real and digital) to tell people about the organization, that we forget to learn the internal stories of transformation firsthand. The more time spent with the people your nonprofit serves, the better you’ll be at finding the “talent” you need to share the amazing, inspirational, work that you do. 

  • Phyllis

    Every day, we  have activities that would make wonderful visual images for our publicity–volunteers serving meals to needy families, doctors and dentists providing free care in our clinics–but because of our strict commitment to client confidentiality, we don’t photograph our clients. We tell their stories (with pseudonyms), and we sometimes “stage” photos with staff members or volunteers, but I’d appreciate any other suggestions on how we can stregthen our visual message.   

  • Nancy Schwartz

    Phyllis, I’ll be sharing more guidance on formats for visual storytelling as well as resources over the next month or two. The confidentiality is indeed an issue for many human services orgs. Staged photos look staged. But perhaps you are in touch with families who no longer need your services or colleagues in your area who could talk about your services.

  • Nancy Schwartz

    Brian, thanks for your sharing your very vital guidance. Finding the right story/characters is the first step! And yes, you have to be on the ground to do so.

  • John Kenyon

    So much good information, Nancy! I especially like the GOAL’s to help refine who will be featured in a story – smart filters!

  • Nancy – great stuff here (linking to it in a post tomorrow). When will you publish part 2?

  • Nancy Schwartz

    Thanks so much, John, for your interest. I am furiously prepping to leave for Australia tomorrow, where I’ll be training nonprofits on marketing planning and keynoting at CU2012 on Breakthrough Messaging. Will continue mid-may when I’m back. Like a serial novel….

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