Successful Nonprofit Storytelling: Stay Humble

juliebrownGuest blogger, Julie Brown, Program Director at the Findlay-Hancock County Community Foundation. Julie is intrigued by storytelling, and the opportunity it offers to inspire donors and volunteers to act.

As a program officer preparing a presentation for our board, I search for one answer:  “What is the common thread in the successful video nonprofit storytelling projects this board has funded?”  Some videos make an impact and some don’t.

I’ve tried hard to figure out the magic ingredient. Is it the filmmaker?  Is it the creative consultant or firm?  Are some topics just more inspirational?  And finally, the real difference between the winners and the losers floated to the top: humility.

Nonprofit directors—show us a story about a hero who overcomes barriers through your programming. We will understand that your organization was pivotal in the change.  And once we connect emotionally to a story, the portion of our brain tasked with decision making kicks into overdrive.  We want to give or to volunteer!

Children’s Mentoring Connection (CMC) has used short video storytelling with success in its campaign targeted to garner more mentors. Its remarkable results are a:

  • 125% increase in mentor inquiries
  • 800% increase in returned mentor applications
  • 400% increase in mentor matches!

Jennifer Swartzlander, CMC’s Executive Director, shared that the goal of the campaign is to allow the viewers “to feel like they can touch a mentoring relationship.”  One short mentor story entitled Dennis and Anthony shows men that being a mentor can be as easy as taking a child to Wendy’s every week. She’s Actually My Present showcases the poignant relationship that Deb and Chellsea share while baking brownies.  Both videos focus on the mentor/mentee relationship with the agency mentioned subtly at the close. Follow CMCofHancockCounty on YouTube to see the entire campaign.

So, what do all of the unsuccessful videos have in common?  In each one of the videos, the organization got in the way of the story.  They feature talking heads, jargon, data, and maybe a few disjointed shots of clients actually served by the nonprofit—too much focus on the staff and methods of service delivery. This kind of content is all about the organization rather than the people it serves, and doesn’t resonate with prospective donors and volunteers.

Nonprofit directors—if you want to use a video to gain more funds or volunteers for the people you serve; let the story of one person inspire us to help you fulfill your mission.  Just get out of the way and stay humble!

What is, or isn’t, working with your organization’s stories?  Share your successes and challenges here.

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Guest Blogger on December 5, 2013 in storytelling | 12 comments
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  • Phyllis

    The videos are very moving. We (a social service agency) also have many compelling stories to tell, but in order to protect the privacy of our clients, we do not use pictures or videos of clients or identify them by name. We feel that asking clients for their permission may put subtle pressure on them; they might feel an obligation to agree because they are receiving free services. I’d be interested in knowing how other agencies and organizations handle this issue.

  • Julie Brown

    Great question, Phyllis. As a former director of a food pantry, I had the same concerns. Interestingly, when I did ask clients with whom I had developed a trusting relationship, they were always honored to participate in the project. I suspect that many people feel honored to finally have their voices heard. It is a chance to become part of the solution.
    I appreciate your focus on client dignity, but I think you will find it is often easier to navigate than one might predict. Good luck!

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  • Spot on, Julie! It’s such a strong, strong temptation for nonprofits to talk about themselves in their videos. “We have to describe what it is we do!” And I understand that temptation. But I think a series of SHORT stories like those of CMC will usually be more effective. Curious: what techniques did CMC use to calculate their ROI (inquiries, applications and matches)? I would love to be able to recommend the same to my clients.

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  • Fabiola Berriozabal Johnson

    Thank you for the tips. As the new blogger and social media specialist for Amor Ministries I’ve been trying to figure out how to break the mold and balance branding with story telling. Thank you for the wonderful examples with CMC.

  • Fabiola Berriozabal Johnson

    Because of my journalism background, ethics permeates how I approach a story. Is it helpful? Am I giving their dignity? I definitely didn’t want people to feel used, even for a grand purpose. However I found that in many cases, by telling their stories, like you mention, they finally find a way to have a voice and find meaning on their own struggle.

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